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Must-See New Exhibit ‘Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth.’ at the Washington State History Museum

Why you should take the kids to learn about these black leaders


Published on: January 16, 2020

Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama and Malcolm X mural at Faith in Christ Ministries, Los Angeles. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Camilo José Vergara)

“You can’t teach what you don’t know. You can’t lead where you won’t go.”

Those words, spoken by Malcolm X in a 1964 civil rights speech, are arguably just as relevant today as they were when he uttered them more than five decades ago. So why don’t many Americans know these words or understand Malcolm X’s legacy like they do those of white heroes of history?

It's this question that a new exhibit called “Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth.” asks us to consider. The traveling exhibit, created by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), is on view now at Tacoma's Washington State History Museum through March 15, 2020.

The exhibit spotlights black male change-agents throughout American history, showcasing present-day world leaders like Barack Obama alongside influential athletes and musicians like Lebron James and Kendrick Lamar.

The exhibit was made possible through funding from The Ford Motor Company Fund’s initiative called “Men of Courage,” which launched in 2015. The initiative focuses on “advancing the narrative of black men through storytelling.”

In addition to the exhibit (making its only Northwest stop), the Men of Courage initiative is partnering with the Washington State History Museum and the City of  Tacoma to present related programming through early March.

Up first is a free Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration, where the public is invited to the museum Monday, Jan. 20. All are welcome to tour the exhibit, participate in crafts and watch a performance of “Get on the Bus,” showing at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. Admission is free and the museum is open 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

Muhammad Ali and family,1978. Credit: Ron Harvey. Mirrorpix/Courtesy of Everett Collection/Ron Harvey

The bottom line

“Men of Change” showcases the lives and leadership of many black men who have shaped U.S. culture and history — and offers visitors an opportunity to celebrate them. With everything from the Oscars to the Democratic debates to Washington State textbooks earning the hashtag “#sowhite,” the erasure of black men’s contributions has had and continues to have an impact on the lived experiences of black men. Representation matters.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Black History Month approach, “Men of Change” offers an incredible opportunity to learn more about these change-agents and their investments in a better future for all of us. 

Alfred Conteh (b. 1975) [Ryan Coogler] Home Team, 2018. Courtesy Amath Gomis

What parents should know

Upon first entering the exhibit, visitors encounter larger-than-life flashing projections surrounding a stark white room. On one wall images show black men from the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Strike holding signs that read “I am a man”. On another wall, we see this quote from James Baldwin: “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” 

Walking deeper into the exhibit, visitors see big, bold black and white photographs of black male artists, athletes and activists lining huge metal bars at the center of the exhibit, with notable quotes from each leader, as well as descriptions of their contributions to U.S. history, past and present. 

Most of the men featured are men I recognized (or have even studied), but much of what was highlighted throughout the exhibit focuses on lesser-known areas of their work and life. For instance, one area highlights the roles of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Andrew Young as young fathers with seldom seen photos from their personal lives. This presentation challenge visitors to reflect on the men's humanity and their leadership in public and in private.

The perimeter of the exhibit displays the works of twenty-five contemporary artists who contributed works offering their reflections on how leaders in the collection impacted their lives and art. The result is a very intimate experience.

If you go...

When and where: “Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth.” is on view through March 15, 2020, at the Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave. in Tacoma

Admission:  $14 per adult, $11 per student ages 6–17, ages 5 and under free; $40 family rate for two adults and up to four children under age 18. Military, foster care and Quest cardholder discounts available. Free admission every third Thursday from 3–8 p.m.

Upcoming events:

  • Monday, Jan. 20, 2020: Free admission for all on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
  • Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020: Local Men of Courage Awards
  • Check website for additional, to-be-announced programming funded by the Ford Motor Company Fund.

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