‘Believe the Hype’ Column by Christine Stoddard: Black History Month & African Art Museums

By Christine Stoddard | [email protected]

It is February, which means it is Black History Month, and in Brooklyn of all places, that must be observed. On the website Brooklyn.org, run by the Brooklyn Community Foundation, bold text declares that the borough is home to the second-largest Black population in the United States. Who’s in first place? Chicago. And despite Atlanta having a higher percentage of Black folks (47.6 vs. 38. 8 percent, per Census.gov), Brooklyn has more Black residents than Atlanta and Detroit combined. Brooklyn’s Black population is more than 730,000 people, which is bigger than the entire population of Washington, D.C. How does this compare to the national percentage of Black people? 13.6 percent of the U.S. population self-identifies as Black. Stats—they’re fascinating!

Bedstuyfly

There’s a clothing shop called Bedstuyfly (styled like that, all as one word) that opened when Ralph Ave. was my C stop. It has a second location that I have come to know on Fulton St., closer to the Kingston-Throop stop on the C. The flashy designs, with bright colors and memorable slogans celebrating Brooklyn and Blackness caught my attention from first glance. The style seems to be Hip-Hop Meets Hipster and, when in doubt there’s the aesthetic choice of “put a pigeon on it” à la Portlandia’s “put a bird on it.” One ball cap that especially stands out bears the words “There should be more Black billionaires.”

Side note: If you are curious about which African-American entrepreneurs, athletes, and entertainers are billionaires, don’t worry, I found you the answer: Tyler Perry, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Tope Awotona, Alexander Karp, Michael Jordan, Jay-Z, Oprah Winfrey, David Steward, and Robert F. Smith. Notice that I specified African-American, not African or Black more broadly.

Black Billionaires

One argument for why there are not more Black billionaires is colonialism and its lasting legacy. The notion of “post” in the pop academic term “post-colonialism” is false if disparities based on race and ethnicity, steeped in colonial hierarchies, still exist. The challenge is, how can Black people build wealth if they are still coping with such socio-economic inequity?

Museums’ Reckoning

When you think of colonialism, it’s natural to turn your mind to museums. Right now museums are undergoing a major reckoning. The Biden administration changed the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGRPA), making it so that museums must have consent to display items from Indigenous cultures. This has meant a big upheaval at the American Museum of Natural History, where the admissions of guilt flooded a letter from President Sean Decatur to his museum staff. This letter is publicly available on the AMNH website. In it, the president of the museum admitted that the institution holds remains from five enslaved African-Americans. Their bodies had been extracted from a burial ground in Inwood during a city road construction project in 1903-1904.

In the letter, Decatur writes, “Enslavement was a violent, dehumanizing act; removing these remains from their rightful burial place ensured that the denial of basic human dignity would continue even in death. Identifying a restorative, respectful action in consultation with local communities must be part of our commitment.” You can say that again!

Cultural Museum of African Art

One museum that has piqued my curiosity, though not yet my attendance, is the Cultural Museum of African Art. You will find it in Bedford-Stuyvesant at 1360 Fulton St., 2nd floor. You probably know this shopping complex, which is home to Restoration Plaza, for its Applebee’s and the post office. In 1971, a Brooklynite named Eric Edwards purchased a maternity female statue of Senufo-Bambara origin from Mali; the rest, as they say, was history. I’m skipping a few steps to fast-forward to 2023: Edwards eventually curated more than 3,000 artifacts from all 54 countries of Africa. The museum, which opened in February of last year, houses his collection spanning 4,000 years. The opening was scheduled to coincide with Black History Month. Now you can visit Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 5:30pm.

Museum of African Art & World Cultures

Being a journalist makes me a naturally inquisitive and observant person, and these qualities have only been strengthened through training and experience. Every time I walk out the door, there is potential for a new discovery. On Bedford Avenue, on the Bed-Stuy/Clinton Hill border, perhaps you, too, have noticed the banner that reads “COMING SOON! Museum of African Art & World Cultures.” You will see it between Madison St. and Putnam Ave.

Now, running errands this past week, the banner caught my eye mainly because I have only recently started sojourning to that area regularly again but also because it was bright white on a gray day. It triggered a memory: a smaller museum called the Bedford Stuyvesant Museum of African Art (BSMAA) from years ago. I had these nagging questions. When was that? Where had this museum been exactly? Was it in this same spot or farther east? The pandemic has blurred my sense of time and place. Besides, I have to be honest: I never stepped inside of that museum.

So I did some Googling. It turns out that the Bedford Stuyvesant Museum of African Art shut down due the pandemic, unsurprisingly, but it did not do so permanently. It has been renamed the Museum of African Art & World Cultures. The address–for when that reopening eventually comes–is 1157 Bedford Ave., Suite 2.

On Oct. 15, 2023, user @path_1873 posted a comment on the museum’s last Instagram post: “Is this museum permanently closed?” So I know I am not the only one who was wondering about it. The Instagram account is called @bedstuymaa, so it has not been updated to reflect the museum’s new name. Maybe that will change. The current account does not have a particularly large following: 474 followers as of Jan. 28, 2024. For comparison, @queensledger, the account for the Queens Ledger, the flagship newspaper of BQE media group, which owns the Brooklyn Star and other hyperlocal titles, has 6.8K followers. (Meanwhile, @brooklynstarweekly has a lowly 525 followers. Trust me, we are working on it! Just started this job.) If you think I’m getting hung up on numbers this column, I really am not. It is important to measure and compare things from time to time. Looking at numbers makes that possible. With the museum’s 474 followers, it may be possible to start fresh without too much hassle.

I have reached out to the Museum of African Art & World Cultures via email and made phone calls to both numbers listed on the website (office and cell) to no avail. Do you have intel? Let me know: [email protected]. I am eager for updates, as I am sure the community is, too.