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For much of my time in the U.S. Air Force, I was an invisible man. As a nuclear missile combat commander, I spent four years underground overseeing operations for dozens of intercontinental ballistic missile facilities. During many subterranean evenings, I would read works of literature, history, and political philosophy. My intellectual engagements helped me begin to reconcile my competing identities as a philosopher and missile operator, as a student of peace and an instrument of war, and as a Black man in a military uniform.
Following my missile assignment, I returned to my undergraduate alma mater, the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, as an instructor in the Department of English and Fine Arts. There I taught hundreds of future military leaders how they might seek intellectual fulfillment by reading a diverse array of authors, from Sophocles and Shakespeare to Richard Wright and Toni Morrison.
My favorite text to teach was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which featured an unnamed protagonist who had also formed his identity underground. I showed students how they could engage with Ellison’s novel as both literature and philosophy to help them reckon with fundamental questions about the nature of justice, the role of the state, and the meaning of freedom. In addition to teaching Ellison’s work, I showed students how a host of other African American writers had offered important and urgent commentary on social, moral, and political issues that affect people of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds.
This same spirit of teaching shaped my approach to curating a new exhibition for the American Writers Museum in Chicago, Dark Testament: A Century of Black Writers on Justice, which will debut in the summer of 2022. The exhibition explores works composed by African American writers, musicians, and activists from the Civil War through the civil rights movement. It takes their contributions seriously as significant interventions into ongoing public discussions about the most pressing concerns of our time, including questions of citizenship, justice, violence, and joy.
The exhibition will show visitors how reading the extraordinary compositions of Black writers can provide an array of entry points for imagining a future in the United States that the promises of the Declaration of Independence and the power of the civil rights movement have yet to achieve. In addition to featuring Ralph Ellison, the exhibition will highlight the contributions of writers such as Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, and Pauli Murray, whose collection of poems, Dark Testament, bears the project’s namesake.
Born in 1910, Murray had been a writer, lawyer, activist, priest, and professor trained in legal studies at Howard, Berkeley, and Yale. She was also an advocate for civil and women’s rights. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall called Murray’s 1952 book, States’ Laws on Race and Color, the “bible” of the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education decision to integrate schools. Murray also received an honorary citation as coauthor of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legal brief for the 1971 Reed v. Reed Supreme Court decision that prohibited discrimination based on sex.
We hope museumgoers will be inspired by Murray’s extraordinary life and work, which has animated our creative approach to Dark Testament. We will invite audiences to consider the meaning of “testament,” “testimony,” “telling their story,” “truth telling,” and other resonances Murray’s provocative title holds for contemporary conversations. Altogether, this exhibition recognizes the testaments of Murray’s life and the lives of numerous others who have remained unseen or unrecorded because of their race, class, gender, or sexual orientation (Murray was a closeted member of the LGBTQ community).
In addition to engaging with the sights, sounds, and words of African American artists and writers in the museum, we are also planning online extensions of the exhibition, containing educational materials for students, teachers, and librarians to delve deeper into African American literary and cultural history. These materials will inspire and support recommended reading lists, book-group discussions, library programs, and displays.
Finally, Dark Testament will feature video commentary by contemporary African American writers, who will discuss how those who went before them continue to inform their work. We hope visitors from all backgrounds will learn how the songs, stories, music, and poetry that Black Americans created over the course of a dramatic century continue to speak to all of America. As Dark Testament will show, we just need to be willing to listen.
Keidrick Roy is a Ph.D. Candidate in American Studies at Harvard University. His research examines African American literature, history, and political thought from the Revolutionary era to the present.
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