by Melia LaCour
“Resistance, Resilience, Remembrance, and Liberation”: poetic words straight from the heart of multiple award winner, community scholar, ethnomuseumologist, and second-generation storyteller Delbert Richardson. His soulful words describe the theme of his upcoming installation, “American History Traveling Museum: The Unspoken Truths,” which will open at the ARTS at King Street Station Gallery on Nov. 16, 2021, and continue through Jan. 15, 2022.
“My work is primarily geared for children and young adults,” Richardson shared. “No professional development, no white teachers. It’s really around identity development and self-actualization for Black kids, right? When we think about slavery and, historically, our story starting from 1619, then that becomes the placeholder of who we are and how we see ourselves and how we allow ourselves to be seen. So, I was determined to challenge that narrative. That’s what my museum does. It challenges that narrative based on my own story.”
This upcoming event marks an exciting and significant turning point in Richardson’s career. Though the public has enjoyed his work at the annual Festival Sundiata for years, his traveling museum has been predominantly showcased at schools across the state for smaller groups of staff and student audiences since 2005. Richardson stated his audiences often long for more time with, and access to, the traveling museum, yet due to lack of resources and access to larger venues, he has not been able to meet the desires of his growing fan base. However, ARTS at King Street Station Gallery will give him both the opportunity to expand his work further into the public arena and to showcase his talent as a formidable artist. For the first time, Richardson’s exhibits will become an art installation, a transformation and paradigm shift he welcomes with open arms.
“I won the [Seattle] Mayor’s Arts Award in 2019,” Richardson said. “And the reason why this is significant is because, me starting this work in 2005, I really had a hard time being recognized and valued as an artist. So, [the award] comes with funding, it comes with recognition, it comes with a lot of things. So, I view getting the 2019 Mayor’s Award as being vetted. So, now there’s this kind of art that’s associated with Delbert’s work that opens up numerous doors. There’s still this challenge, and sometimes struggle, with people recognizing and embracing how my work is viewed as art. But that’s the journey of my work because history is art and art is history.”
Richardson’s carefully curated museum disrupts and transforms our whitewashed understanding of American history by revealing the beautiful “unspoken truths” about Black people. The museum pushes us inward toward our own healing by forcing us to reconcile the falsehoods we have been force-fed with the illuminated truth that he so artfully reveals through his work.
“There is an African proverb that says, ‘Until the lion tells his tale, the hunt will always glorify the hunter,’” Richardson shared. “It’s said in different ways, but basically it’s the same thing. If we don’t start telling our own story, those in power will continue to tell the story they want to tell and that they want us to tell ourselves. So, I am telling the story from the bottom up, through the lens of the oppressed, which means there’s a happy beginning and a happy ending. That’s why the museum starts with Mother Africa STEAM [science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics] and ends with Black inventions and inventors, with innovations. In the middle is slavery and Jim Crow because what was done to us is not who we are.”
Ricky Reyes, ARTS at King Street Station Gallery lead and public arts gallery manager, who has been working closely with Richardson, shared that Richardson’s asset-based lens is one of many reasons the public will greatly benefit from visiting the installation.
“One of the cool things about Delbert, just from a planning perspective, is that he’s really centered Black history from an asset-based lens,” Reyes explained. “So often when we go into galleries and there is this voyeuristic approach, it’s from this really deficit-based lens. Folks who come to the exhibition will see we invented so many things and we’ve survived and been resilient through so many phases of this country. So there’s also a lot of opportunities to find joy.”
Participants who visit the installation can expect to step into an interactive learning experience that will indeed disrupt the traditional voyeurism Reyes describes. In fact, Richardson plans to embed quick response (QR) codes so visitors will have plenty of opportunities to examine their thinking and to interrogate their own actions and assumptions in service of the racial healing Richardson hopes he can facilitate through his work.
“I would want people to embark on their journey of self-discovery and how they’re showing up or have shown up so we can get to a place of healing,” he said. “And I think that starts with the self first.”
Richardson is particularly hopeful that a new story he will be introducing in this installation will catalyze healing by asking visitors, especially white women, to examine their own complicity in upholding and perpetuating white supremacy.
“Mark Twain said, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes,’” Richardson said. He explained that this quote perfectly captures how this kind of complicity, so evident during American chattel slavery and Jim Crow, continues to be reproduced in the present day. He believes it is time to end the rhyme and will engage visitors to do so as a result of working with the installation. He also shared that this piece is timely given the recent book release of What’s Up with White Women? Unpacking Sexism and White Privilege in Pursuit of Racial Justice, written by Seattle authors and Richardson’s personal friends and colleagues Tilman Smith and Ilsa Govan.
Visitors can expect the learning they engage in will last beyond just one visit to the installation.
“One thing that I’m personally excited for is that Delbert is such a skilled educator, historian, facilitator,” Reyes said. “It’s really an opportunity, through the length of the exhibition, to really figure out how to integrate … audience development and community engagement in a really intentional way that hopefully builds relationships locally to Delbert’s work so that folks can leverage it during the exhibition, but also beyond.”
Reyes added that the installation will offer educational events for Seattle Public Schools students, as well as opportunities for elected officials and networks of people engaged in Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative to work together to develop a long-term approach to how we talk to and with our communities about Black history as American history.
Richardson hopes the latest evolution of his work will not only influence these community conversations but also continue to manifest as an even grander vision that has been 15 years in the making.
“I’m unapologetic because I am looking to get my museum in front of all our legislators and ask the question, ‘So you guys are mandating ethnic studies. Eighty percent of the teachers are white women; how are you preparing them and providing them resources?’” Richardson said. “‘Here’s Delbert as a resource.’ So, that is my pitch. I want a building. I want to be a statewide resource for ethnic studies, and I want some capital, sustainability funding to build out my virtual museum platform.”
Richardson’s vision, passion, dedication, and pure love for Black people is an enormous gift to our community and just this month earned him the 2021 Educator of the Year award from Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI). This unique opportunity to experience his vision starts Nov. 16 at the ARTS at King Street Station Gallery. Admission is free. The experience will be invaluable.
Melia LaCour is a columnist for the South Seattle Emerald and executive director and founder of “Becoming Justice.” She identifies as Black, mixed race, and her work is rooted in the belief that racial healing is a fundamental component of racial justice work. She is a native Seattleite with a passion for justice and writing. Follow her on Twitter @melia_mlacour.
📸 Featured Image: Delbert Richardson teaching a group of students from his American History Traveling Museum during the 2017 Festival Sundiata. (Photo: Susan Fried)
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