My Field Trip to Seattle’s Northwest African American Museum

Posted on February 28, 2013

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I took a tour of the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle yesterday, in my role as a chaperon for a skilled nursing home. I’m assuming the activities director chose the museum because it’s February,  designated Black History Month in the United States, but am not certain. She might have picked it for other reasons – it sounded interesting, the residents requested it, it’s affordable (admission is  $2) or because it’s close to the nursing home. Who knows? I wasn’t expecting much from this museum (how often do museums impress?) but hoped to learn two or three interesting tidbits.Northwest African American Museum

Before we arrived at the former school-turned-museum, I saw that the name of the adjoining playing field was “Jimi Hendrix Park.” It seemed an example of quaint, unintentionally humorous government reductionism. Jimi Hendrix was many things…. an other-worldly guitar player, a unique creative force, a stylish cat, a free spirit who spoke through his left hand, etc. but to the pandering eyes of the bureaucracy he was black and well….that’s good enough! Seattle Parks and Recreation is planning on developing the park into something significant and are in the middle of a fund-raising drive. Allegedly, Hendrix grew up nearby. Yesterday, the park was empty other than an old man walking his dog.

All of the museum attendees from the nursing home were in wheelchairs. Once we got them off the van and into the museum, we met our tour guide. She was down-to-earth and relaxed. She also did not fumble her words when describing people of African descent, she simply said “black.” I prefer simplicity in language; “African-American” becomes confusing  when trying to differentiate between recent immigrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Ghana, etc. and people who’ve been in North America for hundreds of years. She told us early on that the museum’ s mission fixated on the Pacific Northwest  (Oregon to British Columbia) so would only reference the trans-Atlantic slave trade for context. The earliest history of blacks in the region was from Lewis and Clark’s first expedition (1804-06). They brought a slave with them named York who went on to freedom years later. Another early resident of the area was George Washington Bush who came from Missouri as a rifleman and farmer and went on to found Centralia, WA. The positive mention of a George Bush in a museum on black history was not expected! Most of the people recorded in the 19th century impressed me – navigators, explorers, farmers, laborers, etc. In 1819 admirably, Canada denied the American government the right to pursue escaped slaves in its territory. Nowadays of course, they’ve devolved to upholding almost every human right violation in D.C.’s playbook. O Canada!

As the museum’s timeline progressed into the 20th century, the “highlights” of black progress became almost exclusively political; the “heroes”  became congressmen and soldiers.  Exalting the merits of the public sector is a constant theme for state sponsored institutes. The NW AA museum, a private non-profit, simply follows the pattern. The same accolades for politicians are found in every immigrant museum in America. How unfortunate that real heroes of humanity (entrepreneurs, marketers, craftsmen) are not afforded the same reverence. What a change that would produce if people stopped thinking government office was the way to “help” people!

The museum’s largest display was a James Baldwin exhibit. It featured pictures of the author during his stay in Istanbul, Turkey in the 1960’s.Apparently, he needed to get away from the States to concentrate on writing but the photos show him to be very social (and gay). I’ve never read any of his books so couldn’t say anything about his work.

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Posted in: art, politics, Seattle