2016ak11_221Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending the new National Museum of African American Arts and Culture, the latest and long-anticipated Smithsonian museum on the National Mall in Washington DC.

Like all the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall, entrance is free. However, due to demand and crowds, and the design of the museum, you do need to request a timed and dated pass for entry to the NMAAHC. Currently, they anticipate this to be the case through spring 2017. If you’re going to be in DC, request your pass here. They’re still free, and there is a standby line, if you don’t have a pass and want to try your luck.

When you enter, you don’t immediately fall into the collections, but rather find yourself in an expansive lobby, austere except for some contemporary modern art. The experience is immersive, and you begin by descending more than three stories underground. The passage is from a light-filled atrium, where sun filters between the basket-weave exterior, down to a waiting queue, where you board a large glass elevator. On the wall, as you descend further into history, you can see dates etched into the concrete as the elevator goes down, depositing you in 1400. The elevator doors open on the advent of the opening of the Atlantic as a trade zone, when Africa was a continent of free people and nation-states. As you move forward through the halls, time moves forward. They do an amazing and horrifying job of showing how Africa went from a continent of trading equals, to dehumanizing the inhabitants for the opening of the west, and in particular, how tied that dehumanization was to the sugar trade.

img_8440As you walk through, examining the artifacts and reading the display notes, the feeling is similar in gravity to the holocaust museum. People are quiet, with their voices and with their movements, as they read and absorb. There are artifacts and stories and relics, both of African origination and of the slow spread of conquest and change. On the walls behind the displays, slowly increasing chronologically, are engraved the names of the ships, where they originated, and the “cargo.” They are presented without comment, simply as a documentary list of known facts. “The Van Amsterdam, The Netherlands, June 1704, Enslaved 213/Survived Passage 70.” Over and over and over, increasing in number as you move forward in time, for more than three centuries. I wasn’t aware of how large a part Portugal and the Dutch played in the slave trade. So many Portuguese and Dutch ships—responsible for literally millions of lives. The English became a major presence as well.  You can actually pass by and not notice the background scribing, if you’re only looking at the lit displays. It’s powerful in its subtlety. Those names and what they represent are quite literally the background for the founding of the west.

As you move forward, we see how “race” as a concept was something really amorphous until the colonizers needed a way to distinguish between the descendants of Africans, and the freed/indentured servants. Freed/Indentured labor was a large part of the new world economy, however those indentured were only indentured for a specific timeframe, and their offspring were free. The colonizers needed a way to maintain ownership of the children of the enslaved Africans, and thus “black” and “white” were created as legal classes. This isn’t something that was inherent— it was deliberate, intentional. Slavery is not just a piece of our history, it is significant to the foundation of the west, particularly of this country, and of our entire economic system, our social structure, and our ability to declare our independence. The enslavement of people of African descent is not just a “part” of our collective history. It’s a cornerstone that touched and influenced almost everything that happened here.

I knew the larger touchpoints of this, I know the basics of history, but this museum, if you pay any attention at all, leaves you gasping at the monolith.

img_8441As you move through the American Revolution and the ungodly tension between whites fighting for “freedom from oppression” while maintaining enslaved populations, you pass through rooms of more artifacts, things from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and their words are on the walls in bronze, while you walk around bales of cotton and bricks. There is an air of reverence and suspense. No one is vilified. History is simply laid out, the founding fathers in their own words, sometimes acknowledging the intractable reality of the tension. Mixed in with the recognizable white leaders are artifacts and writings of black contributors: Prince Simbo, who fought for not just the new nation, but his own freedom. Nat Turner, who led a slave revolt in Virginia, and whose bible is on display, donated by descendants of a white who was killed in the bloody Turner uprising. Harriet Tubman, a scout and spy for the Union Army. Statesman and writer Frederick Douglass, who began life enslaved but died a free man.

img_8445One entire wall is inscribed, similarly to the wall with names of the slaving ships, with single lines from human auction-block books. The lines are etched in the background of the displays:  “Boy child, 10 months old, $140” “Woman, about 35, good midwife, $400” “Old Man, crippled, $55” It’s utterly devastating in its dehumanizing austerity. Babies, mothers, husbands and wives. I stood still, wiping sudden tears from my face, imaging children being sold from their parents; it’s hard to grasp. But there it is, line after line after line. The photograph of the linen cloth is known as “Ashley’s sack” and it was a sack-towel a mother gave to her daughter Ashley as she was sold away from her in South Carolina—it contained a lock of her hair and some chestnuts. Her mother told her it held all her love for her, and to never let it go. Her granddaughter embroidered the story on the towel, and her great-great-granddaughter donated it to the museum. There is no way to absorb this kind of saturated sorrow.

