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Provocative ‘Testify’ exhibit advances essential learning and healing processes

The following commentary is excerpted from remarks given at the opening reception  on Jan. 11 for “Testify”: Americana, Slavery to Today, a free exhibit from the Diane and Alan Page Collection. It will be open through Feb. 6 at Cargill Hall in the Minneapolis Central Library 

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin
County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin

Public libraries are meant to provoke, meant to open minds, meant ultimately to change how we live. This exhibit, “Testify,” in this library, Minneapolis Central, does just that. 

It does so because of the vision and generosity of Diane and Alan Page, who have done many fabulous things for and with our community. Diane’s work for the Page Education Foundation, which has helped Minnesota students of color achieve their educational goals for 29 years, benefits Minnesota each and every day.        

And Alan has made us better in oh so many ways: his football work as a Minnesota Viking thrilled the state; his tenacity in finishing his law degree while playing football is an example to us all; and his judicial work as a member of the Minnesota Supreme Court provided wisdom and insight sorely needed at the highest level of the judicial system here in Minnesota.

And now “Testify.” All of us have a responsibility to repay what Dr. Martin Luther King  Jr. called “America’s promissory note,” entered into at our founding and memorialized in our founding documents. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. “

While the Founders may have deemed this claim to be self-evident, in reality for millions of African-Americans, it most certainly was not. 

This is a conversation that must occur today and every day. The need did not go away with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in the mid-1960s. It did not go away with the election of an African-American president. The need lives on.

Diane and Alan, and their daughter Georgi, whom I met yesterday as she put the final touches on this exhibit, have stepped up and assumed the responsibility of placing these difficult issues before us in a provocative way. 

  • The brutal eloquence of the two tiny metal signs, one on top of the other, one pointing in red lettering for Whites and the other, in the opposite direction, for Colored.
  • The now seemingly incongruous official notice here in the land of Prince and Jimmy Jam reading: “STOP. Help Save the Youth of America. DON’T BUY NEGRO RECORDS.”
  • The sign whose echoes we hear today in the various voter suppression efforts, reading, in big print: “BE A REAL CITIZEN! Renew your Driver’s License; Pay your Poll Tax.  Join the U.S. Klans Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”
  • And the haunting list of the “goods and chattel” of the late Mr. Jabez B. Bell, a list containing chairs, tables, washstands, basins, beds, bedding and books.  A list of everyday items we find in our own lives.  And then at the very bottom, the names of nines slaves, their sex, their age and, most jarringly, their dollar value.                
  • On the hopeful and celebratory side the exhibit includes William Carter’s “Jazz Musicians,” celebrating this truly American art form, and Jacob Lawrence’s 1972 Munich Olympic poster, Olympics held in the same country as Jesse Owen’s great athletic triumph achieved with Hitler looking on.

Every child in Hennepin County should see this exhibit.  I plan to bring my 11-year-old in the coming days. 

And so, I ask you to join me in thanking Diane and Alan Page for bringing this provocative exhibit to our eyes and to our hearts, to advance the learning and healing processes that are essential to our ongoing repayment of our ancient promissory note. It’s time to Testify!

Peter McLaughlin is a Hennepin County commissioner.

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