Stay in the Loop
BSR publishes on a weekly schedule, with an email newsletter every Wednesday and Thursday morning. There’s no paywall, and subscribing is always free.
On Friday, June 16, the Museum of the American Revolution (MoAR) hosted the premiere of a new WHYY film: Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia. Meanwhile, a crowd of more than 50 people outside (organized by Act Up Philadelphia) protested the museum’s Thursday, June 29, date with Moms for Liberty (M4L), a far-right anti-government group holding its national summit in Philly later this month. In his opening remarks inside, MoAR president and CEO R. Scott Stephenson alluded to the protestors without naming M4L or the real reason the community is upset.
“Diversity and inclusion [are] in the DNA of this museum,” Stephenson began, noting proudly that in 2017, it garnered positive editorials from both Philadelphia Gay News and famously conservative commentator George Will. But Will (who disavowed Donald Trump in 2016) is not representative of the divide facing America now or the metastasis of groups like M4L.
“We view it as our job to do that hard work of meeting them where they are,” Stephenson said of the museum’s mission to welcome everyone. It’s not the museum’s place to convert prejudiced people, he added. Instead, the museum must “very patiently and respectfully meet them, and then figure out where they are.” Because he believes prejudice is born of fear, which is born of “misperceptions”; information is the cure.
But if that was an effective way to handle injustice, Stephenson would be the CEO of the Museum of the American Dialogue with the British that Led Gradually to Liberation.
It doesn’t have quite the same ring.
The “polarization” principle
Stephenson claimed, “In these polarizing times, we feel that democracy depends on dialogue, because when dialogue stops, the people who say it’s time for us to separate into red states and blue states and arm up” have won.
It’s a common American rhetorical sleight. The problem is polarization, not that a shrinking (but extremely loud) slice of the US population has reduced its “politics” to denying science, erasing Black history, and banishing LGBTQ+ people from public life. Instead of championing diplomacy with racist secessionists (how well did that work in the 1860s?), let’s defend queer and trans people, and Black people, and disabled people, and Jewish people, and immigrants, and everyone who has been the target of hatred from groups like M4L.
Watch out for claims that polarization is our biggest social evil, or that (for example) trans people and anti-LGBTQ+ activists like M4L have an equal responsibility for dialogue. That’s just another way of telling people to behave themselves in the face of rank oppression. To tirelessly educate the people who hate them. To politely ask for justice.
Instead of tut-tutting progressive protestors and trying to gallantly nudge the likes of M4L into a slightly more humane worldview, let’s make sure that everywhere M4L looks, we are standing up for the people they want to obliterate.
The Forten legacy
After the Black Founders film screening, producer Karen Smyles moderated a panel featuring historic preservationist and Forten descendant Dolly Marshall, MoAR curator of exhibitions Matthew Skic, MoAR African American interpretive fellow Michael Idriss, and Arthur Sudler, director of the Historical Society & Archives at African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.
They all emphasized the importance of stories like the Fortens’, which Marshall called “a deep, urgent need” in our cultural landscape. One visibly emotional genealogist in attendance shared that her ancestor was helped out of slavery by James Forten’s son-in-law, Robert Purvis, who was a lifelong stalwart among Forten family activists. These are not mere history lessons. They are a vital living legacy.
Juneteenth, inside and out
During the Q&A, Sudler came the closest to directly acknowledging M4L, saying that the protest outside “has to do with a group that actually has an agenda which is antithetical to telling the very story that this exhibit tells.”
He noted that James Forten was a member of St. Thomas when, in 1808, congregants celebrated the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade with a “thanksgiving sermon” by Absalom Jones. But those worshippers knew the end of the transatlantic trade did not mean the end of enslavement on American soil, and that there was more work to do. “In the ensuing years I know Forten would have helped plan those events,” Sudler said, drawing a “direct line” to today’s Juneteenth observance.
The right of the people outside to assemble and protest is just as important as the work happening inside the museum, he said, and it all connects to the celebration of Juneteenth.
Don’t be fooled
Anyone planning to join Act Up’s protest at MoAR on June 29 at 6pm (an hour before M4L will arrive) should not be fooled by Stephenson’s implication that hosting a M4L shindig aligns with an inclusive mission.
“If there are people who exist out in the world whose views we feel are narrow, bigoted, prejudiced,” he said, the most important thing we can do is introduce them to people like the Forten family: “We have to make sure that that is available to the broadest possible public.”
He’s right. The Fortens exhibition is excellent. Everyone should go. No one is claiming that M4L members should be barred from getting tickets. The real issue is that M4L is renting MoAR for its welcome party (was the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center booked?), before it heads to workshops on spreading discrimination through school boards and legislatures—and, as reported by PGN, targeting Pride events at Free Library branches.
“Moms for Liberty is working tirelessly to erase queer and Black voices from books and public schools while advocating for racist and anti-LGBTQ+ policies,” says a leaflet Act Up protestors handed to Black Founders screening attendees, on why they are “disappointed” that MoAR is “hosting a hate group.”
If MoAR leaders really think M4L members are open to learning Black history, they could have promoted the exhibition to summit attendees, offering a ticket discount or a dedicated tour. Or if museum leaders care about the community’s concerns despite accepting this booking, they could donate the rental fee to a local group advancing racial and LGBTQ+ justice, and let M4L know where its dollars are going.
Sign up for our newsletter
All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.