How the National African American Museum of History and Culture Changed My Perspective
A few weeks ago I traveled to D.C., one of my favorite cities, and I got a chance to go to the National African American Museum of History and Culture. The entire time I was there I felt a pride and joy that are incomparable to any other that I’ve felt. I tried my best to take my time and see as much as I could, and honestly I wish I could have gone back the next day. Four hours was not nearly enough, but it rejuvenated me in ways that I did not even think imaginable.
The museum has been in the workings for decades and efforts to open one of its kind date back to as early as 1915. It’s narrative is indicative of what African Americans experience even to this day: systemic racism rears its ugly head in every place that attempts to highlight Black people and our contributions to this society. It reminds me of how we are treated daily, particularly when it comes to the #blacklivesmatter movement and basic rights such as voting, which seems to become less and less of a right or change agent.
Nevertheless, we persist. This persistence is obvious in the magnificent 5-story building that houses artifacts from every entity of Black life in the United States. From the exterior beauty to the expert thought behind the placement of items and their explanations, there is something for everyone.
I definitely found a lot for myself. I started at the top, the floor dedicated to the Culture Galleries. Here, I was able to experience everything from first edition books by African American greats to an Ecuadorian Boat Seat that connects the histories of Black and Hispanic cultures. It was surrounded by Black spoken word artists using their art on screens above all the displays, making the entire experience interactive and enveloping.
As I worked my way down, I came to the Community Galleries on the fourth level. Here, I saw the original dress worn by Dorothy in “The Wiz,” Chuck Berry’s Cadillac on display in all of its glory, and Whitney’s Red Grammy Dress. This floor celebrated musical traditions, education, and activism in our history. The main exhibition is called “Making a Way out of No Way” and discusses how our ancestors fought for education, created their own organizations and schools, and showcases them all. One particularly riveting portion was a room dedicated to Black women and their involvement in political and civil activism, and displayed a table with documents such as Mary McCleod Bethune’s writings and the hat Dorothy Irene Height wore to President Obama’s first inauguration. This room specifically reminded me of my purpose and I was prompted to show my gratitude for the women that came before me more openly and frequently.
The third floor housed the “Explore More!” Exhibit, a place that will soon offer ways to identify your roots. There are computers set up to find ancestors, places of origin, and go back as far as you wish. I didn’t spend much time there because I was making my way to the History Galleries on the lower levels.
The History Galleries are in fact the most popular of all exhibits, and it is easy to see why. The experience starts with taking an elevator that takes you several feet below the surface and moves you through the experiences of African and African American peoples as far back as the 15th century. It gives a comprehensive and unbiased look at the making of America, slavery, the fight for freedom and its implications on today’s society. This encounter was the most awe-inspiring of my entire time there. The story of slavery is one that is known by many, but the intricacies of the artifacts and the factual explicitness of the explanations attached, it presented history in a way that could not be denied. Here, Harriet Tubman’s silk shawl, freedom papers, and an actual enslaved peoples’ quarters where there to see.
Along with an actual segregated train car, one of the most riveting displays was the original casket of Emmett Till. Words to express seeing it, pictures of him and his family, and the instrument tied to his leg to weigh down his body effected me in ways that I did not expect. To see a casket that held the body of a black child horrifically murdered and read the words of his mother stays with you, reminding you of the need for justice, the call to action.
There were so many items on these floors, including bricks from HBCU buildings, a Freedmen’s cabin, Klansmen robes, to the bucket where Martin Luther King Jr. soaked his feet, to chairs and a dress from Oprah’s show set, it completely encapsulated where we have been, where we are, and where we are going.
I could go on about the exhibits, but I urge you to visit for yourself. What I will say is that I went in proud to be Black, and came out in love with my culture. It’s contents urged me to not only show pride in my heritage, but speak it, live it, and continue to learn about it. Four hours was not nearly enough to take it all in, and seeing as many people there made my heart race in two different ways. We were there, but they were in numbers you wouldn’t imagine. Overhearing the conversations of the other patrons only reminded me why this building is so necessary for the advancement of all. It was astonishing to hear the misconceptions, the questions out of confusion, the pure denial of those who do not understand the journey.
Out of all of the exhibits, this is the one that effected me most of all. It pained me to hear statements like “Those slaves were brought over here to help us build our country” and “Well, why didn’t they say no” from a white mother and son, but it also reminded me of why I must continue to be unapologetically black, and why we have to support institutions that are for us.
I cannot express my gratitude for this chance to delve deeper into what makes me who I am. It was astonishing, and it shook my world in a way that propels me forward. It made me see that I cannot just allow the building to sing my — our — story, but I have to add my tune to a melody so beautiful, so graceful, so stunning, so that it continues for measures, for eternity.