They are scarred with uncountable sorrows, these Doors of No Return, which stood as the portals to a slave castle built by British colonizers in what is now Ghana. Inside, 1,500 people at a time awaited the horrific Middle Passage and a life of bondage across the Atlantic.

Now, the doors have launched a new black history exhibit, one of the largest ever. As you walk through the doors and pass hundreds of artifacts — solemn, sad or joyous representations of the past — the momentous chapter that’s now unfolding keeps intruding.

President Barack Obama’s personal copy of his speech on the great American conundrum of race is here, a simple sheaf of paper marking a milestone in his groundbreaking campaign. Video from yesterday’s presidential swearing-in will be incorporated into an already stirring video installation.

The multimillion-dollar exhibit, AmericaIAm: The African-American Imprint, didn’t begin with any expectation of such a powerful ending. Two years ago, when the television personality Tavis Smiley conceived the idea for a museum show about blacks’ contributions to the U.S., an African-American president was all but inconceivable.

Yet the impossible has now arrived. How did this, how could this happen? Walking through, you realize AmericaIAm can help explain.

More than 11 million Africans were stolen from their motherland in the slave trade. Most of the survivors landed in South America and the Caribbean. About 500,000 were taken to America, starting in the early 1600s, and they became the economic engine of the world’s richest nation.

“We know the narrative of Ellis Island and the immigrants coming to New York,” Smiley says. “But there’s another story.”

That story begins at the Doors of No Return. They feel like a last signpost, pointing back to an invisible past. Who were those people who passed through? How did they feel at this precipice of the unknown?

“We must always remember that, and try to feel the trauma,” says James Early, director of Cultural Heritage Policy at the Smithsonian Institution. “But we can’t get stuck there. The Doors of No Return are really a way of measuring our progress.”

Obama’s ancestors were not slaves; his black Kenyan father met his white Kansan mother in Hawaii. But the doors show a stronger connection between Obama, Africa and America than any genealogical chart.

Beyond the doors lie grim relics: Leg shackles and neck chains; census forms counting blacks as three-fifths of a person; a cotton gin; a matching set of silver ladies’ brush, comb, mirror, and small whip.

Then the despair lifts: “On the 1st day of January, A.D. 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free...”

The document is a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. It bears the actual signature of Abraham Lincoln.

Moving on through the exhibit, which will travel to 10 cities over four years, you come upon a plain ballot box, 150 years old, from Franklin County, Ohio. Its power is in its promise. “Voting is for all Americans an index of existence,” Early says. “It’s a physical expression that says, ‘I am.’”

The ballot also frames a century of black struggle after the Civil War. This period is presented in the exhibit through artifacts that can be more frightening than slave whips or chains. A full Ku Klux Klan robe hangs high inside a glass case. With it are carved wooden figurines, about 10 centimetres tall, perhaps children’s toys, depicting tiny hooded Klansmen. This was one of the hardest parts of the exhibit to assemble, according to AmericaIAm’s executive producer, John Fleming.

“During slavery, at least blacks were valuable property, so they were somewhat protected,” he says. “But during Jim Crow, you could just be attacked or beaten or even killed at any time.” That very brutality, in time, would help destroy legalized racism in America.

You move on. Behind the grey jail bars are a bench, a key and a stool. The bench is where Martin Luther King sat before an Alabama judge. The key locked him into solitary confinement. The stool is where he composed the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

The transformation accelerates when you continue past King’s cell into the era of black stardom. Muhammad Ali’s robe from the Rumble in the Jungle. Ray Charles’ tuxedo and sunglasses. A uniform Michael Jordan sweated in while winning a championship. Dozens more examples of game-changing genius, ability and accomplishment. The dread and degradation are gone now, ushered off stage by advancing equality.

“What we show is that Africa and Europe came together to create a new nation and a new culture that never existed before,” says Fleming. Africa and Europe — the direct lineage of Barack Obama.

How could he not end the exhibit? His image closes a thrilling video presentation. And Obama’s personal copy of his speech on race is the final artifact of the show.

After the speech was done, it was left behind on the podium, along with a sense that there is much more of this story to be written.

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