You move from there towards the Civil War.  They relocated an actual slave cabin from a plantation, and you can walk through it. The air is solemn and has the feel of consecrated space.  There are displays about the “colored” regiments of the Union army, tintype photos of the faces who fought those battles, and the relics of their lives. I have to gloss over some of this because I was emotionally wrung out at this point. You move from era to era on gradual sloping ramps, and at one such juncture, I sat on a bench and talked with another woman for a bit. She was a community organizer from Detroit who had traveled to the museum. She told me how proud she was that these stories were finally being told, but that it was peppered with anger at seeing her history laid so bare, but that mostly she felt hopeful.

I listened as a mother explained a slave uprising to her son, who was maybe 6 and was looking at some representational paintings. He was asking who the good guys were in the picture, and who the bad guys were. She explained it was impossible to tell, but that the slaves didn’t want to be slaves. He asked if the black people killed the white people. She said, yes, she thought maybe they did. He asked “Isn’t that bad?” And she paused, and took a deep breath, and proceeded to explain that sometimes good people have to do bad things when worse things are being done to them… She was clearly wrestling with how to explain this history to her child, while also trying to convey morality, complexity and sorrow. I moved quietly away, knowing I was eavesdropping unintentionally on something too personal. But my god, how many conversations like this must happen?

Moving up the ramps, you find the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s assassination, Reconstruction, black representation in the newly reunited US government—though that representation ended up being woefully short. Nothing is shied away from, but there is no added drama. The lighting is subdued throughout, punctuated by some recorded informational pieces. The stories being told are enough on their own. As you move up, a biplane from the Tuskegee airmen is suspended overhead, there is a segregated train car, “whites only” signs and a display to Jim Crow laws. There is the lunch counter from Woolworth’s that helped ignite the civil rights movement, and there are the Emmett Till rooms. This is the only place you cannot take pictures. It’s part of the civil rights montage on the second underground floor, and it’s truly horrible. It’s hard. Of course there is significant space dedicated to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and his life and work.

As you move forward in history, the thing that is impossible to avoid is the context for everything modern. None what we currently experience is disconnected from this history. The things happening today truly tied to and built upon the institutional racism of the past—you can literally see it here—and we simply cannot escape it, not as a country, not as a people, not as individuals. I hadn’t fully grasped that before: this isn’t African American history, this is American history. This is America’s history. This is *my* history. This is not a part we tell often, we gloss over the details, it’s not something we like to look at when we are lauding the founding of our country—but as a white person, it was my ancestors who took part in this, it was my ancestors who built and benefited from this system, and we cannot heal and move forward until we all own that history. All of it.

The top floors as you approach ground level are the modern era: the Black Panthers, Nation of Islam, the Womanist movement, Angela Davis, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Public Enemy, and the election of President Obama (which has a powerful and lovely display). All of these things, people, events are intimately tied to the history that lies below. None of it is disconnected, and the context, particularly here, matters more than I have ever understood. There is no such thing as “post-racial.” It’s a term white people made up to avoid dealing with this.

Once you finish with the subterranean foundational floors, there are three floors above, rising up towards the sky, each dealing with the accomplishments of black Americans in education, sports and entertainment. On the first floor above ground, there is a large genealogical library, with staff to assist people in recovering the often-difficult records for enslaved families. I really hope we have a hand in helping with this monumental task.

The second floor showcases sports, Olympics and breaking color-barriers in every venue. We walked through them, but I was overwhelmed by then, and while I appreciated the Muhammad Ali display and the Olympic displays, I don’t remember as much.

The third and highest floor is dedicated to the arts and entertainment and the massive contribution of black artists through the centuries.

