The day that the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAACHC) finally opened to the public September 24, 2016 I vowed to go there as soon as possible. I’d never been to a museum that celebrated African American History and I was also gripped by it’s opening during the historic moment of the final few months of the first Black President’s second term. I’d never been to Washington D.C. but when I was invited to speak at the Millions for Prisoners Human Right’s march in the capital’s Lafayette Square I knew this was my chance to visit the museum. My father and I got our plane tickets to D.C, it was my father’s second time visiting the capital since taking a field trip in grade school decades ago. I didn’t know it at the time, but having the opportunity to go to the NMAACHC with my father during the first year of its opening was an invaluable experience. His recollection of his experiences fueled the exhibit in a way that no guided tour could compare. He pointed out exhibits that he witnessed in his life, added highlights to his favorite facts and even drew connections between exhibition topics and our own family history. We left completely overjoyed by the way that everything in the museum was put together.
We began our tour upstairs working our way back down to the main floor. Powerful quotes from influential Black figures lined perimeters of displays, everywhere I turned my head my eyes would catch a quote that breathed life into my perspective. Patrick Manning words greeted me as I entered the top floor, “The African diaspora adds up to a large and representative part of the human population, and its activities add up to a large part of human history.”I’ve heard the phrase, Black history is American history, but Manning’s idea is so much bigger, Black history is world history, it’s human history and this idea guided my thoughts while walking through the rest of the museum.
Black is beautiful, its unfortunate to think that this is something we had to learn. After centuries of dehumanization Black people were forced to redefine beauty in order to include themselves, because beauty never included Blacks in white Supremacist America. “God created Black people and Black people created style.” George C. Wolfe’s quote hovered over Black owned brands and styles: Adidas shoes and ‘ratchet’ hoop earrings. Even the term ‘ratchet’ reflects the necessity of this exhibit, “For over two centuries Black Americans lived in a world that saw their skin, hair and other physical features as ugly. African American styles have imitated white beauty standards, woven in black cultural values, rejected white standards entirely, and celebrated diverse African American images. African Americans help redefine American Beauty. They are style-makers in their own right.” The sense of validation I felt walking through this floor was overwhelming. It followed me as I went from the style exhibit to the hair exhibit where hot styling tools and afro hair picks were displayed. It was an empowering feeling to see the hot comb that my mother used on my hair religiously throughout grade school on display. I used this comb to tame my afro for years, it hid my ‘ugly’ and now seeing it identified as a traditional part of Black culture uplifted me. Although we were held captive by Western ideas of beauty that vilified our hair, our kinky curls fought back until we were able to liberate ourselves. Above the hot styling tools hung a diploma dated 1915 from Poor College School of Beauty Culture hung. Ownership over Black hair care products and methods was our door to success and continues to be into this century. I’ve mentioned this in other articles, but Black entrepreneurship in hair care has a special place in my heart as opening a salon in the Seattle area is the main way I’ve been able to establish myself as a business owner.
Walking through the museum I noticed how many influential aspects of world history that Blacks are responsible for and have yet received little to know credit, in areas of science, invention, style and design. For example, I had no idea that African American designer Ann Lowe created Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress! Lowe received no credit for her work on this beautiful design for the monumental occasion. It breaks my heart to realize the lack of praise and accolade that Blacks have been given when deserved throughout history for their accomplishments.
Moving deeper into another area of this floor I was transfixed. As a media scholar myself, of course I enjoyed the film, comedy, dance, theatre and television sections. Being able to see how representation of Blacks changed overtime was motivating for me as a Black media producer. Beginning in the 18th century Blacks were forced to enter the theatre industry playing out the roles of stereotypes. This is surprisingly similar to today, instead of having to wear Black face, Black actors are more often than not faced with the limited choices in roles of a gang banger or street thug. Black representation in the media is so incredibly important due to the fact that throughout American history television and film is how the majority of people learned about other cultures. Whites who never saw Blacks in their day-to-day lives, familiarized themselves with Black people by what they saw on television. This continues to be a dangerous method of educating the masses on Blacks as lazy, unintelligent and criminal. NMAACHC illustrates the evolution of this narrative as Blacks become more involved in the media making process. Broadway shows like, Colored Girls, and The Wiz gave not only Whites another perspective but also gave Black people another lens to see themselves through, Alvin Ailey describes his reasoning for the development of Blacks in American Dance theater, “I want to help show my people how beautiful they are”. The rise of Black Hollywood and other avenues of entertainment created by Blacks liberated our thinking and perceptions of Blackness.
The exhibit highlighted the role of Black artists which is beautifully described by Paul Robeson, “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth, we are civilization’s radical voice”. Without Blacks’ artwork through music, poetry, music, paint and other forms we wouldn’t have the beautiful artifacts that make illustrate the world as it was for us throughout history. My dad’s face lit up while looking at the George Clinton display, a brightly colored wig and rhinestone studded white suit next to “the motherboard landing”. My dad described the extraordinary event of Clinton’s motherboard landing in concert, my dad recalled Clinton’s concerts being the first time he saw colored hair. As we moved through the music history section we stalled at the Motown exhibit, as the son of a Gordy, my father’s disappointment with the lack of mention to our uncle Berry Gordy in the Motown exhibit was understandable. Where was Berry and Ester Gordy? The founders of Motown in Detroit, I’m sure many of us walked through the aisles of the museum with our own critiques based on or families, so many of us lived through the historic moments that were now seeing preserved on display.
