Dedicated to the study of black America
Growing up, Joanne Hyppolite felt the racial divide in her adopted America, but found few resources to explain it.
She then dedicated her life to the study of black America and the African diaspora, eventually becoming curator at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington DC. Read her talk below with Lifestyle.
Q: Your résumé charts a longstanding interest in black history and culture. Can you remember what first spurred these ambitions and how they have evolved throughout your career?
A: I am Haitian-born but my family moved to the United States when I was four years old. I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, in an African-American neighbourhood during the 1970s and 1980s. Many of my first friendships were formed in this neighbourhood, so I was exposed to many aspects of African-American culture including the games, language, dance styles and fashion.
This was also during a particularly turbulent period of American race relations. Boston was going through a school desegregation crisis that angered many white Bostonians, who didn’t want their children bused to black neighbourhoods for school and black students bused to their neighbourhood schools. So, early on I also became aware of the polarisation that race issues cause in the United States.
When I went to college and learnt that there were courses that addressed both the history of American race relations and black culture in general, I naturally gravitated towards these topics. They were instrumental in helping understand not only my own personal observations and experiences in the United States, but also the world at large.
Soon after, I knew that I wanted, like my professors, to be able to share this information with wider audiences. Museums became the vehicle for me to do this.
What led you to become a museum curator at NMAAHC?
I started my museum career as curator for community research at HistoryMiami Museum, South Florida’s largest regional history museum. I eventually became their chief curator and spent eight years in this position.
My work in Miami was pivotal because it involved working primarily with, and curating, the history and culture of African-American and Caribbean-American communities. I came to NMAAHC in 2014 to also work on curating those topics. NMAAHC broadly defines African-Americans as all African-descendant people in the United States impacted by the American historical experience. This definition is inclusive of black immigrants from the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa who are now part of the United States population. NMAAHC needed someone with subject area expertise with these communities to ensure their stories are represented there.
Can you speak a bit about how you visualised the inaugural exhibition, Cultural Expressions, and how that translated to the final exhibition?
Cultural Expressions explores five key ways in which African diasporic communities express culture — language, style, artistry, floodways, social dance and gesture.
These concepts are not unique to black cultures but the ways in which they take shape in each culture is unique. The exhibition is in the physical shape of a circle because culture circulates both locally and internationally — between and among people and groups they come in contact with. One important aspect of this exhibition was sharing the ways in which black cultural groups globally share similar cultural histories and struggles. So in the floodways section of the exhibition you learn about the major roles African-Americans played as food vendors in the 19th and 20th century and that is compared to the role of hawkers, higglers and hucksters in Jamaica, Brazil and other parts of the black diaspora.
We examine the difficulty linguists and teachers have had to introduce African-American vernacular English as an instructional tool in the classroom and compare that to the struggle to introduce Haitian creole in schools in Haiti prior to 1976.
What can the audience expect from your talk at the Bermuda National Gallery?
[It] will explore the components that went into A Century in the Making: Building the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which I co-curated with Michelle Wilkinson. I will provide an overview of the many different stages that led to the creation and opening of a national museum dedicated to African-American history in Washington DC. This story begins in 1915 and culminated with our opening in September 2016.
You have penned two children’s books. Can you speak to the importance of educating young children on black history?
Growing up the child of immigrants in the United States, I did not have parents who could explain to me about race relations in the US. It was not their culture or their history and they were learning just as much as me. I would have benefited from reading books in elementary and high school that addressed these topics. We all would — whatever our colour or culture.
I had to wait until I got to college to fully understand these issues, but less than 40 per cent of Americans today earn a college degree. We need other vehicles for presenting and exploring American history through an African-American lens — that’s why NMAAHC and children’s books are so important.
• Dr Hyppolite will speak at the Bermuda National Gallery on Thursday at 6pm. Admission is $10 members; $15 non-members. RSVP: 295-9428 or email@example.com
• The National Museum of African American History and Culture is a Smithsonian Institution that was established in 2003.
• It opened in Washington DC last September, the result of political lobbying and public advocacy dating back to 1915.
• The exhibition A Century in the Making: Building the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, co-curated by Joanne Hyppolite and Michelle Wilkinson, recalls these efforts, and the significant milestones from then until now. • Dr Hyppolite will address topics explored in this exhibition when she speaks at the Bermuda National Gallery on Thursday, looking at the original source of inspiration for the museum, the legislative efforts that led to the museum’s establishment, how the museum built its collection, and an architectural overview of the museum building.
• An inside view of the 12 inaugural exhibitions will also be presented.