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Opinion The African American Museum reminds me that ‘I, too, am America’

President Obama speaks at the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Saturday in Washington. (Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Long before I plopped down on my seat at the opening celebration for the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Saturday, I was weary. Weary of the police-involved killings of African Americans. Weary of the onslaught of dashcam, cellphone and Facebook live videos of the last moments of someone’s life. Weary of feeling like not even the grace of God stands between me and a fatal encounter with law enforcement one day. Weary of feeling like a misunderstood brother in a large, raucous family.

On Friday, when Rakeyia Scott, the widow of Keith Lamont Scott, released her cellphone video of the Sept. 20 shooting in Charlotte, N.C., I declared on Twitter, “I can’t watch it. Not now.” I still haven’t seen more than 15 seconds of it. Or the various videos of the police shooting of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Okla., on Sept. 16. And I’m not alone. New York Times columnist Charles Blow tweeted back, “I’m on a video sabbatical … for mental health maintenance.”

[“Cape Up" Ep7: Lonnie Bunch: Even if you’re white, ‘the story of slavery is still your story’]

Even as a journalist who feels duty-bound to write about these killings and their impact on African Americans as a whole, I have reached my emotional and mental limit. Just hearing Rakeyia Scott plead “Don’t shoot him!” has me frantically clicking the “x” button in the corner. And this emotional numbing isn’t helped by a presidential candidate who pretends to reach out to African Americans by playing on racial stereotypes and advocating a policing policy declared unconstitutional in his hometown in front of nearly white crowds.

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The bald cynicism of Donald Trump has me not only fearful for my personal safety and that of those I hold dear, but also for the future direction of this country. We are one national election away from losing our way. But as the African American Museum opening moved along, I felt recharged and revived as speech after speech demanded we face and embrace our national truth, celebrate the shared American values that made the stunning museum on the Mall a reality and use the power of both to forge an even stronger union.

The tone was set by that funny moment between First Lady Michelle Obama and President George W. Bush. No doubt they exchanged pleasantries upon their arrivals inside the museum so their public antics were in keeping with their wacky friendship. But their sweet nuzzle in front of the cameras spoke volumes to me. Given Trump’s racist and xenophobic presidential campaign, that Obama-Bush photo shows what we stand to truly lose with a “President Trump”: bipartisanship and mutual respect. Both were on wonderful display under gray skies on Saturday.

Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City.

And finally I want to say with the unrest that’s in the nation today and I’m very aware of what’s going on. When I go in here and I walk past the casket of Emmett Till, I am very aware of what’s going on. And I want you to know this was only accomplished because men and women of goodwill, black and white, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, put their hearts together, their minds together and their hands together in order to build this great monument to a people who have truly given their all to the United States of America. And, finally, I want to say that don’t be discouraged. Listen, beloved, don’t be discouraged by what’s ahead. Hold onto your dreams and keep the faith.

President George W. Bush, who signed the legislation in 2003 that made the African American Museum possible.

This museum is an important addition to our country for many reasons. Here are three. First, it shows our commitment to truth. A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them. This museum tells the truth that a country founded on the promise of liberty held millions in chains. That the price of our union was America’s original sin….
Second, this museum shows America’s capacity to change. For centuries, slavery and segregation seemed permanent. Permanent parts of our national life. But not to Nat Turner or Frederick Douglass; Harriet Tubman; Rosa Parks; or Martin Luther King Jr. All answered cruelty with courage and hope.
In a society governed by the people, no wrong lasts forever. After struggle and sacrifice, the American people, acting through the most democratic of means, amended the Constitution that originally treated slaves as three-fifths of a person, to guarantee equal protection of the laws. After a decade of struggle, civil rights acts and voting rights act were finally enacted. Even today, the journey toward justice is still not complete. But this museum will inspire us to go farther and get there faster.
And finally, the museum showcases the talent of some of our finest Americans. The galleries celebrate not only African American equality, but African American greatness….
The lesson in this museum is that all Americans share a past and a future by staying true to our principles, righting injustice and encouraging the empowerment of all. We will be an even greater nation for generations to come.

President Obama

And so this national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are. It helps us better understand the lives, yes, of the President, but also the slave; the industrialist, but also the porter; the keeper of the status quo, but also of the activist seeking to overthrow that status quo; the teacher or the cook, alongside the statesman. And by knowing this other story, we better understand ourselves and each other. It binds us together. It reaffirms that all of us are America — that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story, it’s not the underside of the American story, it is central to the American story. That our glory derives not just from our most obvious triumphs, but how we’ve wrested triumph from tragedy, and how we’ve been able to remake ourselves, again and again and again, in accordance with our highest ideals.
I, too, am America….
We are large, Walt Whitman told us, containing multitudes. We are large, containing multitudes. Full of contradictions. That’s America. That’s what makes us grow. That’s what makes us extraordinary. And as is true for America, so is true for African American experience.  We’re not a burden on America, or a stain on America, or an object of pity or charity for America. We’re America.
And that’s what this museum explains — the fact that our stories have shaped every corner of our culture. The struggles for freedom that took place made our Constitution a real and living document, tested and shaped and deepened and made more profound its meaning for all people. The story told here doesn’t just belong to black Americans; it belongs to all Americans….

Everything about Saturday renewed my spirit. That “I, too, am America” line in the president’s speech is actually a direct quote from a 1926 Langston Hughes poem. A pithy 18-line expression of strength, determination and certainty you encounter as you leave the African American Museum’s galleries. I, too, am America. And I’ll be damned if I let anyone tell me or make me feel differently.

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