Two Must-See Downtown Exhibitions Teach Empathy, History and Culture

The exhibits “Traveling While Black” and “The Negro Motorist Green Book” are essential viewing.
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It can be very difficult to truly empathize with another person’s lived experience.

Amid a din of social-media squawking and talking-head reductions, we find ourselves in an era not known for its cross-cultural understanding. Our echo chambers can be finely tuned to amplify voices similar to our own and exclude those that offer a challenge. Meanwhile, some politicians, concerned only with the continuous provocation of outrage, are more eager to demonize than demystify.

So it’s vital that you head Downtown this summer. There, you’ll find a pair of complementary exhibits dedicated to offering genuine, vital lived experiences.

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At 820 Gallery on Liberty Avenue, the touring exhibition “Traveling While Black” brings guests to the Washington, D.C. landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl via a virtual-reality presentation. There — while seated in one the diner’s booths, peering at the iconic menu board — neighbors and activists offer perspective on the role of enduring Black spaces in a country that has not always been eager to offer them.

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Meanwhile, at the Heinz History Center, the exhibit “The Negro Motorist Green Book” explores the history and necessity of the mid-century travel guides sold to keep Black people safe while traveling the country. This detailed exhibit includes a focus on Green Book-listed businesses in the Pittsburgh area, nearly all of which were clustered in and around the Hill District.

These exhibits force the viewer to confront realities about Black life in America that many would rather silence. The illusion of equality for all does not stand up to historical scrutiny; if, within the lifetime of many Americans, special listings had to be published to let Black people know where they could eat and sleep without fear, was that a free country? If, today, many of the most significant spaces for Black Americans are under constant threat of closure and demolition, is opportunity truly distributed equally?


The exhibits are lively and engaging, as concerned with celebrations of life and community as they are with illustrating injustice. These are not dry lectures. While they have plenty of weight, both “Traveling With Black” and “Green Book” serve to illuminate, not to correct.

Unfortunately, this is the sort of history that is being silenced in many parts of the country, as students in several states are being denied further illumination. Some cities and states, believing that young minds are in need of coddling rather than education, have fought to remove the realities of American history from textbooks. One large state — you know, the one with Disney World — has recently forbidden even colleges and universities from education “based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities.”

You know: The truth. They don’t want young people hearing any of that.

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Of late, a certain head-in-the-sand denialism has gained popularity among some of the least informed and paradoxically most vocal corners of American society. The only abiding philosophy of this group, it seems, is that everything is fine. Things are great. Racism? Dead and buried. The environment? Fully sustainable, needs no help from us. That disease that’s going around? You sure don’t need to wear a mask. Disagree? Well, that sounds downright unpatriotic!

I remember watching one of these folks interviewed once — I forget the show — and being faced with a reasonable question: Okay, so what do you want children to be taught? “I want them to learn,” he replied, “that the worst day in America is better than the best day anywhere else.”

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Well, for one thing, that’s patently ridiculous — the viewpoint of a person who has been nowhere and knows nothing. But for another, that’s not education; that’s indoctrination. It does children (or adults, for that matter) no good to be told that they’re right; knowledge does not derive from never being challenged. It arrives through uncomfortable truth — the kind that might, for a moment, help you understand the lived experience of someone else.

Fortunately for Pittsburghers, there are a pair of exhibits that can offer that sort of challenge — an illuminating, necessary challenge. I hope they escape the echo chamber and change some hearts.

Categories: Collier’s Weekly