Boston Globe: Concord's Old Manse Holds Community Discussions on African American Struggles

August 11, 2016

Debora Almeida

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Concord's Old Manse Holds Community Discussions on African American Struggles
By: Debora Almeida 

A site considered by many the historic center of Concord’s political, literary, and social revolutions is playing host to an outdoor art installation and series of discussions on the challenges faced by African-Americans from Revolutionary times to the present.

A field adjacent to the Old Manse is the setting for “The Meeting House,” an open pavilion designed by Los Angeles-based artist Sam Durant meant to evoke the homes of Concord’s first free African-Americans in the 1770s.

And to engage the public in a dialogue about race and racial history, the installation will serve as the gathering place for a series of four free community events — workshops, poetry readings, and discussions about writing, philosophy, music, food, and spirituality — the first of which is set for noon Saturday, Aug. 13.

Both the art work and the events are being staged by the Trustees of Reservations, a nonprofit which cares for over 100 historic and scenic locations throughout Massachusetts, including the Old Manse. Pedro Alonzo, former curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, is curating the project.

Durant is “not here to here to impose his views on the public, but to create a platform for discussion,” said Alonzo. “The idea is to bring back these important discussions to the place where these discussions started.”

Alonzo was referring to the Old Manse’s history as a meeting place for politicians, philosophers, and Transcendentalist writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

In addition to the installation outside, the Old Manse will display a collection of artifacts connected to African-American culture, including an image of a slave ship and music scores by some of today’s black composers.

Perhaps most notably, a manuscript by Phillis Wheatley, the first published African-American female poet, will be displayed in a room also featuring desks used by Emerson and Hawthorne, both of whom Wheatley predated.

Durant “placed these items in the house to have the public think about it differently,” said Alonzo, “and to recognize the presence of African-Americans in our history, which is often overlooked. It creates the question of who was first, a black slave or these white gentlemen?”

The first of the events, “The Picnic,” a celebration of traditional African-American foods, is set for Saturday, Aug. 13 from 12 to 2 p.m. While sampling a variety of foods prepared by Haley House Bakery Café of Roxbury, participants will hear speakers addressing the food’s history. Audience members will be encouraged to share recipes.

Subsequent sessions include a “Poetry Reading” Sept. 24, “A New Framework for Dialogue” Oct. 5, and a “New England Town Hall Meeting” Oct. 16.

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