I will say that I am writing this on the heels of what was arguably most ridiculous presidential debate of my lifetime. When the subject of race relations came up; it was so narrow and dismal and I wasn’t really pleased with either candidate’s response. Even Hilary’s, though coherent (and constitutional), still only managed to paint a very narrow view of African-American communities. She spoke on how cracking down on guns and improving community relations will resolve things, without acknowledging all the underlying causes of violence in minority communities.
And so my visit to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture primed me more so than usual to this race story, as it documents the long and arduous journey of black people in this country. There is just so much. The museum contains more than 37,000 artifacts. It has 6 massive levels that showcase our struggles and our triumphs. It carries you through our history, step by step.
It begins in a dark cramped room that invokes the middle passage, decorated with recovered bits of slave ships and chains.
You exit there and view our constitution and founding fathers, in ironic contrast to the pile of bricks that represent owned people. You walk past slave quarters, actually lifted from a plantation.
Then there’s the civil war and the backlash our freedom created. And here is where I feel the museum really begins to shine. I think public education limits so strongly the reality of jim crow. It’s this perception that segregation was all. That the idea of togetherness made white people angry but that’s all. That there were a few moments of violence but that’s all. They forget the about the century of life in between the civil war and civil rights that forced blacks to become refugees.
They forget how far back the Jim Crow laws dated.
They forget how the prison system was used as a loophole to force blacks back into slavery.
They forget how our freedom created a wave of backlash and hatred that grew into ugly stereotypes.
They forget how when, despite these challenges, we built communities of wealth and stability they were burned down.
They forget that Jim Crow wasn’t just about seats on a bus or ordering coffee at a diner; that historically black lives have never mattered.
They forget that for nearly 100 years these systems were in place to destroy black education, black wealth, black housing, black families, and black communities.
And when you forget that, it’s easy to believe that we’re post-racial. It’s easy to think that all of this just went way with a few marches and a bill. But when you remember, you see how our prison system, how the poverty in our communities, how the inequality of housing and education, is just a continuation of the same systems that have been in place since slavery was abolished. They give them different names and different faces, but it’s the same thing. We are not playing the race card. We are not racists. We are not whining. We are not refusing to let go. The song of the past still echoes. Covering your ears doesn’t make it any less real, or any less deafening.
But aside from being a glaring reminder of our history, it’s also a massive, wild, chaotic, colorful, sensory-overloading celebration of all of our accomplishments. I can’t even begin to describe everything inside because I didn’t even get to see it all. There just wasn’t enough time in a day. That dress your favorite singer wore? That pick from your favorite guitarist? A passport from your favorite writer? It’s a good chance it’s preserved somewhere inside.
There are two floors dedicated to black excellence. There’s a wing for sports; with galleries for basketball, football, Olympics, and others. There’s an art museum. There’s a section for broadway and playwrights and ballet. There’s a tv and movies wing. (yes, the original set of Oprah is housed here). There’s a section on black cuisine. But the highlight, obviously, is music. our music is so iconic and so massive, in every decade, in every genre (literally, every). It was frankly too much to display, so there’s also a ‘record store’ gallery where you can do independent learning about anyone who doesn’t have a commemorative item, an interactive table to play some of the songs displayed, and a DJ mixing booth.
If the lower half of the museum is a bold declaration of our struggle, then the top half is a bold declaration of our impact. It is extensive to the point of exhaustion. It is too much to be ignored. It is a celebration of us, an assertion of our humanity, a preservation of our beauty, and a display of love to our multi-faceted melanin.
I’ll end with this, because of everything in the museum, for some reason this was my favorite item.
Why would a rusty tin bucket be my favorite? According to the description “When Martin Luther King finished the five-day march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, he stayed at the home of a friend and used this tub to soak his feet”. For some reason, this cracked me up. It’s exactly the type of thing a black person would keep. And then pass on to their grandkids. Who would laugh and shrug off that crazy story cuz granddad is always telling stories about Martin Luther the King. And after grandad died someone thought about getting rid of that bucket but didn’t, for reasons. And then they heard about a museum and thought maybe, and now here it is. And sure, I may have extrapolated all of that, but in my head, that’s exactly how it went down. And maybe that’s why I like it so much. It has a story. It isn’t much in terms of value. But we give it new life and new relevance. We take care of it and pass it down. And we hold on to it because it’s all we’re given. Until finally we turn something beaten, something worn, something second-hand, into something resilient, something rare, something priceless.
At any rate, this museum is definitely worth checking out. Words can’t express how glad I was to get the opportunity to go. With that being said, a few tips. The first suggestion I have, WAIT. That crowd was out of hand. And it doesn’t seem like it will get better any time soon. Secondly, the internet hype is selling tales that you can’t get in until January. Not true. All Smithsonians are free and open to the public. You do need a time-pass, so if you weren’t able to snag one online, you can still aim for a same-day entry pass. However, they haven’t given any details about how many will be available per day and since it’s first come first serve, get there early if you’re going to try that. The next tip is you can’t really do it all in one day. (I’ve heard that once you get a pass you can enter whenever, but have not had this confirmed). So again, try to wait for the buzz to die down so you can actually appreciate everything and make multiple visits. And last but not least, if you have tickets and are feeling generous, please donate them to Donald Trump. I really believe he could greatly benefit from a trip or two.