Working beyond the rap culture

The Baltimore Sun

Joanne Martin sat across from me yesterday morning at the Great Blacks In Wax Museum. I held my head in my hands, mumbling something no doubt incoherent about what I'd like to do to distributors of rap videos.

"I've had people come to this museum from around the world who tell me their only exposure to African-Americans is through rap videos," Martin said. "I had a group of people from London tell me that; I had a group of people from Russia tell me that; I had a group of people from Egypt tell me that."

So people in Russia, Great Britain, Egypt and God only knows where else must think that young black American women are a bunch of rump shakers, that young black American men are a bunch of thuggish drug dealers who walk around with their pants down over their butts and sport ridiculous-looking grills in their teeth?

I've said it before, and it warrants saying again, there are certain rap videos that leave me pining for reruns of the Amos 'n Andy television show.

Martin, to her credit, seemed to feel my pain. But feeling the pain of others is pretty much what Martin is about.

It was 25 years ago that Martin and her husband, Elmer Martin, founded the Great Blacks In Wax Museum. Located in a stretch of the 1600 block of E. North Ave. in one of the toughest neighborhoods Baltimore has, the museum is now a world-renowned institution.

"When we were trying to get money from the city for a building," Martin remembered, "Elmer insisted that it must be in a community that needs us."

The location of GBIW, its mission to bring in summer interns to train them in the business of running a museum and the commitment of the Martins to developing the surrounding neighborhood is why both were given the "Gandhi, King, Ikeda Community Builders Award" this past Monday in a ceremony held at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The award - named for Mohandas Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Daisaku Ikeda - has been given annually since 2001. It was established by Lawrence E. Carter Sr., the dean of the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College, King's alma mater. Carter's purpose was to honor people whose goal is to "end inequalities using nonviolent means," said Maia Carroll, the educator at GBIW.

I presume everyone knows who Gandhi and King were. Ikeda is a world-renowned pacifist, author, philosopher and president of the Soka Gakkai International lay Buddhist movement, which began in Japan.

Martin didn't even realize she'd won the award until early in April. Carroll nominated the couple in March.

"I knew they were a shoo-in for the award," Carroll said yesterday, "because of their ability to recognize the potential of uplifting the youth in the community. Dr. Elmer used to say cultural development and community development go hand in hand."

Shortly after the 40th-anniversary observance of King's assassination, Carroll noticed the return address on a piece of FedEx mail was Morehouse College. That's when she knew the Martins had won.

Elmer Martin died of a heart attack in 2001 and received his award posthumously. Joanne Martin remembers her reaction when she heard that she and her late husband had won.

"Shock and amazement at first," Martin said. "I was honored. It was very humbling."

So humbling, in fact, that Martin didn't seem to want to talk about herself. During our interview, she was more than glad to let Carroll do most of the talking. And when Martin did speak, it was about her husband or the youngsters who've benefited from the internships GBIW has offered over the years.

Even when I mentioned the paucity of local media coverage of the couple winning the award, Martin returned to her main focus, her passion, her - and GBIW's - raison d'etre: the children.

"Rarely is there any interest in what these children are doing," Martin said. "If they walk out of here and gun someone down, then they will get the attention."

But Martin knows their stories. She knows about William Redmond, the GBIW assistant facilities manager who's a former summer intern at the museum. She remembers the guy who said his goal is to be president of GBIW one day, and the girl who said she wanted to study business in college so she could run the museum's gift shop.

When those two started their internships, Martin recalled, they, and others, were interested only in being pro athletes or - ugh! - rappers.

"For me," Martin said, "it's still about youth and giving them a sense of their potential, showing them the possibilities rather than the probabilities of life."

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