I need to sit with this for a while. I feel called to weigh and consider with some gravity our collective burden, to mourn with my fellow man for our history. This museum is more than a museum. It’s vital to our healing and to fulfilling the Lord’s promise that every wrong will be righted, and every right will be rewarded. We simply cannot move forward until then, and a willingness to look, to feel, and to acknowledge is the first step.


  1. Beautiful thoughts, Tracy. I can’t wait to go and sit with this myself.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing your experience there, Tracy. This is stunning.

  3. Thank you for putting this into words. This one definitely goes to the top of the list on visiting DC.

  4. Tracy, this brought tears. I really appreciated that you said “I hadn’t fully grasped that before- this isn’t African American history- this is American history. This is America’s history. This is *my* history.” You’re right. This country isn’t post-racial. Thank goodness that a lot of social barriers have been dropped, and we’re trying to do better. I’m not denying the good that came from the civil rights movement, the long history of Supreme Court cases affirming equality under the law–all the way up to Loving v. Virginia in 1967, just a few years before i was born. But the bottom line is that we are still living with very serious consequences of our shared history. I love that, according to your report, this museum makes us confront that history and think about what we have left to do. I can’t wait to visit it myself.

  5. J. Stapley says:

    This is pretty extraordinary, Tracy. Overwhelming, even. I look forward to going myself at some point.

  6. Thank you, Tracy. Now we have to go next time we are in DC.

  7. Thank you, thank you for your thoughts. As a Smithsonian employee I had the opportunity to visit a couple of weeks ago and was absolutely overwhelmed. I haven’t known how to talk about the experience, but reading your thoughts gives me a starting point. Thank you so much for this.

  8. I very much hope to visit some day. The wait to get in is so long I’ve decided to wait until the rush dies down and hope to make the journey to visit it sometime next year. Fascinating history and we should be sure not to repeat it


    ” as a white person, it was my ancestors who took part in this, it was my ancestors who built and benefited from this system, and we cannot heal and move forward until we all own that history.” I’m not sure why your whiteness has any affect here. I’m white. My ancestors didn’t build this system nor benefit from it. The system of slavery was built by whites and blacks, and benefitted whites and blacks. Not all whites built it and not all whites benefitted. My ancestors came to the US after the system was built, never owned slaves, and never lived where owning them was legal. The more recent ancestors lived in a small rural town where my grandfather said he never saw a black man, so he wasn’t participating in any way in their oppression. Maybe YOUR ancestors did take part in it (and that’d be an interesting story to relate to us), but just because I am white does not mean that I “own” that history any more than I need to “own” the history of the holocaust (another atrocity carried out by whites) or the Holodomor (also an atrocity carried out by whites). Some, not all, whites committed horrendous acts of violence or prejudice against blacks. Not ALL whites need to atone for that.

  9. Thank you Tracy. This is so important. The problems we are facing now are built directly into systems and institutions that have contained systemic racism from the beginning. We’ve been unwinding that painfully slowly since the Civil Rights movement and even before, but it will never really gain momentum until virtually all of white America sees these things as they really are. Perhaps that can only be done through the influence of the Spirit, which show us things as they really are. It sounds to me like this museum can achieve that and provide a spiritual revelatory experience for those who enter.

  10. My response is to Jax. Also made the assumption based on your comments that you

    It is true that not all white people have committed horrendous acts and their ancetors had nothing to do with building the system of slavery and the America’s legacy since that time. But ALL white people regardless when their ancestors arrived in America have benefitted from the legacy of slavery up to today. The benefit has nothing to do with being a good or bad person, never having called a Black person the n-word or even being married to an African-American. Your grandfather benefitted from the social construct of categorizing people by race and then stereotype that was developed in this country. Your grandfather benefitted from having protection under the law if he had a cow or land dispute, accussed of a crime, where he or you can buy a house where the property value and equity could grow. Your grandfather and his progeny benefitted from getting a job, a bank loan, a promotion, or higher pay. Your grandfather, his progency and you have benefitted in countless ways that he or you did not ask for and is unaware of, over opportunities, slight in some case though they might be, but over time have left large gaps between the progress of white and black people in this country. This is not about laying blame but recognizing what is true. Because if white people cannot recognize and acknowledge the benefit they have received from this legacy, how they are unconsciously still affected by this history, then we have no hope of overcoming our past. Examples? The gaps of assets, wealth, business ownership, housing, education and the pernicious sterotype about the criminal “nature” of black men. Best examples of the last one is the person in the helicopter being able to tell that’s a bad dude. And all the killings and shooting of unharmed, unharmed black males by armed, trained officers. This is not new. Take time to consider this. Not sure if your grandfather is still alive, my condolences if he isnt, but would he think his life would be better or the same if he had been born black in America? If your answer to that is no, if not why? Also, using your word, should you have to “atone” for the priviledge of your experience?

