Cultural Expressions

Cultural Expressions is a circular, experiential, introductory space to African American and African diaspora culture.

A 360 degree look at Cultural Expressions, an exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Courtesy of Cortina Media
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About the Exhibition

Inside of the Cultural Expressions Exhibit
01/04

The exhibition introduces visitors to the broad concept of African American and African diaspora culture and five ways through which that culture is expressed.
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Inside of the Cultural Expressions Exhibit
02/04

The outer ring focuses on African American culture, while the inner ring displays examples of culture from other parts of the African Diaspora.
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Inside of the Cultural Expressions Exhibit
03/04

A third overhead mixed-media space, Cultural Commons, is composed of large, moving, iconic images that reinforce and amplify the exhibitions themes, stories, and people profiled on the entire 4th floor, which includes three other culture exhibitions.
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Inside of the Cultural Expressions Exhibit
04/04

The five forms of expression presented in Cultural Expressions are Style: Image and Identity; Foodways: Culture and Cuisine; Artistry: Craftsmanship and Creativity; Language: The Power of the Word; and Movement: Gesture and Social Dance.
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Journey Through the Exhibition

Cultural Expressions Storylines

This section explores the styling impulse of Americans of African descent from clothing and hair styling choices to the politics of skin color. It focuses on how identity, politics, and creativity are expressed through clothing, dress, hair, and jewelry. Fashion designers and beauty products are presented, as well as the effects of colorism or skin color discrimination.

Here the magnitude of the African American hand in the food and foodways of the United States and beyond is explored. Profiles of chefs and restaurant owners accompany explorations of different cuisines, cookware, and tools used in the procurement and service to food.

The focus of this part of the exhibition is the enduring contributions of African American craft. Highlighted are the seminal economic, social, and cultural importance of building crafts. This section illustrates the significance of formal classroom training and apprenticeship as cultural transmission/learning styles and the aesthetic traditions of black community design in American culture.

This part of Cultural Expressions highlights the public and private expressions of social dance and gesture. It examines the spaces where black social dance is performed and the conditions under which it emerges. Also presented is the range of non-verbal communication used by African Americans through gestures from the high five to the fist bump and the side-eye stare to laying on of hands.

The oral traditions and idiomatic expressions of African Americans are many. This section explores their full range largely through the people who used them including preachers, debaters, politicians, and radio djs. It also explores the incorporation of black sounds into literature and poetry by numerous black and white writers.


A Closer Look

Curator Joanne T. Hyppolite explains the significance of each section of her exhibit in our series, Curator Chats.
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Supervisory Museum Curator of the African Diaspora, Joanne T. Hyppolite, Ph.D., gives a deeper look behind the exhibit, Cultural Expressions.

Exhibition Luminaries

01/014

Chef Leah Chase

Leah Chase has brought New Orleans Creole cooking to international attention. She was the chief chef at Dooky Chase’s, a New Orleans landmark. Civil rights organizers met at the restaurant in the 1950s to plan their course of action. (Photo credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)
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02/014

Angela Davis

Activist and scholar Angela Davis and her signature Afro became a national symbol for black freedom struggles during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. (Photo credit: Michelle VIGNES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
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03/014

Tom Joyner

“The Hardest Working Man in Radio,” Tom Joyner commuted from a morning show in Dallas, Texas, to an evening show in Chicago for eight years. Today, his nationally syndicated Tom Joyner Morning Show is one of radio’s most popular programs. Joyner uses his radio stature to support education, public health and financial fitness. (Photo credit: Steve Grayson/WireImage)
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04/014

Mrs. Jarena Lee

In 1819 Jarena Lee became the first woman authorized to preach under Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Male congregants and ministers questioned her ability. Lee said, “If the man may preach, because the Savior died for him, why not a woman? Seeing he died for her also. Is he not a whole Savior, instead of half one?” A traveling preacher throughout the Northeast, Lee encouraged enslaved and free blacks and whites to overcome obstacles through the Word of God. (Photo credit: Fotosearch/Getty Images)
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05/014

Chef Edna Lewis

Born on her grandfather’s farm, Edna Lewis grew up cooking without modern conveniences. Lewis’s The Taste of Country Cooking became a classic, with chapters on fresh local foods predating the “farm-to-table” movement. (Photo credit: Martha Cooper/New York Post Archives /(c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images)
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06/014

Bob Marley

Musician Bob Marley was the Rastafari movement’s most famous ambassador. Through reggae music, he spread its message and lifestyle around the world and helped make dreadlocks a fashion trend in the 1970s. Until then, dreadlocked Jamaicans were often harassed for their naturalist beliefs, respect for African identity, and struggles against the status quo. (Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
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07/014

