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Media as history at the Newseumdon’t bother. Inflated First Amendment claims wipe away class struggles, or at least keep them concealed under the rhetoric of free expression. Take “African-American Newsmakers, Newspeople,” a current show on blacks in the news business, an almost purely white profession with few practitioners falling below middle-class comfort.
Sure, there are some interesting artifacts, such as a 1789 print of a slave ship’s hull. There are also letters by writers Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. But read the one by Hughes, whom the Newseum labels “one of the most prolific writers of the Harlem Renaissance”:
“My memories of Sinclair Lewis are, I’m afraid, rather scanty, since I believe I met him only twice.”
Apparently, somebody wrote Hughes to ask about Lewis. The two had dinner once. Another time, they talked on a train, though Hughes couldn’t recall about what. With recollections so slight, Hughes stated that he would rather talk about Lewis over the phone. “It would be easier for me than trying to write it out,” penned Hughes, unaware that the Newseum would inject historic significance into his throwaway words about another writer.
Along the 20th-century news wall, you find Muhammad Ali twiceexcept here, he’s Cassius Clay, the man before his Muslim conversion, before he condemned the Vietnam War as racist genocide.
Ali’s anger isn’t on display. You also have to search hard for any real evidence of slavery’s legacy and the long centuries of North American racism, black dread, and paranoia. They surface from the depths of a 1964 letter by Malcolm X: “I have been a target so long,” he wrote, “it’s almost part of my nature now to take no one (and no thing) for granted, and this keeps me pretty much on guard.”
But wait! There’s the Black Panther, house organ of the radical ’60s group. Pictures of party leaders Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and other notables leap from the cover, which also features a raised fist clenched in a Black Power salute. “BPP Publishes Mission Statement,” it reads. The Newseum doesn’t reprint the mission statement. And, perhaps for similar reasons, it entirely ignores Paul RobesonHollywood actor, singer, and political activist. Besides being black, Robeson was an outspoken socialist and was hounded by his government for advancing the First Amendment’s promise.Brian Giuffre