  11. Yeah, Jax. I think either you missed my point, or I didn’t make it clearly enough. Saying “Not MY ancestors!” is a way of distancing oneself.

    I am unaware of slave-holding ancestors, and I have no reason whatsoever to believe we took part actively in the slave trade. My ancestors were in America during the revolution, and I qualify as a DAR (though am not a member). Those of us with northern roots often comfort ourselves, imagining we are safe from the stain, but that’s just untrue. New York and other New England states had slaves, and were a part of the national conversation on how to decide and divide, and while they may have outlawed slavery earlier than the Civil War, they still took part in the economy held up by slavery. Where did those northern factories get their cotton? Their tobacco? Their racehorses? My other ancestors arrived after the Highland clearances from Scotland and entered through Canada. But they were still white, regardless of where they settled, and they reaped the benefits, consciously or not, of being white in the US.

    None of that- NONE of it- exempts me from our collective history as an American. While I may not personally have had anything to do with slavery, being born white in America means I was born into positions I did nothing to earn, and were given to me simply by being born white. The system that supports me and the safe neighborhoods, good schools, public respect, and access to services are all built upon the rock at our core. America was founded, more than a small part, on the very backs of enslaved peoples. I reap the benefits of those systems, built layer upon layer, over the centuries. If you are white, so do you.

    Today, in 2016, I can walk through a store without being followed. I do not worry about my children being shot for wearing a sweatshirt. I can walk into the school district in a business suit, demand a meeting with the director of special education, and have my son’s IEP retooled within 24 hours. I do not worry if I am pulled over for an out tail-light that I might be killed. Large percentages of my community is not incarcerated. My schools are well funded, and my neighborhood is not full of predatory short-term lending popups and liquor stores. And on it goes…

    A refusal to look at that and contemplate what that means and where it originates is part of what allows institutional racism to continue. It doesn’t mean you personally are a racist, but it does mean we all need to look at our history and not shy away, not avert our eyes because it’s uncomfortable. We. Must. Look. And when we are presented the chance, we must speak up, do our part tho help dismantle, shine a light, and “lift where we stand.”

  12. Jax, I am quite willing to bet that your grandparents purchased a home with FHA mortgage insurance and/or a VA loan, and at least one of them attended college on the GI Bill. In the case of the former, blacks could only get FHA insurance if they bought into a redlined all-black neighborhood; in the latter, many institutions, even in the North, refused to admit all but a handful of black students.

    Blacks were excluded systematically from the institutions that created the American middle class in the post-WWII era–and many Latter-day Saints fought to maintain that exclusion (e.g., the California initiative that attempted to nullify the housing provisions of the Civil Rights Act).

  13. To add to that, anytime you see an HOA or a for sale/rent sign that says “protected by covenants,” you should think of what that meant initially and how systemic racism conspired against black people preventing them from home ownership or building generational equity in real estate like white Americans after WWII.

  14. We have a responsibility ameliorate the legacy of slavery. We can’t do that until we recognize that there is one. That’s why Tracy’s point in the OP is that “post-racial” is a myth. Saying “not my problem” is ignoring the fact that you had a lot of benefits and opportunities that people of color simply did not. That’s wrong.

  15. The vastly larger portion of the space trace was perpetuated by Brazil and other South American countries. Not to minimize the US role, but it was a fraction of what occurred in the Southern Hemisphere.

  16. Cj, is that comment meant for this thread? I’m not sure what you’re saying.

  17. I think he meant “slave trade.” Which, yes, slavery was gigantic in Brazil, and its legacy never really has been addressed properly. As it became obvious that it was winding down the country’s small Portuguese elite desperately sought European immigration to whiten the population, but the majority of Brazilians are significantly or primarily descended from African slaves–and the country gets blacker and blacker the further down the income scale you go.

