Traveling Black History Museum Evokes Conversations About Race And Politics

Mar 1, 2019

At the University of Wyoming Student Union, a long line of students made their way down a row of tables, carefully examining artifacts, many of them taking photos with their phones. They are visiting the Black History 101 Mobile Museum

Some students were sent to the museum on a class assignment, but many are drawn to the tables out of curiosity. The informative and sometimes provocative gallery of artifacts is curated by historian, activist and former middle school teacher Khalid el-Hakim.

"I see students who walk through this exhibit and they see an aspect of American History that they've never been exposed to before. Some of them look dumbfounded, some of them look mad, some of them look upset because they haven't seen this, they haven't been exposed to it. So ideally, we want people to be inspired by it and for people to go out and do their own research," el-Hakim explained.

The museum is a chronological series of photos, documents, vinyl records, and other artifacts. Some of the materials are shocking depictions of racism from popular culture and the Jim Crow era, while other artifacts recognize accomplishments of African Americans in the form of signed magazine covers, protest signs and photos of triumphant activists, artists and community leaders. Some of the material is incredibly personal.

El-Hakim recalled a leaflet he found from a lecture by Carter G. Woodson, the historian who started a precursor to Black History Month. He was shocked to recognize familiar names on the program.

"In the inside cover was a list of the patrons that brought him to town in 1938, and among that list are my grandparents. And it blew me away. I had no idea my grandparents had been part of that type of work," el-Hakim said at a reception, eliciting gasps from the audience.

That kind of activism is what el-Hakim wants to carry on. Wyoming has one of the smallest black populations in the country, which creates challenges in exposing students to African American history. Dr. Frederick Douglas Dickson of the UW African American Studies Department helped bring el-Hakim to the university. He feels that many people don't get enough black history education.

"I'm sure this is something that would literally be seen as a first time in Wyoming," Dickson said. "What it means to me is black history personified. So being an African American history instructor, this evokes thought, this ignites conversation, and it makes sure folks deal with the reality, however they deal with it. And puts it in front of them in a practical, physical sense."

Many students agreed. Freshman Molly Pirus, who went to high school in California, elaborated on what she learned from the exhibit.

"In California, in history classes they just kind of teach you about the slave trade and Martin Luther King Jr. and nothing else in between, so it's kind of cool to see how all the pieces fit together," said Pirus.

Back on the tour, students piled up at the last table where el-Hakim set two modern day artifacts. A copy of GQ magazine featuring Colin Kaepernick, and a red "Make America Great Again" hat. El-Hakim explains that these two items are representative of the current state of racial discourse in the United States.

"President Trump said at one point that America First would the theme for his candidacy. On the surface that sounds great, America First, I get that. However, when we know that America First has always been a theme of the Klu Klux Klan, that's when the problem comes in. It resonates with a certain group of people, and people respond accordingly when you have the president saying America First, Make America Great Again," el-Hakim said.

Sixty-seven percent of Wyoming voters voted for Trump in the 2016 general election, more than any other state in the country. That gave el-Hakim some concerns about displaying the hat, but he decided not to censor himself.

"My job is not to make people feel comfortable. My job is to show artifacts, and all I'm doing is showing an artifact that shows current discourse in America. So with that, it gives us space to have a conversation. You are going to have Trump supporters that are going to walk through here and anti-Trump folk walk through here. So where else are we having this conversation? We aren't having it in our homes, we're not having this in our religious institutions because they're extremely segregated," said el-Hakim.

The Black History 101 Mobile Museum brought Wyoming a rare occasion to confront and discuss these issues. El-Hakim feels if he didn't include modern issues that people have opinions about, museum visitors might distance themselves from older artifacts. He wants people to understand their personal connection to not only black history but today's racial tensions.