14 Feb 2013
- Written by Dr. Karanja A. Ajanaku
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Dr. Carnita Atwater is a force. "The Extraordinary Bold Souls of African Kinship Exhibition" is evidence of what she can muscle up.
A native of Clarksdale, Miss., Atwater has traveled to myriad parts of the world in search-and-retrieval mode, always on the look out for pieces to add to her artful narrative history of African and African-American people.
You don't have to travel out of the city to get a glimpse for yourself. In celebration of African American History Month, two versions of her exhibition prowess are on display at the Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library and the Cossitt Library down.
"I'm an African American that loves her African heritage," said Atwater, taking time out from greeting visitors at the Hooks Library exhibit.
Her declaration of heritage has roots anchored in a childhood experience.
"When I was a little child in Sunday school I had a Sunday School teacher that talked to me about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and Ida B. Wells. She integrated black history into my Sunday School class," Atwater recalled.
Fast forward and you find Atwater, whose doctorate is in gerontology and public health administration, on a college campus as a dean of medical studies. When she looked in the books and the curriculum for the discipline she noticed something missing – African Americans.
"That gave me the idea to open up a black inventors museum," said Atwater. "Then I opened up the Buffalo Soldiers museum. Then it went to the Tuskegee Airmen's museum. I opened these museums up because of the lack of information in the books."
You don't open a museum without doing research, a lot of it, and Atwater did. There was a lot of collecting, preserving artifacts and travel "all over the world," including Italy, Germany, Spain and countries in Africa.
"I have never accepted even one dollar from the government," said Atwater. "All of these artifacts were purchased through my money. That's how serious I am about African American history."
Is she independently wealthy?
"No, I'm independently smart," said Atwater, whose father was a cardiologist and her mother a midwife/nurse.
The rewards often are on the faces of the children who discover things they've never known and people they've never heard of. "When the fascination comes over their faces it makes my heart just full of joy," she said.
Twenty storage places house her 350,000-plus artifacts. She is focused on opening "the first African American History Museum" and is searching for a permanent building downtown. Last year she tried to buy historic Clayborn Temple but lost out to the City of Memphis. On Feb. 19, she plans to be at the City Council to publicly register her interest in the old police department building.
Wherever she lands, it will be big enough for a life-size model of Middle-Passage slave ship.
Giving The New Tri-State Defender an impromptu tour, Atwater paused at a collection of lip plates gathered in Ethiopia. "This is a form of beauty to an African woman," she said. "The larger the lip plate, the more money she gets when she gets married."
There are African hats, various forms of currency and shackles.
"I know in America we are trying to alleviate this history (of slavery)," said Atwater. "This is part of our history. Even the Civil War, I embrace the Civil War. That's part of our history. It may be painful, we may not like it, but it's part of our history, part of America. We need to learn so we will not make the same mistake over."
The exhibit includes slave shackles (rattles) from Ghana and some bought at estate sales throughout the south. Many African Americans find it painful to take it in, she said.
"I tell them our history did not start with slavery. We have a rich heritage of history, kings and queens. A little bit of it is being shamed of this history. I'm trying to enlighten them and teach them that we don't have to be ashamed of slavery. We had strong ancestors. We should learn from them."
Is there a connection between knowing your history and being able to generate wealth in 2013?
"Yes," said Atwater, whose first business was a lawn service at age 12. "I'm a true living example of that. "When you know yourself, then you have to have a plan of action to get from point 'A' to point 'B'. We also as African Americans need to make sacrifices. We are the greatest consumers
"That's why I collect these artifacts. I know myself and where I want to be, not only in 2013, but I have made preparations so that in 2050 I will be financially secure. That's not to say I've not been through the storms of life. But I know how to bounce back and regroup."
She leaves TSD readers with this African History Month thought:
"Always preserve your history and do not be ashamed of it. If you do not know your past, you do not know your future."