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“Jubilee: African American Celebration,” is on view at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum through Sept. 20, 2009. Through a colorful display with costumes and tableaus, “Jubilee” offers a cross section of nearly 50 traditions and celebrations observed in the African American community from days of slavery to today. Examined are holidays that are unique but no longer celebrated, regional or national in scope and of relatively recent origin as well as mainstream events also celebrated by African Americans.
“Jubilee offers just a glimpse at the rich and varied traditions that have sustained the black community and helped shape a uniquely American identity,” said Camille Giraud Akeju, museum director.
“African American social gatherings developed historically as occasions to eat, dance, share news, trade goods, connect or re-connect with loved ones and, in some cases, plan rebellion or escape, providing respite from slavery and discrimination,” said Portia James, supervising curator. Laws such as the District of Columbia’s infamous “Black Codes” of the 1800s and South Carolina’s sumptuary laws restricted opportunities for blacks to organize and display adornments. Early holidays—like Pinkster’s Day in New York and Election Day in New England, during which blacks campaigned to become king or governor in mock elections—were ways initially acceptable to white society for African Americans to gather.
Organized as a journey through a calendar year, “Jubilee” highlights commemorations that occur generally in the seasons from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31. The winter section notes celebrations, such as Emancipation Day and Juneteenth, created in response to President Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to end slavery as well as the evolution of other traditions such as Black History Month. Highlights include an interview with Congressman John Conyers on the establishment of the national Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and the display of an authentic Mardi Gras Indian suit.
A simple but elegant 1845 wedding dress of an enslaved African woman and the intricate hand-crocheted garment worn by a Charleston, S.C., resident in 1996 are among the dresses underscoring springtime wedding traditions. The bronze studies for the sculptured tribute to Robert Gould Shaw and the all-black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment are featured in the discussion of Decoration Day.
Besides Negro Leagues baseball, summer activities examined include road trips, resort stays and time at the beach. A clip from the 1995 WDIV-TV documentary “Idlewild: A Place in the Sun” by producer Ted Talbert looks at the famed resort in Detroit. The “Stepping Out” section explores black night life including “jook joints” and clubs and features such artifacts as a flapper dress ensemble and a jukebox.
“Jubilee” comes full circle with a review of autumn holidays and the special ways African Americans celebrate them. The often-overlooked contribution of blacks in war is the focus of Veterans Day, and artifacts displayed include personal memorabilia from soldiers who served in various conflicts. Thanksgiving and the other end-of-the year observances such as Christmas, Kwanzaa and Watch Night as well as historical events like John Canoe are juxtaposed with the discussion of indoor leisure activities. Personal memories and holiday stories are shared in interviews with individuals such as Go-Go musician Chuck Brown and Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes.
The Anacostia Community Museum was opened in southeast Washington in 1967 as the nation’s first federally funded neighborhood museum. Renamed in 2006, it has expanded its focus beyond African American culture to documenting, interpreting and collecting objects related to the impact of historical and contemporary social issues on communities. For more information, the public may call (202) 633-4820, (202) 633-1000 or (202) 633-5285 (TTY). Web site: anacostia.si.edu.
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Marcia Baird Burris