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Making Do & Making ART

A new Ritz show illuminates the fascinating connections between African Muslims & African Americans

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At one point in the recent reunion show Def Comedy Jam 25, Dave Chappelle asked, “If we told them what it’s like to be black in America, would they believe us?”

If belief in others’ narratives is supported in some part by objects, collections, museums, books and essays, then it’s safe to assume that no, they/we wouldn’t/couldn’t believe, because the physical evidence of the lives of enslaved Americans is relatively fugitive.

Walking through Making Do: The African & Gullah Geechee Connection at the Ritz Theatre & LaVilla Museum, the weight of history is palpable. The exhibit is just a small portion of Willis Hakim Jones’ personal collection of African-American and African artifacts, and what he has selected to share is thoughtful and deeply intertwined with this country’s history. Touring the show with him, I saw these objects take on life: They’re a part of the quasi-forgotten, rarely articulated web of stories and events grounded in the black American experience—with ties to Africa.

Jones’ encyclopedic knowledge renders the objects momentous and luminous. Like the artifacts on view at the National Museum of African American History & Culture, these objects have been transformed by time and sacrifice, becoming sacred touchstones and storytelling tools. The exhibit starts with two small texts, written in Arabic, one of which, from the Hausa people, “outlines the rights and privileges of a divorced woman,” explained Jones. It is a striking document, not just for the legal protections it offers women, but because it has been repaired (paper was precious) and because, situated in this exhibit and in the shared history of Africa and America, it reveals an often-overlooked component in the American slavery industry: Muslim Africans. When the first slave ship arrived in the Americas in 1501, Islam had been established in West Africa for more than 700 years.

According to Jones, there once was a law that stated, “Christian Africans were not allowed to be enslaved. Only Muslims and practitioners of traditional religions like Yoruba could be.”  And in the early days of settlement, when Florida was still under the rule of Spain, escaped slaves who made it here and converted to Christianity were given their freedom. But as Jones points out—and is supported by two of the photographs in the exhibit—there were enslaved people who remained Muslim in the Antebellum South. “This is why it is so necessary to have exhibits like this, because most people don’t know their history,” said Jones.

The central tenant of Making Do is cultural memory, “specifically dealing with religion: this is an Islamic memory—as it concerns the conversion of African Americans in the contemporary era] to Islam—because it is genetically remembered,” said Jones, whose ideas are supported by the writing and research of Dr. C. Eric Lincoln, former dean of religion at Duke University. “But I want to be careful with that phrase, because [without proper context] it can be used for insidious and divisive purposes … remember—these memories might not be dominant; they might need the right set of circumstances to emerge.”

Illustrating the idea of genetic memory, Jones cites Dave the Potter (David Drake), a famous slave potter who wrote on his signed vessels: “I made this jar for cash, though it is called lucre trash.”

The pots made by Dave and other enslaved workers bear more than a passing resemblance to the large pot (circa 1750) from Mali that’s centrally placed in the exhibit. Another example of genetic echoes: a pair of carved alligator figures—one from Africa and one by an unknown African American. Placed side-by-side, the lineage, though diluted, is clear. Every single one of the photographs, articles, walking sticks and sculptures in Making Do has a story, and in some cases, it’s a story that directly touches Jones’ life—two of the walking sticks on view were made by Jones’ father, who was in the documentary Masters of the Walking Stick.

Another story involves Wanderer, a ship caught illegally smuggling Africans in 1840—by then, the practice of kidnapping Africans to America had been “outlawed.”

A clipping from The New York Times, with an accompanying engraving, is on display in the show. However, about 18 years ago, Allan D. Austin, Jones’ friend and a scholar who specialized in African Muslims in Antebellum America noticed—during Savannah’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration—a ship-shaped float named Wanderer. The float also featured a gorilla in chains racing up and down the deck.

Austin immediately recognized this as a depiction of the historical Wanderer.

Since then the float in all of its celebratory racist glory has been removed from the parade (the organization who floated the boat claimed ignorance of the imagery). But this illustrates the pernicious stubbornness of racist imagery while helping to make collective societal forgetting easier.

George Orwell once said that the “most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history,” then might  deduction suggest the path to equity and a protections under the law (in practice not just in theory) be paved through history and art?

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