A Pioneering Institution
"Assimilate My Purse," Maximumrocknroll, March 2006
My friend Ralowe spotted the signs announcing the Museum of the African Diaspora a year or two before it opened, right around the corner from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), the posh W Hotel, the Sony Metreon entertainment complex and the privately-policed park and galleries at Yerba Buena Gardens. In fact, the MoAD, as it calls itself (in imitation of the MOMA, one imagines), sits on the last undeveloped portion of land originally created when the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency tore down an entire neighborhood in the 1970s. This was a neighborhood of residence hotels and low-income apartment buildings housing elderly and disabled longshoremen and other tradespeople (mostly single white men), as well as Asian immigrant families - the SF Redevelopment Agency was eager to replace this "blight" with the glory of museums and hotels.
When Ralowe first noticed the signs for the new museum, he also noticed all the passersby looking at him looking at the signs. He wondered about these white people staring suspiciously, clutching their purses and briefcases tighter as they passed what could be double trouble: a black male with an Afro, outside a construction site labeled "African Diaspora." Would this be good for business?
A week after the museum first opened, Ralowe visited to find out about their free day. Most museums in San Francisco offer one day a month when they don't charge. But not the Museum of the African Diaspora -- can you imagine all those black people lining up -- property values on the new high-rise condos nearby would fall dramatically! Tourists would crash their strollers into lingering SUVs! The black security guards at the MoAD eyed Ralowe suspiciously -- this is a privately-funded museum, one of them said.
I went down to the MoAD with Ralowe to examine the scandal. I rarely go to museums, but I can't remember a single museum with security guards literally blocking the entrance. Two black male security guards inside the door and then a white middle-aged fag in retail -- I can imagine the diversity discussion at the museum's hiring committee. Tickets to the museum are eight dollars, which doesn't seem like much of a bargain when you look down at the floor to glimpse high-end seventies bathroom tile. Looking up, the themes of the museum are elaborated on the walls, like a diorama at the Aquarium: Origins, Movement, Adaptation, Transformation. Then you walk up a stairway where speakers transmit unidentified African music while you look at photos of different kinds of black people, apparently there are 35,000 of these photos and from outside they all connect to form one face.
The security guard on the second floor is very friendly -- if she wasn't wearing that uniform, I might think she was a docent. She tells Ralowe and me where to start: it's a Celebration Circle, she says. She sounds so excited. We're in a circular room with some cheesy video playing, describing all the important things in life -- family, church, birth, weddings, death. Many of the people in the video are not overtly black, but we learn an inspiring message at the end: We All Come from Africa.
I expected some fetishized artifacts or overly-stylized-and-empty gallery pieces for white consumption, but the whole place is so much worse. It's like a cross between a mall, a rec center and a preschool -- grey carpet, pleasing hues of green paint on the walls, and I don't even know where to start when talking about the exhibits. You turn down a hallway to learn about What You Wear, then Music, then Food -- and at the end of the hall -- Slavery. It's like something Bank of America would display in the lobby and you'd say oh, that's nice -- can I check my balance?
There's a room of audio histories of people who've recently escaped from slavery, which could be interesting because maybe it's not denying the continuing legacy (though it's probably just pointing away from the stars and stripes), but the fumes from the carpet are so strong that I can't stay in the room for more than a minute. I guess they forgot to fumigate. Next door to the audio histories is the Freedom Theatre, where someone's telling us about the difference between Napoleon and Toussaint L'Ouverture. One was a French emperor and the other led a slave revolt.
What's so depressing about this so-called art is that it's really nothing at all -- crappy videos that aren't interesting in terms of content, style, or format. It's like somewhere for the fourth grade field trip -- thanks, but I'd rather dip my chewing gum in glue and play. Then there's an empty room that is maybe for lectures and more security guards -- at least it's got a hardwood floor, so it doesn't smell so toxic, but there's nothing to look at except a few artifacts in plastic cases. I do mean a few: three items in total. Upstairs is the contemporary art section, with the pipes and insulation exposed on the ceiling -- which makes no sense really, since it's a brand-new building. It doesn't look artsy or anything -- it looks like crap -- why are the ceilings so low? Some of the art is okay -- I actually like one piece, which proclaims "The Narrative of the Life and Uncommon Sufferings of Glenn Ligon, a Colored Man Who, at a Tender Age, Discovered His Affection for the Bodies of Other Men." But then somehow we've reached the end of the museum. Are you kidding?
I go down a hallway, which turns out to be the offices - an Asian woman seems very distressed that I've gotten inside, she talks to the security guard and points in the direction of the off-limits door. Every single security guard is black (there are at least six, maybe seven or eight), and then there's the white fag in retail and this upscale Asian woman in the office. Oh -- and two visitors in the entire museum - that's me and Ralowe. On our way downstairs, the friendly security guard asks if we liked the museum. For some reason, she's invested in it -- it's not just a job. I feel horrible. I tell her yes; I smile.
