If the mixture of articles selected for inclusion in this weekend’s USA Today meaningfully reflects a diverse population’s collective interests, then ours is a nation of strange priorities. The current issue runs an unusually hefty 54 pages, thanks to a special section highlighting Super Bowl XLVI. The 14-page supplement, longer than any one of the self-billed Nation’s Newspaper‘s customary News, Money, Sports, and Life sections, includes detailed analyses of the upcoming game, in-depth profiles of players, and even a cutaway diagram of host venue Lucas Oil Stadium. As hyped as the Super Bowl is, it’s an understandable – and I imagine rather profitable – editorial concession.
But the spotlight on Super Bowl Sunday is not contained within its designated section. A quarter of the Sports section provides further insights, including Madonna’s tantalizing comments on the nature of her highly anticipated halftime performance. A lead article on the relationship of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady dominates the front of the News section and continues over the whole of page two. The Money Section boasts a cover story about Super Bowl advertising, accompanied by a look at related smart-phone promotions and some insights on the rising popularity of chicken wings as a game day staple. Even the Life section is not exempt, lest a lightweight patron of the arts somehow miss the news that there is a very important football game this Sunday. There in the Travel subsection is a list of Larry Bird’s favorite haunts in Indianapolis, which, by the way, just happens to be hosting the Super Bowl this weekend.
Overkill? I should think so. Yet USA Today does manage to cover a few other newsworthy items in its weekend edition. Political squabbling, non-Super Bowl sports, market data and entertainment news comprise the bulk of stories not emanating from Indianapolis. There is, however, some notable information on the third page of the News section. An article by Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Mark Curnutte (USA Today parent Gannet Company, Inc. owns the Enquirer, along with The Indianapolis Star, The Detroit Free Press, and over half a dozen other leading newspapers) details the plight of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which is in such a precarious financial situation that it may be forced to close. The celebrated Cincinnati museum, not yet ten years old, is limping along on little more than a third of its inaugural budget and roughly a quarter of its initial full-time employees.
Apparently the museum has not been embraced by the locals. Of the 1.135 million guests who visited the Freedom Center through 2010, merely a third came from the surrounding metro area. There is an organized movement that seeks to block any tax dollars from funding the facility. And some suggest that a museum dedicated to the experience of enslaved African Americans does not hold a universally relevant appeal. State Senator Bill Seitz, reportedly an advocate of broadening the museum’s focus to include the freedom fighters of World War II, is quoted as saying, “If [the Freedom Center] widens its appeal to draw a broader audience, then some African Americans aren’t happy. And it’s a victim in the larger white community, which can see it as a black museum and not go.”
Yes, you read that correctly.
I can only hope that anyone who has willfully ignored the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center will have the opportunity of personally experiencing it. I strongly doubt that any thoughtful person, no matter their ethnicity, can take in the exhibits of this “black museum” and not find it deeply moving and chillingly relevant. The same line of reasoning espoused by Seitz’s “larger white community” would suggest that the National Holocaust Museum is primarily a destination for those of Jewish ancestry rather than a sobering history lesson for all of humanity. Of course that’s not the case. Neither is it true that the Freedom Center is exclusive. Like the Holocaust Museum, the Freedom Center is vitally important regardless of its mass appeal. It offers a thorough and unflinching look at a shameful contradiction of our national principles, an institutionalized injustice that continues to undermine our society more than a century after the federal abolition of slavery. No, it’s not a pleasant way to pass an afternoon. But it’s a worthwhile destination.
I have seen these lessons hit home in the eyes of students whom I have accompanied to the Freedom Center. In a darkened theater made to look as though it rests on the banks of the Ohio River, they see a film that dramatizes one slave couple’s attempted escape. Afterwards the students step out onto the balcony of the museum and look across the real Ohio River for themselves, imagining what it must have been like to perceive the waterway as the border between slavery and freedom. An actress portraying a slave invites students to sit down and listen. She tells them about her experiences and stays in character as the children ask questions. In another area of the museum, a reconstructed slave pen provides concrete evidence of the cold trade of chattel slavery. It is disturbing, indeed, to stand within the structure and gaze up at the iron rings on the rafters, knowing that human beings were chained within these very walls. If you didn’t get it when you read about it in your Social Studies textbook, you can’t help but gain an understanding here.
Yet somehow there exists the unfortunate perception that the Underground Railroad Freedom Center is “a black museum.” A round of applause to USA Today for bringing the museum’s survival struggle to the attention of the nation. On the other hand, a chorus of raspberries for cashing in their political correctness chips by emblazoning the article with a Black History Month logo. For the sake of John Brown’s a-moulderin’ body, when will our society accept slavery and its abolition as everyone’s history?
Often the sad truth is buried between the lines. In this weekend’s USA Today, it can be found somewhere within the paragraphs about a cash-strapped museum printed on page A3, among stories detailing the largesse of super PAC contributors, the wisdom of investing in Facebook’s impending IPO, and the effect of the NBA lockout on the subsequent quality of basketball. Oh, and there’s something about the Super Bowl, too.