Displaying Displacement: Juneteenth in Washington, DC
Last fall, I agreed to loan a sculpture, Beverly Buchanan’s Hastings House (1989) to the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC for an exhibit, The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement. A wooden shack with a crudely hammered tin roof, the 19-inch-high piece came with a legend written by Buchanan, an African American artist who died in 2015:
“Brunson Earthly Hastings lived by the rules of hard work, no liquor, and one woman. His 10 sons were smart, hardworking farm boys but Anna, the only girl, was his heart. He was blind when she graduated but smiled proudly when he heard them call out DR. HASTINGS, to her.”
To Buchanan, who earned degrees in medical technology, parasitology, and public health and worked as a medical technologist and health educator before enrolling in The Art Students League and becoming a full-time artist, the narrative echoed her own aborted pre-medical career. It was, she told me when I visited her in Athens George in 1994, a shack and a legend that resonated with her personally.
The exhibit opened on June 18th, the day before this year’s Juneteenth celebration, commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States on June 19, 1865. Washington, DC was crowded with tourists and there was a long line outside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened to the public in 2016, as the newest museum of the Smithsonian Institution. With its bold design, modeled on the headpiece of a Yoruba sculpture, the aluminum, grille-covered building stands proudly on the National Mall. You can see the Washington Monument when you look out its west windows.
There are galleries above and below ground and docents direct the crowds to begin on the Lower Concourse Levels, which trace the chronological experience of African Americans beginning in the year 1400 and ending in 2008. A series of ramps lead visitors from Slavery and Freedom to The Era of Segregation, to A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond. There’s a Family History Center on the second floor, community galleries on the third floor (including Sports: Leveling the Playing Field) and Culture Galleries (art, music and theatre) on the fourth floor.
Getting up close to many of the slave artifacts was a challenge, not just because of the crowds but also because the…