“Magnificent” Montague

During the 1960s most of black Los Angeles tuned in to KGFJ to hear the latest dance music and catch Nathaniel “Magnificent” Montague proclaim, “burn, baby, burn.” Montague (b. 1928) often wove black history lessons into his show. He changed his signature catchphrase to “learn, baby, learn” after the 1965 Watts uprising. (Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
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08/014

Phillip Simmons

When Philip Simmons began his career, blacksmiths in Charleston, South Carolina, made practical objects, like horseshoes and wagon wheels. Over 65-years, Simmons mastered the craft of functional and decorative ironwork. Examples of his work, including iron gates, can be seen throughout South Carolina’s Lowcountry and contribute significantly to the region’s sense of place. (Photo credit: Claire Y. Greene/ Philip Simmons Foundation)
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09/014

Russell Simmons

Hip-Hop is more than music. Art, poetry, dance, and especially fashion bear its imprint. Def Jam Recordings co-founder Russell Simmons was an early executive-artist who connected Hip-Hop to clothing, launching Phat Farm out of a SoHo storefront in 1992. Phat Farm blended the edginess of urban wear with the upscale look of Tommy Hilfiger and Polo Ralph Lauren. In linking music to fashion, Simmons showed others how to use financial and media power to buy their way into the fashion industry. (Photo credit: James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images)
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010/014

Chef Pierre Thiam

When immigrants settle in the United States, their recipes become part of America—their foodways join with others to create new foods. Chef Pierre Thiam wants Senegalese food to join the mix. Born in Dakar, Thiam moved to New York in the 1980s, working in restaurant kitchens before opening a catering business. Thiam lectures in both countries. He has organized tours for American food professionals in Dakar and festivals such as AfroEats. (Photo credit: Robin Marchant/Getty Images for NYCWFF)
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011/014

Minister Rev. Howard Thurman

Rev. Howard Thurman, known as the “preacher’s preacher and the teacher’s teacher,” wrote more than 20 books, founded the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, and served as a university dean. Thurman met Mahatma Gandhi in 1935. Deeply affected by Gandhi’s philosophy, he later counseled civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and James Farmer Jr. Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited is a founding text for the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement. (Photo credit: Dick Darrell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
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012/014

Lorenzo Dow Turner

A professor at Roosevelt College in Chicago, Lorenzo Dow Turner pioneered the study of African language retentions. He took these field notes in 1930. His Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect connects West African groups with descendants in the Americas. De Nyew Testament, in Gullah-Geechee, interprets the New Testament of the Bible. (Photo credit: Marvin Joseph /The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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013/014

Saul Williams

Saul Williams emerged on the slam poetry scene in the 1990s. A grand slam champion at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Williams led the New York team in the 1996 National Poetry Slam competition. Williams has several books of poetry to his credit and appeared in the movie Slam, the documentary SlamNation and other films. (Photo credit: Karl Walter/Getty Images)
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014/014

Wendy Williams

Prior to her television talk show, Wendy Williams spent 23 years in radio in Boston, Philadelphia and New York. The Wendy Williams Experience on New York’s WBLS earned her 12 million listeners. Williams’s frank personality–and the hard questions she asked her celebrity guests–kept listeners entertained. (Photo credit: Jennifer Graylock/WireImage)
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Exhibition Objects

Dress designed by Ann Lowe, 1958

Dress designed by Ann Lowe, 1958

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"Annie Allen" by Gwendolyn Brooks, 1949

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Wrought iron gate created by Philip Simmons, 1970s

Wrought iron gate created by Philip Simmons, 1970s

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Boat seat with spider web design from Ecuador, early 20th century

Boat seat with spider web design from Ecuador, early 20th century

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"Color" by Countee Cullen, 1925

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Electrical hot comb heater and hot comb 1920s

Electrical hot comb heater and hot comb, 1920s

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Diploma issued to Lucille Brown from Poro College March 19, 1915

Diploma issued to Lucille Brown from Poro College, March 19, 1915

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Tin for Madam C. J. Walker's Tan-Off, 1920s

Tin for Madam C. J. Walker's Tan-Off, 1920s

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Tin for Murray’s Superior Hair Dressing Pomade 2014

Tin for Murray’s Superior Hair Dressing Pomade, 2014

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White Express skin lightening lotion 2014

White Express skin lightening lotion, 2014

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Oyster knife 20th century

Oyster knife, 20th century

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Oyster forks late 20th century

Oyster forks late, 20th century

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Wire oyster basket, 20th century

Wire oyster basket, 20th century

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Culling hammer, 20th century

Culling hammer, 20th century

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Shucking bucket, 20th century

Shucking bucket, 20th century

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Oyster can used by H. B. Kennerly & Son, Inc. 1935-1950

Oyster can used by H. B. Kennerly & Son, Inc., 1935-50

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Tintype of James Washington late, 19th century

