Elevating NMAAHC into the Stream of Black Cool

Yesterday’s New York Times piece on the reemergence of new museums and cultural centers showcasing the historical achievements of African Americans and their battle for civil rights caused me to flashback to an interesting period in my professional career and I hope what I’m about to write is never held against me by a hiring committee.

I was in a junior public relations position and my director at the time was actually a cool guy – intelligent, quick witted, a great task manager, and not too cranky after three cups of coffee sans any cream or sugar. However, without any initiation from me, he had an uncanny habit of routinely comparing the past plight of African Americans to that of his Jewish ancestors.

My cube was adjacent to his office and he started a conversation on this topic at least once a month. Over the course of thirty plus months, this amounted to one time too many.  I was young enough to be his child (possibly even his grandchild), the conversations were emotionally uncomfortable and endless discussion on the impact of Black slavery versus the Holocaust wasn’t helping me learn any new professional skills other than workplace tolerance.

Without getting into the exact dialogue of our conversations, I’ll just say they typically ended with he and I saying the following, respectively: “I can’t believe you’ve never been to the Holocaust Museum. You really should visit it.” — “I will. As soon as a national museum honoring the history and achievements of African Americans is built in Washington in a similar fashion.” We would then proceed to roll our eyes at each other and continue tip tapping away at our computers.

Fast forward a number of years later and that museum I dreamed of is actually being built on The National Mall and I couldn’t be more overjoyed. In fact, the National Museum of African American History and Cultural’s official groundbreaking will commence less twenty-four hours from now with President Barack Obama delivering remarks, but sadly I see one wrinkle.

At a recent book signing and discussion of Rebecca Walker’s Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, there was a constant reiteration of the unmatched ability African Americans have to remix the ordinary and make it cool, and their dominant presence, participation and influence on Twitter.

However, if one were to take a page from my former director and compare the Twitter following of @NMAAHC to the number of amassed by @HolocaustMuseum – 3,784  to 107,377 – the institution deemed with having the greatest social media influence would be the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In terms of Facebook, the number of likes are a little less contrasting with 12,883 for NMAAHC and 34,406 for the Holocaust Museum.

To be fair, NMAAHC started tweeting on May 1, 2009 and although it’s been hosting an impressive number of exhibits and events over the last few years at fellow Smithsonian properties in Washington and other cultural institutions across the country, its actual building won’t be completed until 2015. The Holocaust Museum has been tweeting since August 28, 2007 and next year will mark its twentieth anniversary, so the museum has had a lot more to tweet about and more time to do so.

In Rebecca Walker’s intro to Black Cool, she decodes the cool factor of a popular photo showing President Obama emerging from a black sedan. Walker deems the photo Black Cool and concludes that “it is made up of elements that can be traced back to a place, a people and a culture…”

These are definitely elements that are embodied by the idea of NMAAHC and its very creation is undeniably cool, but its social media presence needs to be remixed a little to get it to black cool. So how can the tremendous presence African Americans have on Twitter correlate into social media success for NMAAHC? Here are a few ideas:

  • Follow @NMAAHC & Live Tweet: Tomorrow’s groundbreaking event for NMAAHC is not open to the general public, but will be live streamed over the web starting at 10 a.m. ET. If you can, follow @NMAAHC, watch the ceremony online, and live tweet using the #groundbreaking2012 hashtag, and encourage others to do the same. There’s no reason so many us can live tweet a reality show, a celebrity’s funeral service, a professional or collegiate sports game and not do the same for a new Smithsonian institution dedicated to our ancestors.
  • Twitter Trending Topics: Today’s US trending topics on Twitter include Madri Gras, #AndYouWonderWhyYouAreSingle, and Rihanna and Chris Brown. For tomorrow, let’s help make NMAAHC, Smithsonian and #groundbreaking2012 part of this list. Here are some resources to get you started:
  • Post Photos & Videos of NMAAHC’s Construction: Social media enthusiasts can be very enterprising when they’re passionate about a cause (e.g. education, free speech, the digital divide, the development of DC’s Southwest Waterfront, and even, social media). I hope there are a few local residents that will take on NMAAHC’s success as a passion and over the next three years, post numerous photos and videos of the building’s development to their Flickr and YouTube pages to get folks outside the Beltway equally passionate about its success.

