The Head of Charleston’s New African American Museum on Courage and Storytelling
What will visitors find inside the museum?
One thing I would highlight is the Carolina Gold Gallery, where we go in depth on the story of rice, which is our cash crop. Here we talk about innovation and technology, which are not usually words that you associate with slavery. But we show how it was the knowledge and technology of the Africans who were kidnapped and transported to Charleston that allowed rice production here to become a global industry, and to make us the richest colony in our budding nation. So we tell the whole truth: We talk about the inhumanity of slavery without losing sight of the humanity of the people.
The other one I would point out is the Gullah Geechee gallery. The Gullah Geechee people are an African American community that range up and down the coast from North Carolina to northern Florida who have kept incredible ties to their African origin communities. You can hear it in the language, taste it in the food, see it in the craftsmanship. And a lot of these things are what South Carolina and the Lowcountry are famous for. I’m excited to be able to tell that story, particularly because the Gullah Geechee community is still alive, thriving and modern — so we have a living history gallery inside a history museum.
Parts of the museum might bring up strong emotions. How are you preparing for that?
We have a real emphasis on cultural-competency training and cultural-empathy training with our staff. Empathy is going to have to be one of our superpowers. But I would also say that there is actually a lot of joy in our site, and that has to do with how we put the story of slavery in full context. If you just tell the story by itself, it’s an unfinished story; it’s also a traumatic and a sad story. But when you start with the majestic origins of the people and the culture, and you continue through this period of slavery and talk about what has been happening since and the way we can continue to move forward — there’s a very different feel. And that’s when the joy and the triumph and the resilience all start to come through.
I think visitors will have moments of historical discovery, perhaps some moments of self-discovery. And I think there will also be moments of validation and recognition. I want people to walk away with what I call the “unscratchable itch for what’s next.” If we do this well, then it will be clear to anyone walking out of the museum that there is so much more to know.
You have a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and worked at the F.D.A. before moving to the museum world. What inspired your shift to public education?
Even as a graduate student and then as a career professional in engineering and technology, I always gravitated toward work-force development, education or helping folks engage with technology they did not understand. I would use curiosity to inspire folks to push themselves just enough to get through the science, the math and the engineering. And I find the same thing in history: Sometimes history requires a little courage. So I use curiosity and storytelling to help folks get that extra inspiration to push through the tough stuff.
You earned your bachelor’s at Duke and your Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins. Have those experiences informed your work at the museum?
There’s a phrase that I think everyone uses now, but it’s definitely an African American colloquialism: We like to say the struggle is real. I’ve had my share of blessings and privileges that helped me get to where I am, but I’ve had my own struggles and challenges, too. I know what it’s like to step into uncharted waters; to be the first in your family to step through doors and not be sure if you’re going to be welcomed. I think those kinds of things do strengthen your empathy muscle, and I bring that into the museum. I think it helps me understand how to support the visitor experience, and how to craft the way we tell stories.