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Tavis Smiley brings touring blockbuster on African American history to L.A.

September 23, 2009 |  5:56 pm


Conceived by Tavis Smiley, a sweeping historical and cultural survey of the black American experience called “America I Am: The African American Imprint” will arrive in L.A. on Oct. 30 for a 5½-month run at the California Science Center in Exposition Park, it was announced today.

Smiley, who hosts talk shows on public radio and television, said the idea took hold early in 2007, after he took part in events surrounding the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Jamestown colony, the first permanent British outpost in America — and the arrival point for its first African slaves. It got him thinking about the sweep of American history, and how he’d never seen an exhibition that showed how African Americans were not just a part of it, but at its core from the start.

Smiley enlisted Arts and Exhibitions International, the company that produced the King Tut ancient Egyptian blockbuster that had impressed him when he saw it at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and recruited a team of curatorial experts. The guiding concept, he says, is to answer a question black activist W.E.B. Du Bois posed more than 100 years ago: “Would America have been America without her Negro people?”

The exhibition numbers nearly 300 artifacts, including a re-creation, with actual furnishings, of the cell where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” and the fingerprints that police in another Alabama city, Montgomery, took from Rosa Parks upon booking her for refusing to give up her bus seat in 1955.


Also featured are a robe worn by Muhammad Ali, a guitar Prince played at the 2007 Super Bowl, Jackie Robinson’s baseball jersey and a notebook that rapper Tupac Shakur filled with lyrics and poetry.

For Smiley, the most emotional artifact is the Door of No Return, the nearly 400-year-old wooden gateway from a stockade in Ghana, through which thousands of captives were herded, taking the first steps of their forced passage as slaves to the New World.

The four-year, 10-city tour began in Philadelphia on Jan. 15 and is about to end its Atlanta run. Admission is $9.50, with discounts for children, students and seniors; Science Center officials say they’re conservatively estimating that at least 300,000 people will see “America I Am.”

Look for a more in-depth story on this exhibition leading up to its opening.

-- Mike Boehm

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Photos: Entrance to "America I Am" exhibition during its Philadelphia premiere; Tavis Smiley. Credits: Carol H. Feeley; Neil A. France / For The Times