Last summer I drove through the delta from Searcy, Arkansas to Pine Bluff, Arkansas. It’s a pleasant drive. The land is mostly farmland, dedicated to cotton, soybeans, and rice. The delta is an area of rich soils, plentiful water, and productive farms. Arkansas is the largest producer of rice in the country. Rice fields are particularly beautiful. The rice is a vivid green, planted in sinuous curves, and the fields are often flooded, the water reflecting sky and earth.
I passed through the tiny town of Des Arc, and spotted the Lower White River Museum State Park. The museum is in an unassuming tan metal building, only a few years old. It is spotlessly clean and little worn. There was a young woman in uniform, serving the state as museum staff. She told me that she grew up in Northeast Arkansas, near the Black River, a tributary of the White, and we chatted briefly about the exhibits. The few artifacts were largely quotidian, related to life near the river, but there were a lot of photographs, including many of riverboats, evocative of the era of Mark Twain. Exhibits highlighted the fishing, inland shipping, and mussel harvesting by which many subsisted off of the river in the past. The mussels were made into buttons. I discovered the origin of some odd mussel shells with holes drilled out of them that my father had owned. And there were works of contemporary art related to the river. It was a pleasant enough thirty minutes.
As I drove away, one thing bothered me. Look at the diorama below.
You are looking at the only purposeful mention or depiction of African-Americans in the entire museum. The only thing clearly communicated by this mannequin is his inferior status. Poorly dressed compared to his white companions. Seated on a barrel looking up deferentially at the riverboat captain, while the white surveyor surveys and the white lady does whatever the exhibitor thought white ladies did by the side of the river.
Kids come into this museum, with their parents or with school groups. Kids of all races. As an educator, and a person who once worked in a history museum, it bothers me that there are no exhibits or words about the Arkansas African-Americans who played an important role in the history of the Lower White River. As they still do.
I wish I had thought to ask the young woman what her take on the exhibit was, and why there wasn’t more about African-Americans. But, I didn’t. It troubles me that a state museum would completely avoid the issue of race in Arkansas’s history but it doesn’t surprise me. If you’re the museum staff, it’s safer to avoid sticking your neck out. Often visitors come to museums to feel nostalgia. Museum staff don’t want to kill the nostalgia buzz. Those kids who come into the museum are going to learn a bit about Arkansas’s history. But the issue of racism, a problem that still holds us back nearly 200 years after we became a state, well, that’s just too tough.
I’ll leave you with an admittedly preachy quote from a writer my father was fond of, George Santayana:
“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”