Tuesday 22 November 2016
Yesterday I had a chance to visit the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. If you want to reserve timed tickets to go see it, you can do that online right now for tickets in March. However, if you are in town and are willing to get up early and stand in line, in the cold, you can get same day tickets. We got up at 5 and took the Metro into town to get in line by 7. They started distributing the tickets by 9 and were really accommodating when we asked for a later time so someone else could join us after lunch.
Our history of racism and exploitation is hard to conceive of let alone understand. This was difficult to write about while trying to consider the perspectives and or sensitivities of people who might read it. I have my own thoughts sprinkled throughout as this is written for an informal blog but I have added italics to sections that are clearly just my thoughts superimposed over a shared experience since I have no way to actually relate to someone else’s experience except through my own.
In line, we stood in front of a retired African American man and self-proclaimed museum buff who flew into town from Denver specifically to spend time at this museum. He planned his trip with three days dedicated to fully exploring the museum. However, he didn’t particularly appreciate the 28 degree F temperature and 15 knot winds and might have been reconsidering his plan by the time we got through the line. He was an Air Force Veteran and was excited to learn that I was too and we had both been stationed at the same base in Germany. We shared some stories about our time in the service and appreciated the time we were able to spend together standing in the cold.
In front of us was a young woman and her mother from Saint Louis. She had recently finished her undergrad degree in museum studies in history and art at American University and was back in town to spend time with her Mom visiting some of the museums that inspired her to pursue work in that field. Our museum buff friend was pretty excited to find himself in line with a young museum professional and they really seemed to enjoy each other’s company, geeking out about the economics and administration of various museums and their futures. We had a really great conversation about her thesis on propaganda in World War II and some of the symbols of modern movements like Standing Rock.
We got tickets to enter the museum at 2pm. We needed to leave by 4:45 to meet some other friends for dinner so we had less than 3 hours to explore the museum. You cannot see the whole museum in 3 hours.
There is so much information and so much of that information is so jarring that I think it is best to plan for multiple visits of half a day or less to even begin to absorb what this museum and its history represent. If you were able to spend hours each day for several years and really ponder the weight of some of the ideas represented in the pictures and words and sounds and artifacts in this museum you may begin to scratch the surface of the collective history that undergirds the foundation on which this country and the modern world was built.
This year I have had more time to think about the state of the world and what my role might be in it than I would have if I had a regular job. I have had opportunities to travel and meet people and be exposed to ideas I might not have been exposed to if I were not able to move around. I have been aware for a while that I’ve been able to do what I have done in my life because of a certain amount of privilege and I am just beginning to understand what that means for my life and for other peoples’ lived experiences. I don’t imagine that I can ever fully understand my own let alone anyone else’s experience but I am trying to understand some of the patterns and the implications of those patterns. I think the Museum of African American History and Culture is a space which brings some of those patterns into starker relief and sharper focus than many of us have access to in our day to day privileged and mostly segregated lives. I hope you will take advantage of this space and take time to be present in it as soon as you can.
The history part of the museum tour is chronological. You enter at ground level and take an elevator down below grade to the beginning of the exhibit. At the top of the elevator is “Today” and years with especially significant events in African American History are painted on the wall of the elevator shaft as you go down. The exhibit starts when you get off the elevator before 1400. It begins with European contact with the African continent and the spreading of trade among equals and shows how the relationship shifted over time to one of domination and extractive foundations for capital. The exhibits walk you through the slave trade, the revolutionary war, the economic foundations of the burgeoning country, the intellectual somersaults of the founding fathers, the abolitionist movement and the civil war, reconstruction and the fist rise of the KKK. It walks you through the world wars, the civil rights movement and Vietnam and into the continuing struggle for equality.
I worried before going to the museum that my emotional reaction to the information there might not be appreciated by the people around me. I was determined going into the museum to try to maintain a dignified presence to honor the lived experience of the people before me and the people around me. I didn’t want to be the white guy losing his shit in the middle of a room full of dignified people who live on the receiving end of racism every day. This was unfortunately made easier for me by the sheer volume and weight of information and my overwhelming inability to absorb even a fraction of it but there were moments when my thin veneer of stoicism was rendered inadequate for that particular task.
There is not a linear path from the past to the present. It is more complicated than that and the museum has several rooms and paths and displays that branch off from the general flow to highlight specific artifacts and stories that warrant special treatment. One room displays planking and ballast from an actual slave ship. In this dark room like a ships hold that might leave one feeling claustrophobic a woman was reading the informational placards to her young children who I might guess were 5 and 7. I looked up as I waited for her to finish reading a placard about how they crammed people into storage compartments in shackles as cargo for the middle passage. Her children stood patiently while their mother read to them under a display of crude iron shackles including sets of tiny shackles used for securing the children that were ripped from their families and shipped as property across the ocean. Her voice was gentle and sweet with the slightest hint of a quiver.
I imagined her desperate need to impart this information to her young boy and young girl without traumatizing them but to make them aware of the difficulties they will face in a world where despite being alert and warry someone else’s hatred and indifference and greed could leave you shackled and trapped in a system that takes your life in the name of profit. Their innocence, the need to speak truth and yet protect the innocent and the shear horror of that truth welled up in me in that moment and overcame my determination but I pulled myself together before we left the dark belly of the ship to learn about the sugar industry…
Another display in the 1950s struggle for civil rights was a chapel with the original casket of Emmett Till. There was a line for people to que and slowly file past the casket. Along the walls as you approach the casket are placards to tell the story of a 14 year old boy from Chicago who went to visit relatives in Mississippi in 1955 and was lynched after being accused of flirting with a white woman. Again a mother with children was in front of me. Her daughter looked to be about 9 or 10 and was quietly weeping as she approached the casket. She tried to comfort her daughter while her son who looked to be 5 or 6 was trying to understand what was going on. She explained that the casket was for a boy who was killed. Her son looked at her and looked at the casket and asked, “Mommy, is he an angel now? “ And his mother hugged both of her children and replied, “Yes, baby, he’s an angel now.”
I could only nod my head in agreement.
When I left the history portion of the museum I felt numb and overwhelmed like I feel when I leave a funeral because I have just spent time contemplating things that don’t make any sense and seem impossible for a human brain to really comprehend, death, pain, greed, hate, struggle, violence, suffering, perseverance, love… I can’t imagine visiting this museum and not being moved by what it represents.
After the history part of the museum I didn’t have time to explore the rest but there is library space specifically for genealogy research, a large theater space to host speakers and films, and more exhibits on culture and arts. The café is supposed to be amazing.
I’m really glad I had a chance to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The history of African Americans is the history of modern America. If you want to learn about this country, you should go to this museum. I plan to go again soon. Let me know if you are in DC and want to stand in line with me early in the morning.