Mightier Than the Sword: Exhibit explores, celebrates African American literature

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CEDAR RAPIDS — For seven years, Harriet Jacobs lived in a tiny attic garret, a fugitive slave in hiding. While sequestered in that three-foot-tall crawl space, she wrote her memoir, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” which she would later self-publish in 1861.

That book is just one piece of literature celebrated at a new exhibit at the African American Museum of Iowa in Cedar Rapids. “Mightier Than the Sword” opens Aug. 27 and will remain on display through July 29, 2017, examining the history and evolution of African American literature from the 18th century to the present.

“My main goal was not just talking about the history but connecting to the political and cultural and social trends of the those time periods,” said curator Brianna Kim.

Books like Jacobs’, for example, were used by the abolitionist movement to spread support. Many such slave narratives cannot be found in print anymore, so iPads with digitized narratives collected by the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill will be part of the exhibit as well.

A replica of the garret where Jacobs once hid and copies of the book she wrote there will be on display, along with books on loan from local private collector James Hicks, including many first editions.

The exhibition is broken into sections of history. The first, which includes Jacobs’ story, focuses on the pre-Civil War period. The second section covers Reconstruction to the start of the Harlem Renaissance, the period which fills the third section with the drama, poetry and fiction of the 1920s and ‘30s. The fourth section includes the Chicago Black Renaissance of the 1940s and ‘50s, followed by the Black Arts Movement, Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and ‘70s. The final section focuses on the late 1970s to the present.

“We want to talk about the ways books, poetry and plays were used to reflect and comment on social, political and cultural issues,” Kim said.

For example, the display explores how the literature of the Black Arts Movement of the 1970s was tied to the Black Power movement and focused on fostering black pride. The Black Arts Movement was a period when black authors and poets used their literature to speak to the African American community instead of tailoring their work to the white majority audience, Kim said.

She acknowledged the exhibit seeks to cover a huge amount of history. An advisory panel of professors and scholars, including some from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, advised museum staff on elements to include.

Copies of books from each era will be available for visitors to browse at reading nooks arranged throughout the exhibit. Those who want to expand their reading lists can pick up book marks with recommended authors and titles. There will be children’s books in each reading nook as well — about 50 percent of the museum’s audience are third-graders.

“We’re hoping to introduce people to African American literature a little more in depth and introduce them to authors and literary movements they may not have heard of before,” Kim said.

iPods with recordings of early African American poetry will be available, and visitors can also get involved with the exhibit, with chances to make a children’s book illustration, compose poetry and dig into their own genealogy.

The genealogy activity was inspired by the book “Roots,” which author Alex Haley based on research into his own family’s history. It inspired Americans of all races to investigate their own family backgrounds, Kim said.

“Roots” wasn’t the only book to examine family history. Virgil Powell was a Cedar Rapids police officer who published three books based on his own family narratives, including “From the Slave Cabin of Yani.”

Another Iowa connection in the exhibit is the work of Oscar Micheaux, who for a time lived in Sioux City. He is widely considered the first African American feature filmmaker, Kim said, and clips from his silent films will be shown.

Related programming will be presented throughout the year, including a book discussion in September on Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s novel “Things Fall Apart.”

Museum executive director Thomas Moore said he hopes visitors to the museum can broaden their exposure to black writers and to gain insight on their lives and the context that shaped their writing.

“I really want people to learn the importance of the African American writers to these time periods and how they have positively influenced changes in thinking as well as culture,” he said. “I’d like visitors to take away the mind-set and perspective of African American writers. I think there’s so much to learn.”

 

If You Go

What: “Mightier Than the Sword” grand opening

When: 6:30 p.m. Friday (8/26)

Where: African American Museum of Iowa, 55 12th Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

 

What: Woven Words: “Things Fall Apart” book discussion

When: 11 a.m. Sept. 24

Where: African American Museum of Iowa, 55 12th Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

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