As I See It 4-18

By Joseph Phillips

   Everyone has their hand out!  Uncle Sam takes his cut off the top. The mortgage company demands payment (the nerve!) and the gas company is not far behind. Then, of course, there are luxuries like satellite television and cell phone service. On Sundays, the church passes the collection plate and there is hardly a Saturday afternoon when I am not asked to have my car washed to support the local high school cheerleaders. All this before I have put one slice of bread in my mouth or bought a new pair of sneakers for the kids. 
      It is therefore all the more fascinating that I am now in the unenviable position of approaching friends and neighbors with my hand out asking for donations.  As a recent appointee to the board of directors for the California African American Museum, part of my duties include raising money to fund museum programs and acquisitions. I am expected to do the same as a member of the dream team for the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation.
  The California African American Museum is the only state funded museum in the country dedicated to the collection and exhibition of African American culture and art.  The bad news is that the fiscal crisis facing the state is most felt at institutions like CAAM who have seen their budgets slashed to ribbons.  If the museum is to continue educational programs for children, purchase art for the collection and make capital improvements, the difference must be made up somewhere. 
     In 1996, Congress authorized the building of a memorial for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the mall in Washington D.C.  When completed, it will have the distinction of being the only memorial on the mall that is not dedicated to a war or president and the only memorial honoring an African American. In order to make this dream a reality, the foundation must raise 100 million dollars (of which we currently have 40.) 
    The harsh reality is that if the museum fails in its mission it will only be because the black community failed to support the endeavor through membership.  If the monument to King doesn’t get built it will only be because the black community failed to support the dream with dollars.
    There are discussions taking place in barbershops and beauty salons all over America about how black culture and success is being ignored or how it is co-opted by other people and made subordinate to their whims. The simple truth, however, is that our cultural destiny is often in our own hands.  Whether black theatre companies, museums or monuments, our cultural institutions are in our power to control, shape and form.  It is our dollars that will build and support them and our patronage that will sustain them and lend them character and legitimacy. They are quite literally an extension of us and through our nourishment or neglect, they will either flourish or they will whither and die. They will be as wonderful and exciting or as lame and pathetic as we allow them to be.
     Times are tight for all of us. My wife and I pencil in the “making ends meet” conversation for the 3rd Sunday night of every month.  However, we have decided that a beautiful, thriving museum of African-American art and culture is important.  We scrape cash together to send to the memorial committee because we want to be able to take our sons to the mall in D.C. and show them a monument to a great black American standing amongst those of Lincoln and Jefferson.  We do it because we know if we don’t, who will?
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Joseph C. Phillips is an actor/writer based in Los Angeles. Contact him at:

This article was reprinted with permission