Black students bear witness to their own history in the metaverse

Third grader Mya Alvarado would not be born for five decades when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, New Jersey, recently wore her virtual reality headset and transposed via the Time Studios Project The March 360 into the past to see and hear King’s speech in the metaverse.

What caught Mya, 8, was King standing at his podium surrounded by glitter as he spoke about his “dream of having his children treated fairly,” she said.

Watching the iconic scene up close, Mya felt “confident”.

In an effort to educate young people more fully about Black history, creatives and educators are using new methods like virtual reality. Morehouse College launched its first black history course in the Metaverse this year, practically taking students on a slave ship and to the battlefields of the Civil War and WWI where black soldiers fought. It’s one of countless projects promising to bring users by some point — and with more than 400 million Metaverse users a month, there’s a good chance Mya’s January experience won’t be her last.

Cynthia and Mya. (Courtesy of Cynthia Serrano)

Mya’s mother, Cynthia Serrano, 38, is also no stranger to the Metaverse, attending concerts by the likes of Notorious BIG, John Legend and Foo Fighters through Meta Horizon Worlds. But King’s speech marked the first time she witnessed a historical event in the metaverse, she said.

“It’s not really something kids are looking for,” Serrano said of the landmark speech. “So to actually see it live on your face, it was just amazing.”

A unique way to see the past

Often used for video games, the metaverse is a virtual space where people can interact with others in shared digital experiences for learning, recreation, or entertainment. Some popular Metaverse platforms are The Sandbox and Horizon Worlds created by Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram. Users gain access to the Metaverse via a virtual reality headset containing glasses and a joystick that allow them to see and move freely within the space.

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The story goes on

Businesses are also recreating historical moments, and black creatives like artist Gabe Gault are collaborating with them to help tell stories about black heritage.

Gault, who lives in Los Angeles, collaborated with Meta last February and launched I Am A Man, a virtual reality exhibit that pays homage to black characters like Rosa Park, the Tuskegee Airmen and King. Iconic sites recreated in this experience include the Lorraine Motel, where King was murdered in 1968.

The Lorraine Motel and other historic landmarks featured in Gabe Gault’s I Am a Man series. (Courtesy of Gabe Gault)

“I really wanted to put people in the place of where people have been through Black history,” Gault said, “and I wanted people to be able to experience it first-hand and interact with it in a new and fresh way.” “

Gault’s virtual reality project lasted two months and attracted people of all ages and races, he said. In addition to his I Am A Man project, Gault says he has also painted murals in the Metaverse.

What intrigues Gault most about the Metaverse is its ability “to create something that you couldn’t actually create in the real world,” he said. The tool also makes it convenient for people to create these experiences without spending a lot of money, he added.

The Metaverse attracts many Black-run organizations, such as Route History, a Springfield, Illinois-based museum that explores the history of Route 66 through the past experiences of Black travelers. In May, Route History will launch a Metaverse experience that will allow visitors to see the world from the perspective of four black characters traveling along Route 66.

The project involves a baseball player traveling with his team, a blues singer traveling with her backing singer, a family of four, and a World War II veteran.

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Gina Lathan, right, conducts a Route History Tour for Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, Lt. gov. Juliana Stratton and staff at the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. (Courtesy of Gina Lathan)

“We knew there were so many inspirational stories and blueprints laid out for how we can continue to develop our community and take better care of each other,” said Gina Lathan, Route History founder. “But unfortunately it was never formalized in a way that told the story of our greatness.”

State Senator Doris Turner, an advocate for preserving Route 66’s black history, said using this “platform of the day” would help continue the tradition of oral exchanges in black communities.

“In the African American family, most of our history is passed through oral tradition — through conversations with your aunts and uncles and your grandmothers and great-grandmothers at family events,” Turner said. “And we lose some of it. So this is an opportunity to stimulate those conversations.”

Route History Vice President Stacy Grundy said the new Metaverse experience could also help local black children be proud of their area’s history.

“If you look at these communities where the Green Book companies were located, many of them are among the hardest hit communities in the state today,” Grundy said. “Because of that, the kids who live in these communities don’t even know a community that looked like this 100 years ago. They have no idea of ​​the prosperity of the people who walked the same streets as them. So that was a huge opportunity for us to recreate that and for them to be inspired and proud of their community to see that someone before me has already laid the groundwork and now they have an opportunity to do the same to do .”

What the future of the metaverse looks like

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The Metaverse may serve as a place of learning for many young people, but the number of those interested — including adults — is expected to increase as more than 74% of US adults are joining or considering joining, according to the Bankless Times.

In a Pew Research Center poll of 624 technology innovators, developers, business and government leaders, researchers, and activists, 54% said they expect the Metaverse to become a more sophisticated, more immersive aspect of daily life for half a billion or more people worldwide will be by 2040.

Virtual plumbing workers protesting in the Metaverse during a recreation of the 1968 Memphis plumbing strike, holding up “I Am A Man” signs. (Courtesy of Gabe Gault)

Gault said that while some people are still trying to grasp the idea of ​​the metaverse, many people use the space every day and he expects people to have more experiences with the metaverse in the future.

“I think history always repeats itself,” Gault said. “And I think it’s important to stay current, even with the little things that keep pointing to current events.”

As for parents like Serrano, she may also see the Metaverse as a tool to teach future subjects to kids like her daughter, who has said she would like to see Rosa Parks in the Metaverse. Serrano, who is Puerto Rican, also said that while she’s not black, “if we had grown up during that era,” because of the color of her skin, “we’d be treated pretty much the same.”

That’s why it’s so important to teach her daughter about black history, she said, and if it’s done through the metaverse, she’s all for it.

“I’m always learning and I hope she’s always learning,” Serrano said, “and I think that’s the best way to involve people, even though it’s as cool as the metaverse.”

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