Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
On a warm morning this past July, I tried my luck at obtaining a timed entry pass to the new Smithsonian museum in Washington D.C., National Museum of African American History and Culture. I had been excited about the museum since seeing a segment on the museum’s construction and public call for artifacts which aired on 60 Minutes in 2015. I wasn’t the only one. Interest in visiting the museum was so tremendous once it opened in September of 2016 that they had to institute timed entry passes. So after obtaining my passes on the first Wednesday of July, I headed down with a fellow teacher in late November.
The museum’s exterior filigree honors the intricate metalwork of African Americans in South Carolina and Louisiana. The openness allows in light, aligning with the one of the themes I felt strongly from my visit: from darkness, light.
Upon entrance to the historical galleries off the concourse, you take a large elevator down, back in time, to the 1400’s, the start of the still evolving journey of Africans in what would become The United States. The gallery on Slavery & Freedom (1400-1877) is three floors below ground level. There is no light source. The content, though painful, is a necessary context to all that rises above… two more historical galleries (Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation 1876 – 1968 and A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond), yes. But more than that: change, endurance, resilience, hope, spirit. The museum’s attention to detail, the narrative within, the opportunity for reflection it offers all, makes the museum a must-visit. It offers a much needed perspective to a district cloaked in the likeness of our nation’s Founding Fathers who offer just one side of a very complex history.
The paradox of Liberty. As our nation developed, those in power began to understand the immense power of an “idea.” The masses will fight for an idea. Power structures that benefit an elite few can perpetuate if the masses are impassioned about that idea. That idea: liberty. Though many can see clearly and critically, now, the paradoxes involved in the birth of our nation (like Thomas Jefferson’s “ownership’ of 600+ slaves over the course of his life, visually represented here in these bricks, while working towards Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness for all men), these paradoxes still exist. And then some. And they are still underneath, ignorantly or otherwise, a blind (and so irresponsible) patriotism. Critical patriotism is true patriotism. [Blind, ignorant patriotism has you yelling at football players for expressing their political views freely, which is exactly the freedom that makes this country wonderful. Should government tell people what to think and suppress free expression? Maybe in a dictatorship.]
I challenge any bigot to follow this line of thinking. Imagine a group of people pulled from their families, their norms and customs, their home against their will. Imagine them being shipped like cargo in cramped ships. Imagine hundreds of thousands not surviving the trip, some living shackled to those who died in transit. Imagine being branded, sold, forced to labor; enslaved. Imagine being the property of your master, having no rights. Imagine being brutally whipped and beaten for small infractions. Imagine being raped and sexually assaulted.
Now imagine it was law that you be separate, segregated. That you were less than everyone else. Facing discrimination at every facet of society, imagine living with institutionalized racism with limited access to education, jobs, the means to progress. It was the law that you were inferior. And though “free,” social institutions continued to enslave you. This, after physical enslavement. America created an underclass, then used those resulting circumstances to perpetuate racism, to “prove” inferiority. Does that make sense? What argument can you have, bigot, that was not truly created by those who originally stacked the deck? How does a people overcome this kind of inhumane treatment?
These pains live on. This museum does not politely dance around them. “We’ve got to tell the unvarnished truth,” a quote from John Hope Franklin was on the first sign I read outside the gallery on Slavery & Freedom (1400-1877). But there is so much more than pain in this space, though you should expect to be overwhelmed. Sometimes to tears.
As you rise through the historic galleries, so does your spirit. Because what this place archives is a war, its atrocities and its victories, both immense and ongoing.
The museum, quite simply, acknowledges and honors the place of African Americans in United States history. Their history is part of The United States, a part of all Americans, as is the voice of all peoples.
I highly recommend a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.