NMAAHC: A Good Starting Point
On a recent Friday mpoorning, through the generosity and urging of multiple friends, I was humbled and grateful to visit the brand new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Now that it was open — after Representative John Lewis had been introducing proposals for such a place since 1988 and the legislation finally came to fruition more than a decade ago — the darn timed-entry tickets were booked out for months! Nevertheless, we were going!
When I set out from the office with my colleagues David and Scott, we departed to applause, as David announced our destination to a room full of other Street Sense artists. “I, David Denny, am about to enter the African American History Museum,” he said with pride, and was met with cheers.
When we neared the building, it looked as if the Pope had returned to Washington. A swarm of people asked passersby if they had extra tickets and a line of people stretched from the museum to Constitution Avenue and as far down the street as the eye could see. We asked for help finding the proper entrance for ticket holders and in the process overheard a security staffer say the line had started before 5 a.m. (First-come, first-served tickets become available at the museum at 9:15 a.m. each day. As Street Sense went to press, advanced timed entry passes are listed as out of stock through the end of March 2017).
The air around us seemed charged with everyone’s anticipation. This was important. But no one shoved or rushed. The short line we ended up in seemed calm, nearly reverent.
We made it inside, which was worth taking a breather. There was plenty of room to do so, as the ground floor is simply a lobby, restrooms, welcome desk, etc. David and I sat while Scott did some reconnaissance. Before we got moving, a kind family took our group photo despite an uncooperative camera.
Scott had learned that the downstairs levels were pretty crowded and suggested we head straight to the upper floors where Muhammad Ali’s gloves, Chuck Berry’s Cadillac and other priceless artifacts and icons are on display. We all had to get back to work, with no time to waste. But David and I had heard the whole museum is a chronological walk through history if you start at the very bottom and work your way up. So we all piled in the massive elevator and descended.
Below we only had two options – go to the cafeteria or get in line. The exhibition entrance looked like a crowded grocery store on the weekend – complete with a volunteer scurrying to plant a flag at the end of the line to draw people’s attention and maintain order. At this point, we split up – and it’s a good thing we did. Between the three of us, in as many hours, we covered five of the six exhibition floors. As long as tickets are needed, like the Newseum, they should really last for two days. There’s just no way to take it all in.
Scott got right back on the elevator to check out the top floors while David and I joined the measured procession to the next elevator. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it slow. We were both asked to keep it moving once when we dawdled too long taking photos at the entrance. This elevator, delving into the concourse area, surrounds you in glass so that you can see the history galleries you are delving toward, while a display of the year counts down from the present to the 15th century. (Pro tip: while there is a line to get to the elevator – the staff works very hard to convey that everyone should feel free to roam throughout all galleries at your leisure once in the exhibit space. Many people, myself included, at first attempted to continue the shuffling line we had formed upstairs.)
Upon exiting the elevator, the violence and utter cruelty of slavery hits you like a ton of bricks — or more accurately like a ton of sugar, which drove much of the early forced migration and death inflicted upon what added up to 12.5 million enslaved African people by the 1800s. There is no whitewashing of history here.
More often there is purposeful juxtaposition, such as the larger than life preamble to the declaration of independence, just outside of the hallways focused on slavery. As you ascend each concourse, the exhibits switch eras, moods, look and feel. You move seamlessly through it all, from the Black Regiment in the Revolutionary War, to lunch counters and segregated train cars, to Black soldiers in Vietnam… the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, the lynching of Emmett Till, the Poor People’s Campaign…. To Black is Beautiful and Black Power.
Walking through was like reading endless appendices for James Loewen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me.” People and events that might get a paragraph, single page or nothing at all in a common grade school textbook are brought to life through physical objects, dynamically displayed quotes, audio, video, photos, interactive screens and more – all intuitively guided by dramatic lighting.
A moment that defined the museum’s meaning for me was when David and I observed a mother privately directing one of her children through an exhibit about Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and abolition. The exhibit showed portraits of both men, with quotes from each of them on the glass and a narration in the middle about their relationship. “Read that,” she said, pointing to some of Lincoln’s achievements. “Now read that,” she’d say, pointing to Douglass. “Now go back and read that again,” she said, pointing to Lincoln. She told David that her kids always get excited when they see something about Jefferson or Lincoln and freedom. But they had no idea of the crucial role Douglass played in pushing Lincoln to stand firm on abolition, as opposed to gradually trying to phase out slavery.
And despite the struggle and hatred that can be found throughout the historical galleries — just as constant is the celebration of culture, family, joy, resilience and commonly overlooked contributions to American technology. From strengthening in faith despite attempted use of Christianity as a form of White control, to world-renowned artisans, to the civil rights movement, to the Harlem Renaissance, to the commentary of Public Enemy and the empire of Oprah.
In so many ways, this unmistakable monument and ever-present archive needed to be placed on the nation’s front lawn. Proof of our split reality: too often two very different Americas. It is a masterful delivery of educational content and beautiful to boot — all at once inspiring and hard on the human spirit.
At the end of each history concourse level, there are rooms where museum visitors can sit down and record video clips of their impressions of the content, possibly adding their own history, experience and commentary to the future collection. With the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement and the increasingly honest conversations being had about equality – across race, class, gender, sexuality and creed – there is much to be added.
It is still a long road to equality for the health and wealth of many Black Americans, as economic segregation and structural violence are perpetuated.
In February, Street Sense reported that United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent noted the United States has never acknowledged that the transatlantic slave trade was a crime against humanity. Similarly, issues enshrined in the new museum, such as “The Urban Housing Crisis,” have continued for decades. Now they make headlines regularly in our pages and in those of the other 32 street papers in America. U.S. income inequality has skyrocketed in recent years, according to U.S. Census Data. If discriminatory practices kept anyone out of top wage brackets through the 1970s, then they stayed locked out for the past 4 decades, when the top 5 percent of workers’ income increased twice as much as the bottom fifth of workers.
For me, one of the most inspiring historical moments depicted within those three floors we visited was a section of a graffitied wall constructed by the Poor People’s Campaign during their long-term tent occupation (“Resurrection City”) of the National Mall after marching on Washington for economic justice. To quote the Smithsonian’s plaques: “Residents participated in protest marches or met with government officials every day…. Painted on a plywood tent wall, this mural illustrates the interracial nature and diverse concerns of the demonstrators. Civil rights activists, cultural revolutionaries, hippies, gang members and common poor folks lobbied for radical change in America’s economic system.” (“The meager results — increased federal funding for food stamps and school lunches — came later.”)
We have to do better. We have to create equitable solutions and show up for change.
Please also read David and Scott’s writing about our trip.The entirety of the museum’s collections can be explored online at https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/collection. When Street Sense went to press, timed-entry passes were exhausted through March of 2017.