According to Walker and the other esteemed writers of her black cool homage, there are one thousand streams of blackness. Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites are not the sole avenues to increase NMAAHC’s black cool quotient, but they are essential tools. Let’s help bring all of these thousand streams together to elevate NMAAHC’s social media reach – starting tomorrow and beyond.

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The MLK Jr. National Memorial’s Bookstore: If You Build It, Will They Come?

Child at The MLK Jr. National Memorial’s Bookstore

Seven different conversations with seven different friends: What are you doing this weekend?

Me: Thinking about stopping by the bookstore of the MLK Jr. National Memorial?

All seven friends who asked: The MLK Memorial has a bookstore?!

Me: Uh. Yeah. It’s located next to the Memorial. Directly across the street. 

Their Response: I had no idea. 

The Unfortunate Point: Four friends had visited the Memorial and completely missed the store. The other three had not visited the monument as of yet and had no clue the store existed. 

Much has been said about the newest addition to the National Mall’s tribute to a great American leader and hero – from the now removed wall inscription that took one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quotes out of context to the statue’s likeness of King not being a more accurate likeness of King.

And while the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial is not the first National Park Service (NPS) site to receive a wave of criticism for its design and inscriptions – the World War II Memorial, the Franklin Delano Memorial, and Vietnam Memorial are all members of this club – it’s one of a small number of the National Mall-Tidal Basin properties to have a dedicated standalone bookstore.

The Lincoln Memorial has a bookstore inside its walls, but it’s small enough to fit in the palm of Lincoln’s hand. The statue of Lincoln, not the actual man.

With that being said, along with the conversations I had on seven different occasions this past week, I wondered why more attention has not been paid to bookstore of the the first National Mall property to be dedicated to an African American. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Ambiguous Architecture: Perhaps it’s because the building is so nondescript. At first glance, the store’s bland metal exterior makes it look like storage or work space for the Park Service staff dedicated to maintaining the Memorial’s pristine grounds. And while its large windows should make it easy for passersby to see the inside the store, its location always seems to have a sun glare that reflects the outside of the store more so the inside.
  • Banished Branding: The building lacks actual signage – permanent or temporary – designating it as the official bookstore of the The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. Not even one of these saying “Get Ya MLK Jr Books Here”.

However, for anyone who is lucky enough to actually go inside store, they’ll be greeted with an array of close to 400 books, DVDs, posters and other items that communicate the direct words of Martin Luther King Jr., explore his life’s work or emulate his teachings of nonviolence, social justice and racial equality. The books range from King’s Strength to Love and Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?  to The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas and elementary educational materials on the civil rights movement like This Is the Dream

When I visited the bookstore on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it was of course crowded and I was overjoyed by the number of adults and children browsing and buying books  – here’s a link to the photos I took of the store – but I worried what would be become of the store’s foot traffic after this holiday weekend.

Yes, the store is operated by the same independent contractor that manages all the National Park Service bookstores, but the Memorial’s NPS Web page still lacks information about its exact location and hours, and the foundation dedicated to the Memorial’s creation and funding merely lists information about contributing to the store’s donor wall on its Web site – nothing about the store’s vast inventory of books and other items for sale.

Memorial visitors who miss a chance to join one of the NPS Ranger talks that are started outside the bookstore, might also miss an opportunity to become aware of the store’s existence and actually visit it. Visiting the Memorial is great, but reading and learning about King, and understanding his words and lifestyle is more memorable. More should be done to promote the store.

  • Signage: Adding a sign or banner that’s either affixed to the building’s roof or side exterior, and clearly identifies it as the Memorial’s bookstore, will give it more prominence. If that’s not possible for logistical or economical reasons, a simple sidewalk sign noting the store’s existence and hours will also increase the store’s visibility. To draw in children and families, add some balloons.
  • Literary Support: Authors releasing new books that explore the historical contributions of minorities, analyze the teachings of social and civil activists, or promote a free and just society should make the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial bookstore a preeminent stop on their tours, talks and book signings.

If you build it, they might come, but any bookstore worth patronizing needs a genuine spotlight shone on its existence – not just the Memorial across the street. The bookstore should serve as complement to the Memorial, not an aside. 

I Love You, Jon Stewart. You Bookworm You.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Not sure which joke in the above interview is better – the one about “The Help” or the references to the founding fathers’ penchant for enslaved labor. 

