Ingram Blog

Dream a World Anew: The Excerpt

A stunning gift book to accompany the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The first half of the book bridges a major gap in our national memory by examining a wide arc of African American history, from Slavery, Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Great Migrations through Segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, and beyond. The second half of the book celebrates African American creativity and cultural expressions through art, dance, theater, and literature. Sidebars and profiles of influential figures provide additional context and interest throughout the book.


The creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the newest museum within the Smithsonian Institution, will enable the millions who visit the site on the National Mall or encounter the museum virtually, to understand, as James Baldwin has written, both the power and the contemporary resonance of the past. America’s political and educational institutions, its economic development and cultural evolution, and its foreign policy and global interactions have all been shaped by the intersection of history and race from the nation’s founding to the present day. Unearthing the richness, complexity, challenges, and nuances of African American history not only reveals the story of a people but equally important is what it reveals about America’s identity.

Dream a World Anew celebrates and commemorates the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, an institution whose formation was first posited more than a century ago when African American veterans of the Civil War refused to allow their important participation in that conflict to be erased from history as the nation marked the fiftieth anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg by celebrating the reunion of the north and south without acknowledging the unresolved racial legacies of that conflict.

Dream a World Anew, like the national museum, seeks to reframe our understanding of black history by centralizing the African American experience. Rather than see this history as an ancillary story with limited appeal and impact, this publication demonstrates that in many ways African American history is the quintessential American story.

So many moments where American notions of liberty or freedom were enlarged or made manifest, where the definition of citizenship was rethought or when America was challenged to live up to its stated ideals, were embedded within and profoundly shaped by the African American community. Far too frequently, it was the African American experience that demanded, in the words of poet Langston Hughes, that “America be the dream the dreamers dreamed.”

It is quite fitting that this work of history be one of the ways the National Museum of African American History and Culture is launched. During the one-hundred-year struggle to open the museum, the historical profession was also wrestling with the place, the importance, and the interpretation of African American history within the academic canons. Often the earlier scholarship reflected the condescending and bigoted racial attitudes of the era. These scholars frequently saw “Negroes” as an inferior people whose presence was more of a problem—a drag on American greatness—or at best, a sidebar in the great pageant of American history.

Fortunately, an array of gifted scholars’ work, especially since the end of World War II, has reshaped our understanding of both the African American experience and the American past. Historians as diverse as W. E. B. DuBois, Gerda Lerner, Carter G. Woodson, Letitia Woods Brown, August Meier, Kenneth Stampp, Benjamin Quarles, John Blassingame, and the head of the museum’s Scholarly Advisor Committee, John Hope Franklin, laid the foundation that has helped to make the study of African American history one of the most active and important fields of historical study.

There would be no national museum without the scholarly insights that have reshaped our understanding of enslavement, migration, work, gender, global connectivity, and culture. Dream a World Anew builds upon this legacy and reflects the best of current historical scholarship.

It is that scholarship that defines and undergirds the organization of this publication. While no book or museum can be encyclopedic, Dream a World Anew offers an account that provides a sense of clarity and accessibility to the complicated narrative of the African American experience. One of the key ways to understand this history is to use both chronological and thematic lens. So the overarching framework, like that of the museum, offers a chronological sweep that takes one from fifteenth-century West Africa and Europe into the United States of the twenty-first century. This chronology is divided into three periods: from slavery to freedom, the era of institutionalization of segregation through the Civil Rights movement, and the struggle to redefine the recent American past since 1968. The initial discussion of slavery to freedom explores how the economic and social system of slavery shaped so much of the European and American colonial and antebellum experience, and how the tension and contradictions of a nation created out of the need for freedom while denying that liberty to so many of its inhabitants based on race and gender unfolded throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

From Segregation through the Civil Rights Movement explores how the struggle for the soul of America led to the creation of laws, institutions, and violent extra-legal organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan that upheld segregation while equally determined African Americans and their allies created organizations and strategies to force America to uphold its stated ideals of equality and fairness. The final section examines the successes and failures of a recent America grappling with changing racial expectations at a time of diminishing resources and unrealized possibilities, while it is also a time of prosperity and promise for some. This chronology is leavened by the thematic exploration of the role of diverse African American communities—based on region, gender, and education, and the impact of evolving cultural productivity, consumption, and appropriation.

Dream a World Anew also seeks to broaden our notion of scholarship by including and assessing the material that comprises the collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. These artifacts and images not only provide new evidence and insights into the past, they are also concrete manifestations of the past that allow audiences to engage history through these collections. In many ways, the collections help museums to make history accessible and meaningful. These history-infused objects encourage audiences to define their own relationship to the collections, to possibly see their families or themselves in the artifacts which, in turn, helps them find a useful and useable past that gives history meaning.

Book Title: Dream a World Anew
Author: Kinshasha Holman Conwill
ISBN: 9781588345684 | $40.00 HC | Smithsonian Books

Cover and excerpt from DREAM A WORLD ANEW by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and edited by Kinshasha Holman Conwill. Text copyright (c) 2016 National Museum of African American History and Culture. Reprinted by permission of Smithsonian Books. All rights reserved.