I have a special fondness for the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, a small outpost of the big brand located a short drive from where I live. The museum used to have a running loop of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as part of their main display, and it was there that I was first impressed by the remarkably capitalist rhetoric of that text:
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
I visited the museum during the inauguration week festivities for Barack Obama and listened to the speech once more in the midst of the growing financial crisis with new ears. I wondered, at the time, if King really thought in the terms of this metaphor, or if he chose it because it rationalized his cause in the eyes of a pragmatic, essentially conservative society.
I also love the museum because you can almost always have it pretty much to yourself, it’s so far removed from the main paths of the Washington tourist circuit. But they now have an exhibition that should change that. “The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present” is a traveling show, first seen at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago in 2006, but it’s not to be missed. It documents, methodically and with historical detail, the presence and absence of people of African descent in Mexico over the past 500 years. The disappearance of Africans as a “third root” of Mexican identity was a complicated and ambiguous project, which the exhibition explains with nuance and precision. I wrote about the show for the Post, and I recommend it to anyone within striking distance of Washington, DC. And don’t forget to pay a visit to Frederick Douglass’s house, nearby, which at this time of year, with the leaves down, has one of the best views of the city.