Museum of Boulder exhibit brings the past into today through art, oral history, and more
What’s in a name?
Proclaiming Colorado’s Black History is the Museum of Boulder’s latest exhibit that tells the story of Black Coloradoans from 1864 up through today. Although much has been made of the fact that Boulder is just over 1% Black, representation matters deeply to every single person. Being able to see yourself, and to experience in some way the stories not typically told in textbooks, can only enhance the story of how Colorado came to be.
The exhibit’s mission starts with the name: Proclaiming.
“We made the decision early on that we weren’t going to be about ‘revealing Colorado’s black history’ or ‘reconstructing’ it, but rather proclaiming it, announcing with pride. We saw our role as shining a light and perhaps also amplifying the voices… it really is about expanding the reach of stories that are already deeply a part of the state’s history,” Adam Bradley, NY Times writer, and professor at UCLA and CU Boulder touched on the power of the name. Bradley was a speaker at the exhibit’s opening.
One misconception is that Black history in Colorado had somehow been lost, or never recorded in the first place. Although not necessarily written down, the legacy and impact of early Coloradoans still resonates to this day.
“The first name that we came up with was reclaiming Colorado’s black history. But it was like, No, there’s nothing to reclaim. We have been here and we have been contributing. Let’s proclaim it. Let’s say where we have been and where we are going,” Katrina Miller, director of This Is [Not] Who We Are and exhibit contributor, shared.
Miller shared that the stories of Black experiences in Colorado were abundant if you know who to ask. Sharing that narrative with a broader audience is one of Proclaiming Colorado’s Black History’s main goals.
“We wanted to really look at Boulder through that lens instead of, you know, just the typical stories that you hear out of Boulder of white experiences. Generally, you don’t hear much outside of that unless it’s a Black museum specifically or we’re celebrating a holiday like Black History Month,” Miller expanded.
One of the most important aspects of not only this exhibit but of ethnographic work everywhere is the collection and recording of oral history. There is much more power and preserved knowledge passed down by the spoken word than many researchers have historically thought.
Oral history can inform us about identity far beyond learning about individuals in the past. “The way toward unity is often surprisingly through recognizing the individuality of our stories and the fact that individuality can stand in for the collective. Stories of individual black Americans, individual Black Coloradans, also tell the story of all Coloradans. To me, that’s the fundamental insight, not only how oral history functions, but how this exhibit functions more broadly,” Bradley expanded.
He continued, “Proclaiming Colorado’s Black History is not only for Black people. In fact, it tells us that whatever else the true Coloradoan is, they are also somehow Black.”
As for the exhibit itself, there are many narratives to follow and pieces to take in. From the very first Black Coloradoan to a lavish Black resort town in the mountains, all the way to the trash-grabber Zayd Atkinson was holding when accosted by police, the stories weave a strong and important narrative.
“The art that I present was about darkness consuming light, and about the joy you bring into the room that changes that. The enlightenment of seeing something from a different perspective,” Lafayette artist Adderly Grant-Lord shared the inspiration for her paintings in the exhibit.
“A big part of what drew me in was a wonderful cross-section of individuals across generations. And areas of discipline, the different professions involved,” Bradley also stated.
An important part of learning Black stories and experiences — both in the past and today — is educating yourself, and not just relying on Black people you know to share with you. Expecting people in their respective communities to explain their trauma can itself be traumatizing. An exhibit like this one helps people who want to put in the work learn more about Black experiences in Colorado by sharing stories not always heard.
“I came to realize that from a Black perspective, I know a lot of my community says we don’t want to be the teacher of our own history to you,” Grant-Lord shared her sentiments.
“I’m trying to give you my struggle and my pain… You could give empathy, but you could never actually feel what I feel. I came to the realization I can’t keep explaining myself, because it’s like trying to explain to a lover or somebody that broke your heart, how it feels and how terrible and how much of a dark place that it put you,” Grant-Lord opened up.
“I think the story of black Americans in Colorado and beyond is one that is a call to not romanticize the past but rather to engage the past in the present to achieve a better future. That’s what we need particularly in a moment in which the seductive nature of a certain narrow myth of what America’s past was is a part of our contemporary political atmosphere. Nostalgia, in fact, has been weaponized to divide when, in fact, there are other alternatives and other uses for the past that can be uniting,” Bradley explained the relevance of studying history.
Somebody else’s paradise
Seeing yourself represented in history can help connect you to a place. Boulder, although mostly white, should be a place for everyone to feel accepted and at home. However, when it comes to issues of race, Boulder is not always as progressive as some think.
“In my experience living there is in some ways a paradise… although it can feel at times like somebody else’s paradise for those of us who aren’t white,” Bradley expanded.
Taking steps towards inclusion and representation in BOCO and surrounding areas is no small act. “It’s not a part-time job. It’s a full-time job,” Grant-Lord emphasized.
“This exhibit is important to have in Boulder because our voice has not been visible for so long,” Miller replied.
“Boulder is a very rare and special place in this country. Yet it’s not always as self-reflective as it could be. And this is a way that this exhibit demands that it demands it because it demands us to see those who live in Boulder and Colorado more broadly,” Bradley said.
“The fact that the community is 1% African American, and to get to be seen, heard and understood in the community. I think it meant the world to us to have our story being told.,” Grant-Lord shared.
The past is not just the past
Proclaiming Colorado’s Black History’s continuous narrative, not just artifacts from the past, helps bring the experiences into direct relevance.
“That sense of a living history is throughout, I think committing to understanding history is not some static thing, but rather is always dynamic, always changing, because we’re always changing in our relationship to the past,” Bradley explained.
“You cannot go forward if you don’t acknowledge where you’ve been, and in order for you to go some way better than where you’ve been, you have to acknowledge the path you took to get there, and how it allows you to change, [to] walk forward,” Grant-Lord advised.
This exhibit may be bringing about additional awareness and education, but as racial equity in Boulder and beyond, “I don’t even know how to call it progress. I think they are eye-openers… But I tend to wonder how fast do we fall back asleep?” Grant-Lord stated.
As for the duality of being known as a progressive area in a Blue state, Bradley shared that “Certainly when it comes to Colorado, which is in many ways the leader in the nation on a number of recent political and social issues, is deeply flawed, and was implicated in a lot of great harms that the nation has exercised against its own people. Bradley pointed out the long path Colorado has walked from the Sand Creek massacre that sparked the genocide of indigenous people to today being a leader in many inclusive social movements. “So the fact that those two can and do coexist, is actually a source of hope. Not a blind optimism, but hope that can change things,” he told us.
“Hopefully this exhibit will help spark some dialogue that really needs to happen,” Miller shared. “It’s a really exciting time to be here right now where it feels like more of our voices are being heard and upheld.”