Tintype of James Washington late, 19th century

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Dashiki owned by Margaret Louise Lynch Belcher late 20th century

Dashiki owned by Margaret Louise Lynch Belcher, late 20th century

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Coded Language Scroll created by Saul Williams, 2004

Coded Language Scroll created by Saul Williams, 2004

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"Commemorative Headdress of Her Journey Beyond Heaven" by Kenya Robinson, 2010

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Chef jacket worn by Leah Chase ca. 2012

Chef jacket worn by Leah Chase, ca. 2012

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 “Leah Chase, stirring” by Gustave Blach III, 2010

“Leah Chase, stirring” by Gustave Blach III, 2010

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Menu from Dooky Chase's Restaurant 2007

Menu from Dooky Chase's Restaurant, 2007

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Colander used by Chef Joseph Randall, 1976

Colander used by Chef Joseph Randall, 1976

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Cast iron skillet owned and used by Beatrice Mack 1951

Cast iron skillet owned and used by Beatrice Mack, 1951

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"A Taste of Heritage: The New African American Cuisine" by Joseph G. Randall, 2002

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Pair of white and black Run-D.M.C. Superstar 80s sneakers made by Adidas 2013

Pair of white and black Run-D.M.C. Superstar 80s sneakers made by Adidas, 2013

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"The Conjure Woman" by Charles W. Chesnutt, 1899

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"Freedom Quilt" by Jesse B. Telfairca, 1975

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"Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston, 1937

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"Haitiad & Oddities" by Felix Morisseau-Leroy, 1991

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"Modern Cuff" by Art Smith, ca. 1948

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Pair of tété negress style gold earrings with yellow stones 1990s

Pair of tété negress style gold earrings with yellow stones, 1990s

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Red, yellow, blue, and white Madras headdress 2015

Red, yellow, blue, and white Madras headdress, 2015

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Academic robe worn by Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole at Bennett College 2003

Academic robe worn by Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole at Bennett College, 2003

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Jacket, top, and skirt designed by Damali and worn by Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole 2012

Jacket, top, and skirt designed by Damali and worn by Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, 2012

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Postcard of a shrimp peddler, early 20th century

Postcard of a shrimp peddler, early 20th century

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"Traditional Grain Storage II" by Mary Jackson, 2014

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Postcard of a praline seller, ca. 1910

Postcard of a praline seller, ca. 1910

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Postcard of a fish dealer, 1909

Postcard of a fish dealer, 1909

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"De Nyew Testament" New Testament translated into Gullah-Geechee, 2005

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Postcard of a nut cake vendor 1905-1914

Postcard of a nut cake vendor, 1905-14

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Postcard of a banana and pineapple vendor 1912

Postcard of a banana and pineapple vendor, 1912

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Postcard of a produce vendor 1907

Postcard of a produce vendor, 1907

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Trophy awarded to the Texas Southern University Debate Team, 1967

Trophy awarded to the Texas Southern University Debate Team, 1967

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Dress designed by Ann Lowe, 1958
Wrought iron gate created by Philip Simmons, 1970s
Boat seat with spider web design from Ecuador, early 20th century
Electrical hot comb heater and hot comb 1920s
Diploma issued to Lucille Brown from Poro College March 19, 1915
Tin for Madam C. J. Walker's Tan-Off, 1920s
Tin for Murray’s Superior Hair Dressing Pomade 2014
White Express skin lightening lotion 2014
Oyster knife 20th century
Oyster forks late 20th century
Wire oyster basket, 20th century
Culling hammer, 20th century
Shucking bucket, 20th century
Oyster can used by H. B. Kennerly & Son, Inc. 1935-1950
Tintype of James Washington late, 19th century
Dashiki owned by Margaret Louise Lynch Belcher late 20th century
Coded Language Scroll created by Saul Williams, 2004
Chef jacket worn by Leah Chase ca. 2012
 “Leah Chase, stirring” by Gustave Blach III, 2010
Menu from Dooky Chase's Restaurant 2007
Colander used by Chef Joseph Randall, 1976
Cast iron skillet owned and used by Beatrice Mack 1951
Pair of white and black Run-D.M.C. Superstar 80s sneakers made by Adidas 2013
Pair of tété negress style gold earrings with yellow stones 1990s
Red, yellow, blue, and white Madras headdress 2015
Academic robe worn by Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole at Bennett College 2003
Jacket, top, and skirt designed by Damali and worn by Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole 2012
Postcard of a shrimp peddler, early 20th century
Postcard of a praline seller, ca. 1910
Postcard of a fish dealer, 1909
Postcard of a nut cake vendor 1905-1914
Postcard of a banana and pineapple vendor 1912
Postcard of a produce vendor 1907
Trophy awarded to the Texas Southern University Debate Team, 1967