Museum must not fade away

Posted: Monday, August 11, 2008

First James Cameron died and now they've closed his museum.

If it had to happen, I'm glad it happened in that order, glad Cameron did not live to see them padlock the institution to which he dedicated his life. I met Cameron in 1994 when I went to Milwaukee to interview him about his book, "A Time of Terror." In it, he recounts his hairsbreadth escape in August 1930 from a white lynch mob in Marion, Ind., that had already murdered two of his friends.

Sixty-four years later, just talking about it still made him weep. Cameron went on to found what he called America's Black Holocaust Museum, thought to be the only one in the country dedicated to memorializing a time when racial violence was rampant and widely accepted.

In 2006, after years of failing health, the 92-year-old Cameron died. His museum may suffer the same fate.

Officially, the facility's closure on the last day of July is only temporary as it negotiates with lenders and the city in hopes of carving out some breathing room. According to Reggie Jackson, chairman of the museum's board of directors, its primary support has always come from foundations, and that money dried up when Cameron died. Jackson is seeking donors to help keep the museum alive. If you'd like to help, you can find information online at: www.blackholocaustmusuem.org.

I wish Jackson every success. The permanent closure of this museum would be a loss not simply for Milwaukee, but for the nation as a whole. It spotlights those parts of black that are most critical for us to know and yet most fiercely resisted.

I should know. I feel that resistance firsthand every time I write about slavery or Jim Crow and make what strikes some of my readers as the absolutely ludicrous argument that these things help explain the plight of African-America today. If I had a dollar for every white guy who told me to stop living in the past, I'd be too rich to take abuse from white guys telling me to stop living in the past.

They see in me a fellow who spends too much time carping about that which is dead and done and has no bearing on the here and now. I see in them people so discomfited by this history they can't even think straight. I mean, if I were to argue, say, that the industrial boom of World War II helps explain America's emergence as a superpower, would anyone see that as being stuck in past? No. They would think it quite unremarkable to invoke the past as a means of understanding the present.

The difference is, that history makes no demands upon white guilt. Black history, unavoidably, does.

Not that white people are the only ones who resist. Sometimes, black folks do, too. I once heard Oprah Winfrey complain that "Beloved," her painful excavation of the emotional terrain of slavery, was a hard sell with black audiences. Indeed, when I went to interview witnesses to the night Cameron almost died and two other men did, a black woman snapped at me for bringing it up.

Because if some resist history that might make them feel guilty, others are equally determined to avoid history that might make them feel bad.

But if you don't understand what was, you can't understand what is. If, for instance, you don't know how sheriffs falsely arrested black men and sold them as slaves until World War II, how they brutalized blacks who sought to vote or otherwise behave like citizens, you cannot truly understand blacks' overinvolvement in, or distrust of, the justice system to this very day.

James Cameron's museum memorializes a history that discomfits - and is vital precisely because it does, because it tells a story many of us would as soon not know. And I take it back. If I had a dollar for every white guy who told me to stop living in the past, I would send it to Milwaukee.

• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.



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