I visited the Ruby and Calvin Fletcher African American History Museum in Milford, CT.
My 97 yr old grandmother loves it. She loves taking anyone who visits her there. They’ve done a really nice job with the museum, in a historic New England house. At my Age (47), I’ve seen various versions of this collection. Reenactments and remnants of the forced journey of my ancestors from shore to shores. The horrors, the inhumanity, and the continued ill treatment of black folks through time, documented. The tour is usually capped by a showcase of the brilliance that came from these oppressive times through resilience and creativity.
Museum owner and descendant of the Fletchers, whom the museum is named after, Jeffery A. Fletcher, gave a great tour that did just that. It took you deep into the pain and finished with the gifts that we brought to the world through the sounds of our musical genius. Many local CT folks may never make it to DC to the National Museum of African American History, and it feels like this is a great opportunity to have a home grown version of that experience.
There were all of the expected sections of the exhibit. One twist was where I’ve normally seen diagrams of slave ships packed like sardines, he showed in 3D what that would look like with a bunk like space he created with mannequins and straw for bedding, a detaill I had never considered. Another wall was lined with a map of the slave ship routes to the Americas.It also highlighted the multiple ships that were overthrown and directed back to Africa by the African captives. I’d only known of the Amistad. Eventually we got to the section with the segregation restroom signs. I first noticed there was Colored Men, White Men and White Women’s bathroom signs, but no Colored Women’s sign. I didn’t know that black women often didn’t have access to bathrooms. So I guess an old dog can still learn some things. Next, I saw that Fletcher had a Starbucks sign hanging in the collection. This exhibit told his personal story of being denied access to a Starbucks bathroom. He filed a complaint and the exhibit included the response letter from Starbucks attempting to pay him $3000 hush money to sign an NDA. He said he didn’t take the money, because he was going to not only disclose it, but have “Starbucks in the African American history museum not for the good, but for the bad.”
I admired Mr. Fletchers unflinching energy in creating this museum no matter what. Not basing his value on comparison to the Smithsonian and what they have. His presence felt as big as the Smithsonian.
He stressed the importance of preserving this history, so that we don’t forget where we come from. Upon hearing that my mind felt conflicted by a swirl of other sayings like.
“If you don’t know your history you’re bound to repeat it.”
And then on the contrary…
“You can’t move forward if you’re constantly looking backward.”
Both could be true.
A couple things came up for me after the tour.
First, who would benefit most from this museum and others like it? Then, in his Starbucks bathroom incident (and many others like it that happen to black folks and prob others too), I ask myself, was it because he was black?
I’ve often assumed that in even the most minor cases, someone was a certain way with me because I was black. I’ve walked into places so many times expecting to not be welcomed. Assuming every look or question that sounded slightly off was because I was black. But what if it was something else?
What if they didn’t like men, tall people, or cops (in the case of Mr, Fletcher)?
When I’m sitting in first class, maybe that person stares at me or asks me what I do because they literally want to know me. Maybe they’re flirting and are just awkward and it’s not their judgment that I shouldn’t be there because I’m black. Maybe it’s the color of my hair, or lack of:) or my style or something that actually has nothing to do with me. They may be just having a bad day. All things I’ve had to rewire my mind to consider after decades of assuming I’m being oppressed because I’m black. Not denying that it does happen. Just trying on a different way of approaching the world that has me not get stuck. I focus on the aspirations I have and contributions I will make when I show up.
Feel how you want about Kanye, but when he started talking about black future month it really resonated. Or maybe we do Black Present month. We are doing and will do so much with the genius that’s coming through us specifically.
I often think, how could we showcase that? How could we have a section in the museum for that?
What would it look like?
Thanks to Calvin Fletcher for a great tour, a beautiful museum, and for showing my grandmother so much love.
Visit the museum site below for more info:
*** Updated to my “because I’m black” practice
Last night my friend Cynthia and I went to a nice restaurant down by the Pier in south street seaport NY, NY. When we approached the hostess, she asked how she could help. This is one of the first triggers for me at a restaurant that has me think I’m being discriminated against. It may sound insane, but this is the play by play of my mind. “How can I help you?” What kind of question is that? I’m arriving to your restaurant, how do you think you can help me? Anyway. My friend answers her with out the charge that I felt. Not sure if she was just more evolved than me or she didn’t feel insulted by the question. My friend says “we’d like to see a menu please”, the lady points to the QR code for us to scan for the online menu and lets us know that the restaurant has just actually reached capacity. Second trigger activate. “yeahhhh” she says, “we actually just reached capacity and stopped seating people.
In my mind I was definitely back on the “Because I’m black train.” We thanked her and carried on to find food elsewhere.We never mentioned it. Couldn’t tell if my friend felt it. But it didn’t matter. This was a test of my practice, of not assuming I’m being oppressed. Not assuming I’m being discriminated against because I’m black.
The practice lead me to this next thought. What if they ARE blocking me because I’m black? Then what? Do I spend energy to fight to get in places that aren’t welcoming me. File complaints and protest to gain entry. Do I even want to be there in the first place? Is it some symbol that I’m equal or valued, for me to be welcomed there? Do I need that? What if I take that energy and create my own space. Create the place I want to be or if nothing else, go where I’m welcomed?