Among the cast of late night television show hosts, very, very few include much substance in their daily shtick other than Charlie Rose, Stephen Colbert, and Colbert’s comical kindred spirit, Jon Stewart.

In addition to stalking Amazon.com, GoodReads.com, and my local library for literary recommendations, I have come to rely on Jon Stewart’s consistent guest list of award-winning writers, historians and biographers to keep my handbags well stuffed with new books – despite the expert judgement of Dr. Oz.

This week, Stewart interviewed author Elizabeth Dowling Taylor about her new book – “A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons” – which tells the story of Paul Jennings, a slave of President James Madison who was  forced to purchase his own freedom and, as well as the freedom of his children, following the deaths of President Madison and his wife, Dolley Madison.

I’m adding this book to my early 2012 reading list and also hope to catch Taylor discuss her latest work at Washington, DC’s literary haunt, Politics & Prose, on Sunday, January 29 at 5pm ET.

Another great recommendation from my favorite late night bookworm. Thanks, Jon!

Enter the 2012 DCist Exposed Photography Show… Everyone’s Doing It!

2011 DC Tweed Ride

Do I have a four-figure priced DSLR camera? No.

Do I even have one of those mildly-priced, ultracool Nikon Coolpix that Ashton Kutcher sports with seductive eyes during every commercial break? Uh. No.

Despite this, I’ve managed to take a few fairly nice photos this year using borrowed cameras from friends and a few Sprint smartphone devices. Managing public relations for the company allows me to test out new products so I can become proficient enough on their stellar photo and video capabilities and of course, show them off to potential and current Sprint customers.

After taking stock of my small photo collection from this year, I’ve decided to submit a few pics into selection pool of the 2012 DCist Exposed Photography Show. Hoping the entry above becomes a serious contender, along with this one and this one.

My coworker, John Taylor, is also throwing his hat into the ring. This is my favorite of his three entries.

If you have some great 2011 Washington, D.C. area photos that you think are worthy of the 2012 DCist Exposed Photography Show, I encourage you to submit them today… or next week. The submission deadline is 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday, January 11, 2012.

Make sure to read and follow the rules carefully. I’ll make sure to keep my fingers crossed for you.

My Absolutely Charming Encounter With Harry Belafonte

Signed copy of Harry Belafonte’s “My Song”

Having one’s heart heavily set on meeting the most dynamic and ground breaking African American actor, humanitarian, civil rights revolutionary, and political activist in history is hard to bear when that hope is dashed in mere seconds.

Arriving to the original Busboys & Poets in Washington, D.C. a little over thirty minutes before Harry Belafonte’s appearance proved pointless and frankly, dumb. Plans to get there over an hour prior with one of my gal pals crashed and burned with a last-mintue arts and crafts run to Michael’s (I’m making a jewelry box for one of my mentee’s Christmas gifts).

The line outside the esteemed restaurant slash cultural hub was more than 100-plus individuals long. Couple that with a blustery overcast, forty-three degree temperature, and an already packed establishment, Dominique, I and another friend who was circling for a parking space quickly bailed on the idea of hearing Harry Belafonte’s sage wisdom up close and personal.

Dominique and I retired our plans directly across the street to Eatonville (also owned by Busboys’ founder Andy Shallal) in an effort to eat, drown our disappointments in a fancy libation mix, wait until Belafonte’s talk was over and at least try to get our books signed. Luckily, we were smart enough to purchase copies of My Song: A Memoir at Busboys the day prior.

This is when fate decided to enter into the picture and take pity on us. Crap. Perhaps it was a Christmas miracle. 

Upon being granted instant seating, my gal pal quickly declined two table options that were offered to us – one was too tight and the other too close to the front door.

The hostess then graciously gave us a table on the opposite end of the restaurant and near its open kitchen. Thankfully, my friend was pleased. Feeling so dejected about missing the event, I, honestly, was fine with the first table we were offered.

Well, shame on me for not being the picky diner, because mere moments after she drops her bag at our table and heads to bathroom, Harry Belafonte walks by Dominique’s chair on his way back from the bathroom.

After sitting in shock for a few seconds, gripping the table to the point of almost getting splinters and crying inside for Dominique to return quickly, I thought that this might be our one and only chance to meet him and get our books signed.

