Yesterday, 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.
As 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.
As 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.
One 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.