Downstairs, the white fag wants to know if we liked the museum. I smile. Ralowe wants to show me the hotel next door, actually the museum is built into the back of the hotel. It's the brand-new St. Regis, where rooms start at $529. The lobby is like a nightclub, with high high ceilings and huge beige curtains separating different lounge areas where men with swept-back hair in suits with shoulder pads and women with tasteful blond highlights and low-cut evening dresses sip cocktails on European leather sofas. This elegant lobby bar even includes an understated line of fire on a counter -- don't put your drink there!
Then Ralowe and I are waiting for the bus and I'm a disaster. Ralowe was traumatized by his first visit, so I thought he'd be the one to break down -- but it's me. I can't even speak I feel so awful, thinking about the friendly security guard and how she seemed so proud of this chunk of anthropological indecency chopped off one of the fanciest hotels San Francisco has ever seen. Of course Willie Brown, San Francisco's former Mayor -- the ultimate white black man -- sealed the deal: he's the person who famously declared that if you couldn't afford to live in San Francisco, then you should leave. He made sure to get rid of all the black people, or as many as possible, in order to make the city safer for real estate profiteering and property development. And now, Willie bestows this embarrassing trinket on San Francisco -- I'm sure they spent more restoring City Hall, genuine gold leaf and all. The most valuable thing owned by the Museum of the African Diaspora is probably the bathroom fixtures.
Sometimes I cry while listening to the news, or at a movie, but almost never in public. But waiting for the bus I can't stop thinking about that security guard asking me if I liked the museum and I just start crying about all the horrible inequality in the world and the visible legacy of white supremacy in everyday life. I'm sitting next to some random guy at the bus stop and I'm staring across the street at the entrance to Neiman Marcus. I'm thinking: I can't live in this world I'm too fragile.
Ralowe asks if I'm okay. No, I'm not okay -- and then I'm really sobbing, thinking what is it about this museum in particular? I went to the SFMOMA about a year ago, and saw some sculpture from the sixties by Louise Bourgeois, a white French artist whose work I've liked in the past. But this sculpture was literally an African totem, and I looked at it and thought: I am actively participating in colonialism. Which is part of how I'm feeling today. I'm also thinking about the audacity of Willie Brown for brokering this elementary school art exhibit and calling it a pioneering institution, the first of its kind in the world.
But what really breaks my heart is that security guard who seemed invested in our enjoyment of something so insubstantial, so embarrassing, so inconsequential, so awful. I sensed that she felt some sort of pride in it and I wanted to allow her that space and that's what makes me so sad, the hopelessness of it all. That I was too stunned to find a way not to say yes, I enjoyed it.
I'm just staring straight ahead and sobbing, Ralowe is silent next to me and I'm aware of the irony that I'm the one who's breaking down. We're waiting for the bus, along with at least 15 or 20 holiday shoppers -- I don't want the bus to arrive because I'm worried it'll be that awful driver who is always so militaristic about making sure that everyone pays the full fare. Especially every black person, poor person, faggot or freak. The driver's black too, so he has to prove something. And I won't be able to handle him now, not after the Museum of the African Diaspora. I say to Ralowe: they need to put that bus driver in the Museum of the African Diaspora, they can just move his whole bus into that lecture room next to the artifacts and he can sit there and make everyone pay.
Finally the bus comes -- I'm not really waiting for it or anything, but at least it's not the driver I was dreading. The bus is packed -- I guess 9 p.m. is like rush-hour now, since the service cuts. Ralowe gets on with me -- before, he was going to go home. I sit in the back row, next to some big white guy in a business suit playing with his iPod. For some reason, Ralowe finds it hard to ask the guy to move over, his voice is almost a whisper. I can't help but see this man as a symbol of white supremacy, and Ralowe's difficulty a consequence. The guy seems confused, then moves over.
At home, I'm wondering if I've ever been to a museum like that before, something so shabby. I mean, I went to the Schwules Museum in Berlin - I think it was the first gay museum -- and it was tiny and a bit rundown, but they had a big library and it felt like a community institution that people were working hard to create, it actually felt inspiring.
The MoAD is shabby in the overfunded way -- I mean, they have like 25 different committees listed in the back of the brochure: International Honorary Committee, Board Of Directors, Steering Committee, Supporters, Cornerstone Committee, Content Committee, Curatorial Advisory Committee, Education Policy Committee, Technology Advisory Council Membership, Media Producers, Public Relations, Design Team. Not to mention a staff of 11, which includes the retail fag but none of the eight security guards for each shift. I mean, what do they need eight security guards for -- is somebody going to steal a video projection screen? I think one security guard could take care of the art upstairs. But then maybe some unruly black people would try to get in for free!