Missed Opportunities

Missed Opportunities

Three weeks ago I was at the National Portrait Gallery (part of the Smithsonian Art Museum). I had arrived after work to finish the first level of the right side of the museum as part of my “museums and memorials” (m&m) mission -- to see, in their entirety, as many museums and memorials as I can. That day was my second day in a week at the gallery. I passed an hour in the American Civil War section, glancing at early photographs of President Abraham Lincoln, portraits of several generals (my favorite being an imposing portrait of Ulysses S. Grant holding a cigar while standing next to map covered with binoculars), and images of African American soldiers.

As I made my way through each part, I noticed a peculiar group on a tour. It wasn’t your typical tour group—they didn’t look like tourists, and they were all finely dressed elderly (i.e. older than 60 years old) folks. One of the curators was providing in-depth details about the stories and peoples in the portraits. But surprisingly she wasn’t the most knowledgeable person. There was a short (relatively speaking—I’m about 6ft. tall), gray-haired African American man with glasses interjecting to provide additional layers of details to the curator’s explanations. He would also toss in the occasional joke. It was evident that he was the focus of the party.

Trying to act covertly, I stayed as close to their group as possible without interfering in their zone. The two security guards nearby probably would’ve made sure I didn’t interfere, had I wanted to. I would pretend to look at portraits while sneaking a look at the short African American man.  You look very familiar? I thought to myself. Where have I seen you…it’s Henry Louis Gates, Jr.! Yes, somehow, by dumb luck I had been at the National Portrait Gallery on the same day Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was visiting. For those of you who don’t know who he is, I’ll just give a brief bio: Harvard history professor famous for tracing the lineage of people (specifically African Americans) to their ancestors’ origins; he was mistakenly arrested by the police while he was trying to enter his own house, which led to the Beer Summit at the White House. The man is kind of big deal… well if you already know about him.

As embarrassing as this may sound, I was in awe—imagine a very sedated girl seeing Justin Bieber—but I couldn’t make it too obvious. I imagined ways I could introduce myself: "Hi Mr. (or would it be Dr.?) Gates, my name is Kwabena Boateng. You helped trace my professor’s lineage to Ghana, which is where I’m from…" I remained close, plotting how I could initiate contact.

But the more I thought about it, the more I doubted what could happen (why do I overthink?). As I a slowly tried to find some courage to approach him, he and his party began to depart the gallery. I missed my chance to talk to a public scholar.

At a networking program at the TWC apartments (RAF), our presenter said that D.C. was a place where you needed guts to succeed. Unfortunately mine were removed at birth (not really, but you understand).  It is why I find networking, that evil necessity, so difficult. The uncertainty of introducing yourself to people, especially people who may seem important/powerful, forces me back into my shell. The problem is that you can’t survive or make any progress in this city unless you have the guts to say “hi, I’m so and so…” because if you don’t, then you remain just another nameless face.

If I had any guts, I wouldn’t be writing about how I saw Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Rather, I’d be recounting how he and I had a meaningful, if short, conversation, and we shook hands, and he gave me his business card and asked me come to Harvard to be part of his upcoming documentary. Maybe the last part wouldn’t have happened, but at least I could say “I spoke to Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” But, all I have now are my “what ifs.”

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