Learning about the African American Experience in Baltimore

Learning about the African American Experience in Baltimore

By Kyle Benn

Two blocks from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture sits not far from where Maryland slaves were sold and shipped farther south as cotton replaced tobacco as the United States’ most lucrative cash crop. As a social studies teacher, I was curious about whether or not the Lewis Museum would help me teach about American history and the black freedom struggle. I was delighted to find that the museum does an excellent job of presenting the rich diversity of African American history to visitors in a visually and intellectually engaging way. While the museum highlights the African American experience in Maryland, it also considers larger questions about the relationship between African and American culture on a transnational level.

 Starting with the permanent exhibitions on the third floor, students and teachers alike may be surprised at the diversity of African American experiences as early as the 17th century. The more commonly held notions about slavery, such as the rural plantation model, are presented, but students will also learn about the urban and maritime slave experience, all of which reflects the diversity of general Maryland history and culture. This is important because as a museum of African American history and culture, the Lewis Museum could fall into the trap of essentializing a static black “culture,” but instead I found the museum to offer new perspectives on black history in America.

The permanent exhibition called “The Strength of the Mind” illustrates the contribution of African Americans to mainstream American culture. Visitors may recognize some of the names and faces featured in this gallery, such as Billie Holliday and Cab Calloway, and learn about some of the more relatively obscure artists. As a young white male, however, I wonder how “obscure” some of these artists really are within black communities. This could lead to an interesting exercise and discussion about the nature of culture and popular media. Five years ago, how many white people would have recognized a photo of Tyler Perry compared to the number of black people? How about today? (I had maybe heard of Tyler Perry five years ago but would not have recognized a picture of him). “The Strength of the Mind” inspires such questions, and one of the takeaways from this gallery is that there is no single monolithic American “culture,” but instead many diverse cultures living and working together. When considering this idea, be sure to catch the video on themes in African American art, located near the Harriet Tubman quilt. A visit to this section alone could form the basis of several kinds of lessons and provide the initial research for independent projects on African American history, art, and folkways. For older or more advanced students, this section would pair nicely with selections from or the entirety of Walter C. Rucker’s The River Flows On: Black Resistance, Culture, and Identity Formation in Early America, which examines the transition from African cultures in America to African American culture in early American history.

 The featured temporary exhibition when I visited was Growing Up AFRO: Snapshots of Black Childhood from the Afro-American Newspapers. Photos were arranged thematically, with one section dedicated to politically active children, the highlight of which was a photo of three boys wearing signs that say, “I Can’t Vote! I’m Too Young. What’s Your Excuse?” Such a collection of visual primary sources are accessible to students of all ages, and teachers should have their students record and think about what they see, either orally in a group or in a log of their visit. As a whole, the museum lends itself to all kinds of journaling.

If you’re pressed for time, it may be worth dedicating a class ahead of time to prepare students for the kinds of themes they’ll encounter at the museum and let them choose what to focus on during their time there. Still, less than three hours should be enough to get the full experience here. While special exhibitions change and thus may be more or less suited to younger audiences at any given time, the permanent collections would be best suited toward students no younger than the third grade. Middle and high school students with some foundation in African American history and culture will likely get the most out of the exhibitions.

The museum also houses a resource center with both primary and secondary sources for independent research. The resources are free to the public, but they are available by appointment only. A visit to the museum’s exhibitions, followed by a trip to the resource center to follow up on specific topics, would be a shrewd way to begin a research paper unit. General admission to the museum is $8 for adults, but students and seniors get discounts, and school groups get special rates. Any bag larger than a handbag must be stored in lockers located near the front desk, which cost 50 cents. Photography is not allowed in the permanent exhibition area, but I was able to take non-flash photos in the temporary exhibition. For more information visit: http://www.africanamericanculture.org/

Images, by permission of the Lewis Museum:

1) Growing Up AFRO exhibition, titled “What’s Your Excuse” (Caption: Anthony Anderson, Braven Sloane and Milton Brooks ask, "What's your Excuse?",  Richmond, VA, Date unknown.)

2) Strength of the Mind Gallery Shot (Courtesy RFLM)

3) Museum building shot (Photo by James Singewald)

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