Student journal: Dr. Proctor’s illuminative words on the inherent difficulties of the African Heritage Room

Dr. Proctor in the Rotunda.


Student journal: Dr. Proctor’s illuminative words on the inherent difficulties of the African Heritage Room

Dr. Proctor’s illuminative words on the inherent difficulties of the African Heritage Room 

Abby Brady, 6 December 2017

Over the course of the semester, I have focused on objects and documents from the archives of the African Heritage Room. I chose a letter from art historian Rosalind Jeffries addressed to Professor Laurence Glasco of the University of Pittsburgh History Department. The letter outlines the broad goals of committee members to represent a boundless and collective African identity. What struck me most about this letter was the comprehensive research and conscious effort to showcase an archetypal African self—one that extends beyond borders of country and continent. Looming over me, however, was the understanding that there were many difficulties inherent in the formation of the only Room representing an entire continent, rather than an individual country. 


Just before Thanksgiving, our class had a special meeting with Dr. Ralph Proctor, Professor of Ethnic and Diversity Studies at the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC). I was intrigued by this opportunity because I knew he was going to confront the blatant issues that developed in the planning of the African Heritage Room. Dr. Proctor began the discussion detailing personal stories from his time as a Pitt student and professor. Although today Pittsburgh is often thought of a progressive and diverse city, the University itself did not become truly inclusive of women and minorities until they were pushed to do so during sit-ins in the 1970s. The short glimpses into Pitt’s history helped introduce students to the environment in which talks of the creation of an African Heritage Room developed. Dr. Proctor was a member of the original committee, but could not bring himself to support a plan that aimed to represent the 52 distinct countries in Africa in a single space. In addition, he was worried that the concept would insult various ethnic groups that would not be able to relate to the space that was so ambitiously curated. 


Through humor, Dr. Proctor expanded on concerns he had during his time as a committee member, and after the fact, when he was consulted for his expertise in the area of Africa and African art. Whether it was the lack of wood, the overly specific design, or the fact that the space did not represent the African American community of Pittsburgh, Dr. Proctor lamented problems that could have been avoided if there were highly qualified historians and scholars involved during the planning process, or if the African Heritage Room were divided into spaces dedicated to individual countries. However, his explanation of the problematic use of the words ‘art’ and ‘artifact’ in relation to African objects stuck out to me the most. Through a Western lens, ignorance and misunderstanding often take over when dealing with African objects. While Dr. Proctor offered funny stories about having to explain to experts in the field of African studies that their artwork was hanging upside down, I think it is valuable to reflect on how this blurry lens impacted the resulting African Heritage Room. 


After spending the semester investigating archival material and learning more about the formation of the African Heritage Room, I think the flaws that have been addressed and recognized are what make this Room an important place of contemplation and learning. I believe that other planning groups have faced similar difficulties in how to best represent the essence of a country, but because the African Heritage Room is intended to sufficiently exemplify an entire continent, as well as a difficult history of enslavement and trans-Atlantic diaspora, the issues are

amplified and particularly prone to criticism. The invaluable opportunity to hear Dr. Proctor speak about his experience with the Nationality Rooms enhanced my knowledge of a space that I had previously only understood through documents and artifacts that I had encountered on my own. His playful banter and engaging storytelling abilities encouraged me to further contemplate the identities, culture, art, and history brought to life in the African Heritage Room. 

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