Arts & Culture

Visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture: An Emotional Experience

Especially prominent, of course, is the Civil War, its aftermath, and later, the Civil Rights movement. Warriors who fought against slavery, black and white (like William Lloyd Garrison) are celebrated, and the progress of the effort is meticulously detailed. The long build-up to the Civil War, its bloody progression, and its tragic aftermath are all vividly displayed.

One of the most important points is how Civil War, while resulting in the abolition of slavery, did not truly “emancipate” African Americans from their lives of hardship and servitude. Though the wealth of our nation had been built on the backs of slaves, and though the freedmen were promised “40 acres and a mule” so that they could farm their own land and prosper, in reality most became sharecroppers. Desperate poverty and subservience to the white hegemony were the rule, and prosperity was a rare exception.

The efforts made during Reconstruction led to the backlash that created the brutally segregated Jim Crow South. Open racism there was mirrored by other forms of institutionalized discrimination in the North, like the 20th century practice of “redlining” that kept blacks from buying property—the single largest source of wealth for the average American.

Racial discrimination, whether overt or subtle, was accompanied by murderous hostility in some areas of the South, and the history of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, and mob violence are also detailed here. But while Emmett Till is remembered and honored here, so is Rosa Parks, who sparked the blaze of the Civil Rights movement when she famously refused to move to the “back of the bus.”

A great many of the visitors at the museum on the day I went were African American families. One of the last exhibits in the historical section is devoted to Barack Obama. The dress Michelle Obama wore to the inaugural ball is there, for example. (As her husband spoke during the dedication ceremony, she is shown sitting behind him with tears in her eyes.) Obama’s election and achievements represent some of the spectacular breakthroughs in African American history, but I found this one of the saddest of moments on exhibit.

I was saddened by it because despite the advances and progress that his election and presidency represent, the national dialogue seems to have coarsened and people in this country are more polarized than they have been in a long time. Black people, (and others) are still at risk here, as the shootings of unarmed black men have so poignantly illustrated. To underline this threat, on several occasions someone has left nooses hanging on Smithsonian grounds, even in the museum itself, meant to be foul reminders of the hatred that still lingers.

Some would like to turn back the progress we have made, and some would like to return to the days when America was only truly safe for a small minority of its citizens. But the hopeful lesson that the museum itself teaches is that history moves forward, and, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Each step forward was met with resistance, and in many cases, steps backward. But things moved slowly and painfully in the right direction in spite of this. Slavery was abolished, and never brought back. Our society is more integrated than ever before, and interracial marriage, once illegal, is now taken for granted. We did elect an African American president, one who left a legacy of dignity that cannot be erased.

As the museum’s founding director Lonnie Bunch said, the museum celebrates  “not just the well known, but also those famous only to their families, whose lives in quiet ways shaped this nation.” As long as ordinary citizens continue to fight for justice and work to make America better, progress is possible. Meanwhile, this museum was founded in the belief that a strong nation does not deny truth, even if it is ugly, painful, and shameful. By confronting the story of African Americans we are brought to a better understanding of what shaped the nation we live in today, and where we need to go in the days ahead.

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  • AA July 6, 2017 at 2:42 pm

    Thank u Cecilia for the overview- one needs to re visit this museum several times to completely take in all the amazing exhibits.

  • l.gibbons July 6, 2017 at 9:25 am

    i was just there and it is most impressive. It will take days to go through and see everything. i hope I can get back there some time. So much to learn and see.