Did you know that in the post-Emancipation Reconstruction era — and only seven years after the abolition of slavery — seven African Americans had seats in the United States Congress? All were from formerly Confederate states.
You may be surprised to learn that in 1773, at age 19, Phillis Wheatley became internationally known as the first African American to publish a book of poetry. And that America had its own Anne Frank in the form of Harriet Jacobs, a young black slave who remained for seven years in a tiny attic until she could escape to freedom, eventually writing a book about her experience.
Unveiling these obscured moments in American history is what USC Dornsife alumnus Anthony Sparks endeavored to do as writer and academic consultant for Walt Disney EPCOT’s new exhibit, Re-Discovering America: Family Treasures from the Kinsey Collection, which opened in March and remains through 2016 in Orlando, Fl.
“This is the first time [Disney] has done anything specific to African American history and culture,” said Sparks, who earned his Ph.D. in American studies and ethnicity (ASE) in 2012. “So, it’s a pretty big deal.
“Very few companies in the world have as much reach as Disney, so the significance of the fact that there are people advocating for a more inclusive history within that pop culture/corporate space is not to be underestimated. I feel privileged that I got to help get this project across the finish line.”
Re-Discovering America is an interactive, multimedia exhibit of African American art and history, drawn from the private collection of Los Angeles-based philanthropists Bernard and Shirley Kinsey and their son Khalil, who are among the nation’s most prolific collectors of African American art and artifacts.
Part of their collection was recently displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History; a smaller version was shown at the California African American Museum across from USC’s University Park campus in 2006, among many other venues.
The EPCOT exhibit combines 40 artifacts and art works, animation, production design and celebrity voices to represent 400 years of African American contributions to the history of the United States. It is estimated that nearly 22 million people will see the exhibit over three years.
The exhibit includes an original 1872 illustration of the aforementioned African American members of the United States Congress. It also includes original copies of both Wheatley’s book of poetry and Jacobs’ autobiography.
Sparks, an award-winning television writer-producer, playwright and seasoned stage actor, credits his
ASE doctoral studies for his ability to effectively merge creative work with public history and scholarship. At ASE, he found supportive professors who knew how to help transform a practitioner into a scholar.
“I’m hoping this Disney project will be the first of many in which I’m able to draw on every piece of myself — my creativity, private academic scholarship and public scholarship — in a way that has the chance to really be impactful,” Sparks said. “This is definitely one of the best projects I’ve worked on in my career thus far.”
The idea for the exhibit originated with two creative executives at Walt Disney Imagineering. The division’s Vice President of Creative Development Carmen J. Smith and Executive Producer Trish Cerrone shepherded the project through the entire process, which took nearly five years, Sparks said. It was their passion and the devotion of the Kinseys in sharing their beloved collection with the world that brought the project to fruition.
In Southern California, Bernard Kinsey is well known as a former co-chair of Rebuild Los Angeles, established following the 1992 civil unrest to stimulate economic development in the riot zones of the inner city. He secured nearly 400 million dollars in private investments for this purpose. The Kinseys also have been major fundraisers for the United Negro College Fund.
The couple has ties to USC. As recent as March 2012, they spoke at a campus event hosted by the USC Black Alumni Association and USC Spectrum. Called “An Evening of Art & Legacy: Bernard and Shirley Kinsey Present Their Distinguished Collection of African American Art and Historical Artifacts,” the event was held in Bovard Auditorium.
Bernard Kinsey hopes the Disney exhibit broadens people’s horizons.
“We want people to leave [the exhibit] with one thought: ‘I didn’t know that,’ ” he said. “If you can leave with that, we’ve accomplished everything the family was trying to do.”
Sparks spoke of the challenges in defining history though such an exhibit. First, there was the imperative of developing content friendly for young children and older adults alike. Second, the team sought to present the uplifting parts of African American history while honoring the struggle for equality that has also defined this history.
“America tends to like a linear, progressive narrative of history, but that’s not at all what the reality is. I really relied on my academic training and creative instincts to help frame how the stories are told so that they are uplifting — but also truthful.
“I have an 8-year-old daughter. At some point I’m going to take her EPCOT. And in the midst of Disney, which is about princesses and all this other stuff, I’m going to say, ‘Let’s go and look at Rediscovering America.’ ’’
Sparks embraced the project as a privilege and responsibility to do the best job he could.
“This is where the seeds are planted for people to be better educated and have a more nuanced, inclusive understanding of American history.”