Seeing ourselves

Eye reflection
Paper notes and porcelain dolls | Photo by ♣♦♥♠

I like stories. I like to hear, see, and read how people got to where they are in their lives. Their path is not mine and my path is not theirs but we cross in space and time.

A few months ago I visited the Contemporary Jewish Museum. They had an exhibit displayed at that time called California Dreaming. It profiled Jewish people in the state from their arrival to the present. The exhibit had objects from families, maps of migration in the state, and photos of landmarks, like temples. Another part of the exhibit had video clips of Jewish Californians. I was so struck watching how, even though they share this heritage, they lead such different lives. Some are strong in practicing their faith and attend temple regularly. Others only celebrate major holidays but still find ways to bring that heritage into their lives. After watching a few clips I realized I would love to see the same kind of exhibit for blacks in California or even the US. Seeing ourselves builds community.

This past week I visited Washington DC. I had a couple of hours before leaving the city to be a tourist. I decided to go to the National Potrait Gallery and the National Building Museum. The Portrait Gallery was showing The Black List, a photo and video exhibit profiling prominent Black people from diverse life paths.

Black List-Carter
Majora Carter at exhibit opening | Photo by Flo McAfee

I walked in the room and saw these four foot tall close up portraits looking back at me. There are 50 in total on walls and partitions. It took my breath away and I immediately thought back to the Jewish museum exhibit. I looked at most of the photos, from close up and standing a few feet away. I read many of the life stories. However, I also spent a good portion of my time watching the video clips, listening to the stories, of the subjects talking about how they landed in their career, what obstacles they faced, what regrets they had. I was mesmerized.

I only wished my daughter could have seen the exhibit. It is one thing to see a book of photos: I have the first Black List book. It is another experience to see these large photos all in one room and to think I could have been them, they could be me.

Black List-Robinson
Patrick Robinson at exhibit opening |
Photo by

I also watched and listened to the audience. Many of them were amazed at the stories and enthused to see all of these accomplished Black people. People of all ethnic groups and ages were engaged by the photos and the videos.

I love stories. That love makes me so excited to see the progress of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I hope that exhibits like this one will be there to inspire and share our stories. Our community needs our artifacts and our faces to be seen and our stories need to be heard.