Chicago has its share of great museums.
There is the Art Institute of Chicago, of course, a world class institution, up there with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre and the British Museum. You can visit it again and again and never get tired of going.
There is the Field Museum of Natural History, certainly worth regular visits, particularly for the special shows, like the recent Tattoo exhibit, or the one on Haitian voodoo.
Even the Museum of Science and Industry, though it tends to cater too much to popular tastes only vaguely related to science—relics of the Titanic!—and has a tendency to lean back and let corporations have their way.
Those three are enough, and both visitors and local residents have a tendency not to stray much beyond them.
Which is a shame. There is a a galaxy of what I think of as The Lesser Museums that warrant periodic visits. Places like the Museum of Contemporary Art, or the Oriental Institute, or the National Museum of Mexican Art.
Not to forget the Chicago History Museum, the former Chicago Historical Society, where I stopped by Monday because I was in the neighborhood, reporting on a story, and had seen an email about the museum's exhibit on race. That's a big target, and I figured, it being Black History Month, and race being a constant source of societal agita, I should swing by and give it a look.
"Race: Are We So Different?" was designed primarily for school groups. Lots of text. Lots of open space. Short on the artifacts that we older folk like. Some slave manacles.
Not a lot of surprise. The emphatic answer —spoiler alert!—to "Race: Are We So Different?" is no, we're not, at least not physically. Socially, yes, economically, big time, and that is certainly a lesson worth conveying. Although my hunch is that the city school groups coming through already have a pretty good idea about how the American deck is stacked against minorities, who are blamed for failing to thrive at a game where the rules are written against them at the start.
Otherwise, the points the displays were making—race is a social construct, not a biological fact; you can't tell a person's race from his skeleton—were not earth-shattering. Good if you didn't know it; sort of preaching to the choir if you did. At best a worthwhile reminder.
One aspect of the exhibit did stick out from the homogenized, run-through-the-museum-exhibit-machine texture of "Race: Are We So Different?" Students were asked to fill out blank index cards.
"What's your story?" the display inquired. "Do you have a story or idea about your varied heritage you'd like to share? Jot it down, drop it in the slot, and we'll add it to the comment book."
The students shared, not so much stories, as unvarnished expressions of pride and enthusiasm.
I found myself reading card after card, enjoying the wide range of ethnicities and nationalities mentioned. They were kashmiri and Japanese/Mexican, "Afro-Latina," They drew flags, portraits.
Many expressions of enthusiasm. "I am PROUD to be PINOY!"
You could see the way racism—perhaps inspired by our current president—filters down to children, the seismic rumbles it sends.
"I am an 8th Grader who is very ready for high school – a new start. I am a girl, but my best friend used to be a guy. Recently though, he has changed. He is making Hitler jokes, black jokes, and gay jokes of the worst kind. He will not stop, even though I have confronted him about his racism at school."Most evocative were these tales of bigotry, brief, almost poetic, heartbreaking narratives: "I was at the beach and somebody whispered, don't go by him because I am black."
The sort of incident you just know stays with a person for a lifetime.
"I have been told to 'go back to Tokyo' by a stranger on the train. I’m Vietnamese and French-Canadian."
"I was called Frijalero" refers to a Spanish word, "frijolero," that literally means "one who prepares beans," or "beaner" something you would fling at at Mexican to suggest they haven't advanced far from whatever village they may have come from.
But generally they were positive, proud, hopeful. A reminder that just as hatred has to be taught, so does shame. The natural thing is for people to feel good about their heritage, whatever it is.
Some were so simple and forceful, it was almost poetry: "Ignoring it won't make it go away."
Won't make what go away? Hate? Racism? Difference?
Racism always feels antique—we ask ourselves, how can this be, in 2017? Just as people marveled at what was happening in 1962 an 1937.
Hate is both very old and very current. In November, 2016, those in our country who fear more than love grabbed the wheel. The kids filling out notecards at the Chicago History Museum are a reminder that someday soon those who love more than hate are going to grab the wheel back.
Or as one visitor wrote:
"We are all people."
That's such a simple lesson. Why do so many have such difficulty understanding it?