Today, from our friends at Smithsonian Magazine, we bring you Menachem Wecker’s piece on the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture’s panel “History, Rebellion, and Reconciliation.” The symposium “proved even timelier than organizers could have possible imagined,” taking place less than a week after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. In the wake of seemingly endless tragedy, the Museum of African American History and other museums (most recently, the New Museum) have served as sites of support and discourse for black communities and #BlackLivesMatter allies. This article was originally published on April 29, 2015.
The deputy director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture had a problem. At the April 25 symposium “History, Rebellion, and Reconciliation,” her panel was a no-show. A law professor and two writers were late and had yet to appear.
So to fill the gap, Kinshasha Holman Conwill called upon “Brother Ellis” and with some heavy coaxing, she convinced Rex Ellis, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs, to sing a duet—a rendition of Bernice Johnson Reagon’s “Ella’s Song.”
“We, who believe in freedom, cannot rest until it comes,” they sang. “Until the killing of a black man, a black woman’s son, is as important as the killing of a white man, a white woman’s son.”
That move, in many ways, defined the spirit of the day-long symposium. The event featured speakers that ranged from the award-winning director Ava DuVernay (Selma) to the Pittsburgh-based emcee and community activist Jasiri X, and pastor Osagyefo Sekou to Black Alliance for Just Immigration executive director Opal Tometi.