    Having said that, Brazil was not founded on lofty Enlightenment rhetoric about the inherent freedom and dignity of mankind. The United States of America was, and the North was built on a foundation of small landowners who worked their own land. And yet, the southern third of the country derived almost all of its prosperity from the enslavement of human beings; its principal financial centers derived a large portion of their prosperity from lending money for the purchase of slaves and of land worked by slaves. (This is why New York City was such a hotbed of Confederate sympathy during the Civil War.) Since the crops grown by slavery accounted for a very large percentage of the United States’ tax revenue for its first century of existence, the country relied quite heavily on slavery to finance the operations of its government–including its war of independence.

    These are things of which most white Americans are not really aware. Or, like Jax, they say they’re irrelevant, even as they proudly adopt the positive legacy of the Founders as their own.

  18. Wow. Thank you for this write-up and your thoughts. This museum is on my short list for whenever I may be in D.C.
    I went to a museum in Charleston, SC over the summer that was dedicated to the domestic slave trade. I felt many of these same feelings – the breadth and utter lack of humanity in it. While I was there, one of the men who worked at the museum took a group of us out back into the parking lot. He asked us how many of us had been to plantations or carriage houses while there and reminded us that as tourists we were not being told about their history. That they were built on the backs of slaves who didn’t benefit from the economic prosperity of the town. He wanted us to be reminded that we were being given a glossed over version of the history of Charleston and to be mindful of how that has affected the prosperity of whites and blacks to this day… in the same vein as you were talking about the context and the continuity of how these effects are playing out in 2016.

  19. In his comment, Jax said that he doesn’t think all white people should have to “atone” for racist wrongs of the past. That has an edge that no one has acknowledged in this thread. I don’t know whether Jax feels this way, but some white people are suspicious about any discussion of racism. They wonder, why should I feel guilty for a situation that I didn’t cause? If I benefit from the current state of affairs, it sure doesn’t feel like it; I’m struggling just to stay afloat. And if I do feel guilty, how will that help anyone? Maybe the real purpose of this whole discussion is to make it easier to take what I have, in the name of “atoning” for “the system.”

    How should one respond to this? Assume that the person who feels this way has little or no racist animus, but reflexively sees discussions about race relations as a threat. What can you say that addresses the person’s fears without being condescending? It won’t do just to say, “You misunderstood.” Obviously, there is a failure of communication, but how do you get past that?

    I know that this is a tangent from Tracy’s essay, but it’s worth thinking about in discussions about racism if we want to do more than preach to the choir.

  20. Those are good questions, Loursat, and they need to be discussed. I don’t have any easy answers- indeed, I don’t think there *are* any easy answer in *any* discussion of racism.

    I do believe there is a natural human propensity to look away from things that make us uncomfortable. This history is decidedly uncomfortable. It’s much easier to think of our founders and our country as one great experiment in the Enlightenment, and to imagine ourselves, as modern citizens, separate from that history. It’s wrong. But it’s easier. It’s certainly more comfortable for white people.

    I think a few people in my own family (especially some older members) might fall under this umbrella- they have no specific racial animus, but would reflexively feel threatened. I imagine that feeling of threat comes from fear. Fear of the social order? Fear of difference? Fear of class issues? I don’t know how I would approach this with some of my family, but I plan to try. I am hoping love and validation will help. People need to feel heard before they can hear new information.

    For me, this experience was transformative. Being willing to *look* hard at this, to acknowledge things I only glimpsed before, is only the first step. I now have to be willing to act, to speak up, to do what I can in my own community to not just believe differently, but to show that I have been changed. I don’t know yet what that will take, but I am not going to look away.

  21. Amanda, thank you for that. I hope you make it to DC and can get tickets.

  22. cj, if “slave trade” is what you meant, I will decline to engage. This museum is about American history, not Brazilian, and as APM pointed out, they are not the same.

  23. Leonard R says:

    I can’t help but believe that if everyone could make this visit it would go a long way to help understand where we, collectively, came from, which would help us to know better how to move forward. Knowledge is power. Thanks for the write-up.

  24. Tracy, I drank in your description of this visit. It feels like a journey we all must take, and I hope many of us do eventually get that opportunity. Thank you for sharing your experience with us with all of its complexity and sorrow.

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