Throughout American history if there’s any area of culture where we’ve been exalted in it would most definitely be in athletics. The athletic accomplishments section of the museum was another area that grabbed my attention. Throughout the museum there are videos playing at different exhibits and one video in the basketball section mentioned the ‘only way out’ narrative. As a woman I think this is a narrative that’s overlooked in the African American community because are women aren’t pushed as heavily into sports competition but there isn’t one Black man I know didn’t at one point in their life love basketball. Even my father in his high school age dreamed of going to the NBA and still talks about how close he was to ‘making it’ had he eaten better and practiced more. Basketball is a typical Black male obsession not only because it’s a stress reliever and time passer but because it is a way out for a lot of Black men getting into college depends on getting an athletic scholarship and becoming wealthy is dependent on going into a professional sports league, this isn’t limited to basketball, this narrative also extends to other contact sports like football, baseball, boxing and even soccer depending on the region. The athletic hall of fame was filled with familiar faces, some of which I wrote about this past Black History Month during my daily series, like miraculous track runner Wilma Rudolph and the boxing great Muhammad Ali who had his own section filled with artifacts from his career like tickets to past matches, his gloves and shorts. There are a few fields that Blacks are squeezed into on a path of fame and success, sports and entertainment, both of which are short-lived career paths that leave many who climb this ladder to wealth unwilling to save their earnings or invest in their future, unprepared for retirement when it comes so quickly, as most athletes deals don’t make it into their 30s.
After returning to the main floor we went downstairs to travel back in time. The upper level of the museum highlights historical achievements of Blacks throughout the 18th and 20th century. In contrast the lower levels of the museum focus on the slave trades happening across the globe, concentrated in the Americas, beginning all the way back in the 13th century. I waited in line to board a large elevator that held about 50 people. The glass elevator the took us back in time, looking through we can see the years on the wall decrease 2000…1950….1900….1850…1700…1600…1500 all the way down to 1400 were we get off of the elevator to find the beginnings of the slave trade. Here is where my pride shuffled through my face into tears, here is where the heavy stuff is stored, below the surface literally. While walking through the bottom floors back up we saw pictures of slave families and maps of slave trade routes. We saw the makeshift tools that slaves were forced to use for work and eating. We saw articles from popular slave rebellions and the history behind the rise of the Ku Klux Klan which was first organized in Tennessee in 1865 for the sole purpose of terrorizing African Americans. We also saw a life-size display of a slave watch house, were overseers would be to guard against slave escapes.
One of the most moving moments for me was hearing slave narratives while walking through the exhibit. There’s something about hearing the quivering voice of a woman being sold by her master to strangers she feared that’s different than reading a plaque or even seeing an image. Hearing the voice brings the person into your space, being able to listen to their breath quiver and whimper adds an element of engagement to the experience that other forms of storytelling are unable to replicate. I loved the way that the museum used several different types of methods of storytelling, from visual to audio, to engage participants in the experience. In addition to this, another tear jerking area is also one of the most popular parts of the lower level in the museum is the Emmitt Till exhibit, designed to replicate the sense of attending Till’s funeral, the casket is filled with the gruesome pictures of the face his mother refused to cover as an act of protest to the way her son had been senselessly beaten. This is an area where pictures are not permitted to be taken.
I left the museum in amazement that the experiences of Blacks throughout the history of our time in the Americas had been captured so well. I’ve become so used to misrepresentation of Blacks that I didn’t know what to expect but now I can see that day passes for the museum don’t constantly run out for nothing. This museum is definitely a day long event, so if you’re in a rush you won’t be able to fully appreciate all of the aspects of the building. The exhibits are interactive in so many different ways from voice recordings, to photographs, video, actual artifacts, paintings and life-size displays. Being able to see marriage certificates, diplomas, census records and other official documents made my history come to life. My family doesn’t have an encyclopedia of information collecting the life’s work of my ancestors so this museum did that for me. Visiting NMAACHC expanded my understanding of the Black experience in America in ways that simply reading an article or watching a movie cannot accomplish with as much depth and precision.
However, by far my favorite aspect of this museum was the sea of Black faces that surrounded me, it was crowded (uncomfortably in some of the more popular exhibits like Emmett Till’s) but that was more pleasing than it was annoying. I heard comments like, “I remember when and I was there” and I saw generational families walking together reading plaques and watching movies, it was a heart warming scene. This was the most beautiful aspect of the museum for me, the validation that I could see on the faces of so many African Americans watching their history be validated by recording and preserving the stories of our ancestors.
Thank you NMAACHC and a huge thank you to Jermaine House, the public affairs representative who arranged this visit during my short time in Washington D.C. If you haven’t had the chance to visit please do, it will enlighten and inspire you.