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The Powerful Objects From the Collections of the Smithsonian’s Newest Museum

These artifacts each tell a part of the African-American story

(Wendel A. White / Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, VA in honor of Dr. James Farmer)
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In 2003, when officials finally approved the idea of an African-American museum in Washington, they could not have foreseen how fateful the timing would be. The opening this month of the National Museum of African American History and Culture comes at the end of the first black president’s eight years in the White House (a symbol of power built, not incidentally, by slaves, the powerless). It also caps a historic summer of violence and anguish. “A racial crisis flares around us,” the Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson wrote in July after the nation reacted in horror to the killing of black men by white police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota and the killing of white police officers by a black man in Texas. Not in half a century have such momentous events concerning black life in America converged with such force.

The artifacts below, pulled from the collections of the new museum, delve into the history of black America from multiple angles. From tragic beginnings to achievements that changed the world, from the evil of a slave ship to the funky beauty of a Prince song, the epic story of African-Americans is embodied in the new national museum's artifacts, illuminated here by leading thinkers and artists. 

Mirror Casket, created after the killing of Michael Brown, 2014

It is art object, performance, and political statement evoking a pivotal moment in the long history of the struggle for social justice in the United States. Collaboratively produced by seven artists and activists involved in the protests that erupted in the aftermath of the August 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the coffin-shaped, mirror-clad casket reflects the work that finally placed police violence in black communities on mainstream U.S. political agendas.

It was first carried on the shoulders of protesters/pallbearers through the streets of Ferguson following news of the decision not to indict Darren Wilson, Michael Brown’s killer, in October 2014. On a march from the site of Brown’s death to the police station, the casket confronted law enforcement officers, activists, journalists, and spectators with their reflected images, some whole, some fractured through shattered glass, communicating the message that we are all implicated in the processes of racist state violence—and that we all bear the responsibility to end it.

In its inaugural exhibition, Mirror Casket, created by De Andrea Nichols, Damon Davis, Marcis Curtis, Sophie Lipman and others, embodied a theme of that day’s demonstration: “Funeral Procession of Justice.” But while this sculpture quite literally conveyed the notion that justice is dead, it also illustrated the idea that people’s robust demands for racial justice are very much alive.

The mirrors, in fact, serve as an apt metaphor for new technologies of communication in 21st-century movements against state violence. The rapidly accumulating archive of video images of police killings, from surveillance cameras (Tamir Rice) to bystanders’ cellphones (Eric Garner) and police dash cameras (Laquan McDonald) is helping to shift popular consciousness. These images have helped to focus the world’s gaze on the brutality of racism.

Mirror Casket marks this contemporary moment, when the state has finally been compelled to acknowledge the link between its repressive apparatuses and racism. Smartphones and body cameras have become the looking glass compelling the recognition that black lives matter. And Mirror Casket demands more powerful and far-reaching forms of justice. We will have to reimagine policing and punishment and ultimately will have to remake our democracy. – Angela Y. Davis, activist, writer and Distinguished Professor Emerita at UC Santa Cruz

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