Admitting to having "goose bumps," author and broadcaster Tavis Smiley reverently raised a small black drape to unveil the key to the cell door behind which Martin Luther King Jr. penned his Letter from Birmingham Jail. The key is one of more than 150 artifacts featured in "America I AM: The African-American Imprint," a four-year touring museum exhibition that celebrates the contributions African-Americans have made to this country over the last four centuries.
The national debut of "America I AM" will take place at the National Constitution Center on Jan. 15, 2009, Dr. King's birthday, and run through May 3. Those on hand at the press conference held Thursday to announce the tour's premiere in Philadelphia included Mayor Michael Nutter and Joseph M. Torsella, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center.
Several years ago, Mr. Smiley came up with the idea of presenting the "biggest, baddest, boldest exhibition ever" to tell the African-American story. Reading about it in the New York Times, Mr. Torsella immediately suggested it open here. He didn't have to twist Mr. Smiley's arm. The Los Angeles resident confesses to a soft spot for the City of Brotherly Love. Affecting a southern drawl, he told reporters: "I love the city of Philadelphia and there ain't nothin' ya'll can do about that."
Mr. Smiley emphasized his debt and his gratitude to all those who have helped realize his dream. They included the organizers of "America I AM," namely, Arts and Exhibitions International (AEI), which recently brought the King Tut exhibit to Philadelphia, and the Cincinnati Museum Center, which received and cared for the objects collected.
In addition, Mr. Smiley paid tribute to the work done by African-American museums across the country, often on shoestring budgets.
"My exhibition is different," he emphasized. "It isn't better." Then, with a nod to the exhibit's presenting sponsor, he said, "I've got Wal-Mart's money."
Many museums around the country have loaned items to "America I AM." Thanks to the African-American Museum in Philadelphia, the exhibit will display the dungeon doors from Ghana's Cape Coast Castle, where captive Africans awaited ships bound for the New World. Artifacts unearthed during the construction of the National Constitution Center as well as at the President's House site just a few blocks away enhance the local connection.
The 12 galleries of "America I AM" will make use of books and documents, music and multimedia to chronicle the entirety of the African-American contribution. While the mere mention of a trough from which slave children were forced to feed like animals brings tears to the eyes, other objects — Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves, Alex Haley's typewriter, the set from "The Cosby Show" — will uplift, inspire and entertain.
A mobile preview of the museum installation "America I AM Across America" began touring the country on Independence Day. The 18-wheeler, fueled by Exxon Mobil, expands to the size of a double-width trailer and contains a microcosm of the exhibition.
In addition to "America I?AM," Mr. Smiley has also masterminded the world's largest oral history project. Both the supertruck and the museum tour invite visitors to leave their own "imprint" by recording on video their impressions of the African-American contribution.
Museum exhibition, truck tour, oral history project — all attest to what can be accomplished when one dreams big. As Mr. Smiley said in all seriousness, "If people don't laugh at my dreams, I know I'm not dreaming big enough."