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The Curator’s Quest

Twenty-six years ago, I worked in an artist supply store in San Francisco. I was young and fairly pretty, but more so, I was very proud that I was going to college instead of becoming a statistic. One day a customer who happened to be a museum curator called in for a stock check. After I confirmed the item and told him my name for reference, he was elated that my name was “Ashanti”. “Such beautiful people!”, he cried. “Such wonderful this and that”. I chidingly said that I had hippie parents (who are known for giving extraordinary names to their children) and hung up the phone.
When he came in and collected his item, he was excited. He wanted to know if my immediate family or ancestors came from Ghana. I said, “I don’t know.” Crestfallen, he told me that American slavery was the cruelest because it was the first to eradicate the identities of it’s captives. Other institutions have tried, but those conquered people were made slaves on their own land, so they didn’t succeed. It’s more possible to retain one’s culture when they’re still living on their land or have access to it, rather than taken 3000 miles away from the soil of their origins. The curator then became angry and said something to the effect of “You don’t know who you are”.
I laughed it off (for I was always being bullied for being an ‘oreo’) and told him I may see him again sometime. He gave me a stern look and said: “No, you won’t.” The tough love stung. I hated African-American history because it was painful. I was interested in African history, but I didn’t know where to start. But, I had two ersatz segues…
I was dating a beautiful Turkish-Irish-American boy and I was in second year art history at the San Francisco Art Institute. I was so proud to be close to Barish, that he inspired my final project for art history class. As I gathered materials, I discovered a terrific book in print called. “Harem: the World Behind the Veil” by Alev Lytle Croutier. In that tome I discovered Delacroix, Ingres and a great story about Kosem the Sultana. I illustrated the story using the styles of Delacroix, Ingres and my own quasi-Elf Quest-Disney comic style and submitted it for my final assignment. (I got an A!) While I worked on the book, I also learned that a lot of Sub-Saharan African history can be learned from the Ottoman Turks who traded with them. I also had an old issue of Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe which was later turned into a series of graphic novels which told EVERYONE’S HISTORY not just Western. My curators quest was well underway…

Professor Timothy Shutt says in his lecture: Wars of that Made the Western World, that “You can’t know who you are unless you know where you come from.” That also translates to me as “No one will respect your people unless their history is in tact.” I think the reason why I prefer African history to African-American history is because, after the victories, we (or should I say they) are still rulers in their own country, not pets in someone else’s. Not living under the hegemony of people who don’t look like you, who’s beauty standards you have to adhere to—or get as close to it as you can with whatever features you inherited from the White man who raped your enslaved ancestor. I know….this is a heavy topic that is the antithesis of my sunshine and lollipops personality…

I think identity is part of the Black Lives Matter movement. The police can’t tell the difference between us, so they shoot us because we look like the criminal they are chasing. We all look the same without a history outside this country to help outsiders working in the police force determine the subtle physical differences between us. A floating history that isn’t integrated into the curriculum in grade school. An intangible history most African-Americans can not fully claim because we lost our identities when colonial practices mixed up the tribes, muting our ability to communicate with one another over the Middle Passage. We lost our language and most of our traditions a generation or two after we were sold after landing.

Therefore, as benignly as possible, whenever there is a opportunity, I share Sub-Saharan African history in conversations. Not to be aggressive or derail topics or anything like that. I just want it to become more common knowledge. Europeans are taught African history, so are people in the Arab States and West Asia, but Americans are not, as the curator ALSO firmly told me. I’ll never forget him.

There was a recent conversation regarding Western Europe’s introduction to coffee via a battle with the Turks and someone in Austria is credited with the coffee drink. I bristle at the Austrian being given sole credit for developing coffee as a drink. Coffee plants only grow on the equator. I learned that in my coffee class as a former Starbucks employee. So yeah, the Arabs and Ottoman Turks became famous for coffee, but they had to train with SOMEONE, a people much farther south of the Mediterranean below the Sahel and on the equator to get the beans. There also accounts that they drank coffee. I’ll have to research that to be sure. Yes, I am sure that coffee was cultivated and possibly enjoyed as a drink by equatorial peoples independently all over the world. My argument is against giving only one culture this honor. I’m not letting this go.


My thanks to all historians, but I wish to specially thank Larry Gonick for telling history in comic book form. It’s MUCH easer to remember images that make you laugh than tomes of text. Thank you very much, Mr. Gonick for making the Curator’s Quest more enjoyable.



If you’re interested, here are the differences between the world’s four regional coffees courtesy of the Starbucks new employee coffee course.

Ethiopian: Bold, bright, tangy, citrus-like.

Arabian: Bold, dark and husky

Sumatran: Bold, darkest and husky

Columbian: light and refreshing

The bolder coffees come from regions where the beans get only one rinse either before or after they are roasted.

The light coffees from the Americas are very thoroughly rinsed, because water isn’t as scarce there. These are the perfect coffees for those, like myself, who don’t want to punched awake in the face in the morning.

Arabian (Yemen) coffees are the base for Verona and French Roast.

Ethiopian coffees are great for dessert pairings. Kinda like coffee/tea  because of it’s tangy properties. Lemon cookie or maple oat nut scone with your tangy coffee? Yum!

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