“Museum as Hub: Alpha’s Bet Is Not Over Yet” is an exhibition, reading room, and discussion space inspired by the energy and politics of radical, independent Black periodicals published during the first half of the twentieth century. Borne out of “Book Club” (2010), a think tank and reading group organized by Steffani Jemison and Jamal Cyrus for Project Row Houses, Houston, “Alpha’s Bet” investigates approaches to language, the written word, self-education, and democratic distributions of knowledge. In an era marked by expanding digital networks and an abundance of information, the project seeks to bring together people in physical space, around a physical set of materials, not only to make this information accessible but also to offer it in a way that is intelligible, discussable, and useable toward new ends.
The exhibition is informed by two hundred years of dialogues: spiritual (The Supreme Alphabet of the Nations of Gods and Earths), pedagogic (anti-phonics and whole language politics), visionary (Hamptonese, spirit writing and protective writing), and populist (“ebonics” and “Black English”). Despite their divergent ideologies, all of these theories maintain that words are not passive vessels or known quantities. This perspective is reflected in the exhibition’s title that quotes visionary theorist and multi-disciplinary artist Rammellzee (1960-2010), who argued that language, as a social agreement, has the potential to be reimagined in order to disrupt structures of power.
“Alpha’s Bet” presents an interactive newsstand display featuring complete reproductions of more than 600 issues of African American periodicals published between 1902 and 1949, including The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races; The Messenger: World’s Greatest Negro Monthly; Ebony; and Education: A Journal of Reputation. These reprints are joined by a series of newly commissioned posters by contemporary artists—inspired by the American Library Association’s READ campaign—as well as a collection of contemporary chapbooks, zines, and self-published books. The installation is designed to encourage browsing of the materials, and provides space for both concentrated reading and conversation. Throughout the duration of the exhibition, invited readers will present selections in the gallery during the New Museum’s free hours on Thursdays October 20, November 10, and December 1. Visitors are encouraged to suggest passages from the presented materials for public readings.
By drawing out and bringing together these activities in one public space, the exhibition aims to create a repository of information that illustrates the consistent urgency of discussions surrounding literacy, power, and independence. Through readings, reexaminations, and discussions of this material, “Alpha’s Bet” seeks to activate our current state of potential.