Spanaway-raised Rosanna Sharpe has made a career of merging art, history and culture. It’s the perfect résumé for her current position as executive director of the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle.
Sharpe, 50, was born on an Army base in Germany before moving first to Yakima and then eventually to Spanaway in the second grade. After getting her associate degree from Pierce College, she obtained bachelor in fine arts degrees at Long Island University and Syracuse University.
Before taking over the six-year-old museum in early 2013 — first as interim director — she had positions at Seattle’s Experience Music Project, the Tacoma Art Museum and the Museum of Glass.
The Northwest African American Museum, which inhabits a former school building next to Jimi Hendrix Park in Seattle’s Central District, just opened a photography show on Afros — the hairstyle. It has two other shows up, including one on African-American baseball players.
Q: What was life like growing up in Spanaway?
A: It was rural. You had to have a bike to get around. It was a nice mix of people and cultures. My closest friends, many of them were biracial: Japanese and white, black and Korean. There were a lot of different ethnicities represented in a small footprint.
Q: And you are biracial. Your dad is African-American and your mom is white, from England. Does that give you a different perspective on life compared to being all black or all white?
A: Absolutely. When my mom would take us to England every other summer, we were almost like a spectacle. People in the neighborhood thought we were from Pakistan India. We were the mysterious brown children that visited every other summer. But always embraced and welcomed and socialized very well.
Living in a community that’s very diversified allowed me to see the huge spectrum of what a community can look like. Never a dull moment in terms of food and culture and festivals and experiences.
Q: What are the goals and mission of the Northwest African American Museum?
A: To look at the black experience as a shared experience, one that is embraced as an essential part of understanding who we are as a people and what our histories are. Even though we talk about the African-American narrative, we make it applicable to the human experience. Our story becomes a metaphor for other people’s struggle or celebration. People can step in to someone else’s shoes and learn from that experience and make it meaningful for them.
Q: What can this museum provide that a national museum, like the soon to open National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., can’t?
A: We are extremely accessible to our neighbors and we define our neighbors as close as the residential street across the park to our neighbors in Olympia. Because we are telling stories that aren’t told anywhere else geographically, you would have to travel to San Francisco to get a museum that gives what we give to our community. That speaks to the need for us to be here. Otherwise our stories would go silent.
Q: What is unique about the African-American experience in the Pacific Northwest?
A: Many African-Americans came here for opportunity. There was a huge desire to escape discrimination, better job opportunities, to provide a better life for their children. All the ideas of manifest destiny — African-Americans had them too. The opportunities were specific to the war effort and the fact that the Naval Shipyard was in Bremerton and Boeing was here. Once (African-Americans) were here, they had to build community to get food, have a newspaper and get their shoes shined and establish churches and schools. Then you had the rising of the African-American community in the Central District, specifically.
Q: Like the Hilltop in Tacoma?
A: Very much so.
Q: What would non-African-Americans get out of your museum?
A: It’s a great way of empowering our black children. There are important people you need to see and can empower you and you can emulate them and they can be your role models — outside of basketball players and musicians. We have scientists and explorers. (We can) show them the variety of potential. It’s also important for their white counterparts to see there are black professionals and educators. We’re here for the benefit of our entire community regardless of creed, religion, race, ethnic background. This is a story people need to hear and make it applicable to their own situations.
Q: What’s happening at the museum now?
A: Currently on display is “Pitch Black: African American Baseball in Washington.” That runs through the baseball season.
Q: I see you have a World Series trophy.
A: That’s Bill North’s when he played with the Oakland A’s (in 1974). He was very politically charged because he was playing baseball during the time of the Black Panther movement. Joe Staton is a much beloved ex-baseball player who is instrumental in encouraging the next generation of African-American youths to play baseball. There’s a huge decline in American-born African-American players. We’ll have a reception on July 24 for Herb Simpson, one of the original players with the Steelheads, Seattle’s only Negro League (team).
Q: What’s next?
A: “Afros: A Celebration of Natural Hair,” a great photography show by a Brooklyn (New York) artist, Michael July. He’s a social documentarian. There’s a huge renaissance of natural hair that started around 2000. It’s this movement for African-Americans in particular to go back to natural hair, without processing, relaxing, coloring. It gives us a good opportunity to examine history, art and culture.
This is a nice combination of all three because it looks at the history of the Afro from Africa to the New World. It looks at the Afro as a social statement of the black power movement and what that meant culturally to wear your hair a certain way. And then this new renaissance of the natural hair explosion and what that means in terms of beauty, entertainment icons, hair care products, beauty salons and what it means to be liberated and wear your hair a certain way.
We’re going to have an interactive gallery where people can come in and take selfies and be able to comment on what it means to them.
Q: Is it just African-American Afros?
A: No. Mike Brady had a fro. Barbara Streisand had a fro. We’re going to find some vintage photos of dignitaries now from the fro days.
Q: What are some notable past shows?
A: An important one was “Bearing Witness” — photographs of (author) James Baldwin when he spent a decade in Turkey. He took refuge in Turkey to escape the demands of being an activist. It showed the intimate side of his travels as a gay black man in the ’60s and ’70s and what that meant. We used that to talk about many important things in the community: gender, identity. That was pivotal for us.
Q: And you stage a show on health?
A: “Checking our Pulse” – a collaboration with Swedish Hospital. It looked at the state of health of the African-American community. It was a chance to examine things that were becoming prevalent and educating people on how to take better care of themselves and access doctors and health information.
Q: Where is the museum headed?
A: We’re looking at a plan for growth. The demand for what we do is only getting greater. (The city of Seattle) is getting ready to break ground here on the Jimi Hendrix Park. They’re going to make an interpretive park. The Jimi Hendrix Foundation and the Parks Department have designed an amphitheater, different areas where people can learn about his life and contributions. It’s going to be an area of pilgrimage. We want to make the experience dynamic so people can come to the museum and be oriented. (Jimi’s sister) Janie Hendrix is on the board here.
Q: Where do you get your funding and what are your numbers?
A: The museum is totally independent. We don’t get funding from a city government. We’re not a budget item for any government agency. The Urban League owns the building. We get tremendous support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and great support from 4Culture and a lot of generous individual donors.
Our budget this year is $1 million. Our admissions in 2013 were about 20,000, but we are already starting to see a huge increase in admissions because of some marketing initiatives we’re doing and inviting people to come see the museum. A lot of it is word of mouth and getting our friends to invite their friends.
Northwest African American Museum
When: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday through Sunday
Where: 2300 S. Massachusetts St., Seattle.
Admission: $7 for adults, $5 for students and seniors, free for children under 5.
Information: 206-518-6000, naamnw.org/Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541