Dominique returns, I tell her Belafonte is about four tables to our right and we decide to catch him at the door before he and his entourage walked across the street for the event.

About eight minutes passed before we made our move to the door. Belafonte enters the doorway with the help of his son, smiles at us, says hi, sees my book and happily signs my copy, along with Dominique’s. We must have repeated “thank you, Mr. Belafonte” at least six times.

Next comes the most charming thing to happen to me in my lifetime. Before departing, Belafonte gives me a long and slow look over, looks directly into my eyes and says “I love the hair”. 

I gasped, smiled uncontrollably, covered my mouth and blushed. Any chance of me EVER changing my current hairstyle died today. 

P.S. If you don’t know Harry Belafonte’s story, haven’t purchased his book yet, but subscribe to HBO, please try to watch “Sing Your Song”. It’s a really great cinematic look at his life, work and passions. 

Harry Belafonte’s “My Song”

Visiting the White House: Ten Years Later

The White House South Court Auditorium

Exactly one week ago, a native New Yorker who’s resided in the Washington, D.C. metro area since 2002 took her first official trip to the White House.

Yes. I’ve lived no more than eight miles from 1600 Pennsylvania for the past ten years, and have even done numerous marathon training runs past the building, but had never actually been inside its marbled and columned walls until now.

Luckily, this was no ordinary visit. Thanks to the amazing work of Kori Schulman, I joined over a hundred lucky other attendees from across the country for the 2011 White House Holiday Tweetup.

In addition to the fabulous photos I snapped of the tweetup event and the White House Holiday Tour, here are the top five things I learned from the White House senior staffers who gave us a very engaging presentation and thoughtful discussion:

  1. The lovely illustrations in the White House 2011 Holiday Guide Book were created by students of Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran College of Art & Design. This school is actually located across the street from the White House and 2011 marks the second year Corcoran students have undertaken this project. 
  2. The White House online engagement and petition initiative – “We The People” – has had thirty petitions receive an official White House review and response. To attain this great distinction, a petition has to receive 25,000 signatures of support within thirty days of its creation. 
  3. According to White House Pastry Chef, Bill Yosses, President Obama’s favorite dessert is pie. So much so, that the President has nicknamed Yosses the “crust master” due to his astounding penchant for making the pie-filling accompaniment ever-so perfectly flaky and tasty.
  4. If you don’t plan to be bogged down with your own holiday planning next year and have a desire to help decorate the most famous house in the world, mark your calendar to apply for the White House Holiday Volunteers Program in March 2012. Information will be available on whitehouse.gov by that time and can also be accessed by calling the White House Office of Engagement. Volunteers are selected in September and October. I’m sure Michelle and Barack would love your assistance. 
  5. If you have a Twitter account and haven’t done so already, follow: Macon PhillipsJon Carson, Aneesh Chopra, and Joining Forces. You’re guaranteed to learn much more about the work of President Obama, Mrs. Obama and the White House’s four hundred employees if you do so today. 

Danielle Evans: A Literary Maven

Author Danielle Evans at Busboys & Poets

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a talk/booksigning by Danielle Evans, author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self at Busboys & Poets in Washington, D.C.

Got my weathered copy of the short story collection signed and picked up another for a friend. Definitely a must read for short fiction lovers and female readers who will connect to the coming-of-age theme that’s omnipresent in each piece.

The story I enjoyed the most in this beloved opus is actually one of the last and titled Robert E. Lee is Dead. In this particular piece, the teenage protagonist undergoes a time of self-discovery under the watchful eye of a new friend who is at times her polar opposite, her kindred spirit, her worst enemy and in the end, her ultimate hero.

My favorite line from Evans came when an attendee asked her about the difference between writing a novel and writing a short story: “My mother hates it when I say this, but it’s like being married versus having a one night stand. You can leave one for six months, come back, work on it and it will be okay. You can’t do that with a marriage, but you can do so with a novel.”

Her next work – a novel about DC charter school teacher who tries to introduce a progressive book into her school’s curriculum – should be out late 2012/early 2013.

Her favorite recent literary works – Edinburg: A NovelThis Is Not Your Cityand Pym: A Novel.

Catch a short video of her talk at: http://vimeo.com/33201422.

Copy of Danielle Evans' "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self"