I am surrounded by history. Among the many items in my office is a bust of Thomas Jefferson, a bust of Abraham Lincoln and a photo of the undefeatable Jackie Robinson.
And sitting on a bookshelf is an iron ankle shackle.
I pick it up sometimes. Here is history so many would like to ignore or forget. But we do so at our peril.
Today, African Americans hold positions of tremendous prestige, including, of course, the highest office in the world. But that is not enough. We learned quickly after Barack Obama’s election that there is no such thing as a post-racial America. Centuries of deep troubles do not dissolve in eight years.
Along comes the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is more than a repository of a people’s history. It is an opportunity. The museum’s location and proximity to other iconic monuments — Washington, Jefferson and, of course, Lincoln — will speak to what has always been true about our original sin: its centrality to the American story.
Long ago, essayist John Jay Chapman addressed it, writing about the earliest days of the Republic, the world of the Founding Fathers and men such as Jefferson, both revolutionary and slaveholder.
“There was never a moment,” Chapman wrote, “when the slavery issue was not a sleeping serpent. That issue lay coiled up under the table during the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention. ... Thereafter, slavery was always on everyone’s mind, though not always on his tongue.”
It’s very American to presume that all those old guilts can be transformed into reconciliation, reparation and atonement, as in the celebrated story of the slaver who abandoned his errant path and wrote the exquisitely beautiful hymn “Amazing Grace.” But, as the Civil War — and, sadly, our present day — attests, the opposite is also true. Our ancient guilts and animosities more often metastasize into anger, violence and brutality. That’s very American, too.
Even with a century and a half between us and our greatest cataclysm, we have an eerie sense that so much of what seemed safely finished and distant about the war now seems uncomfortably present, palpable, the underlying racial causes of the old conflict on nearly daily display. Too often, it seems, the black lives that were once bound by those shackles still don’t matter.
Jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis told me that in our country the question of race “is like the thing in the story, in the mythology that you have to do for the kingdom to be well.” We are not well. The hard times still linger around our cabin door, and it becomes increasingly clear that the ghosts and echoes of our near-death experience have much to teach us today.
We can embrace those lessons — the White House was indeed built by slaves — or we can fight them and risk everything. “The Civil War,” “Jazz,” “Jackie Robinson” have all been part of my own journey to know our nation’s heart. I have learned many things, including this about history: The small moments are what build the larger, sweeping moments of our lives.
Take the story of Charlie Black and Louis Armstrong. On the evening of Oct. 12, 1931, Louis Armstrong opened a three-day run at the Driskill Hotel in Austin. Among those who paid 75 cents to get in that night was Charlie Black, a freshman at the University of Texas. He knew nothing of jazz, had never heard of Armstrong. He just knew there were likely to be lots of girls to dance with. Then, Armstrong began to play.
“Louis played mostly with his eyes closed,” Black recalled, “... letting flow, from that inner space of music, things that had never before existed. ... He was the first genius I had ever seen. ... It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen-year-old Southern boy’s seeing genius, for the first time, in a black. We literally never saw a black man, then, in any but a servant’s capacity. ... Louis opened my eyes wide, and put to me a choice. Blacks, the saying went, were ‘all right in their place.’ What was the ‘place’ of such a man — and of the people from which he sprung?”
Charlie Black went on to become Professor Charles L. Black, a distinguished teacher of constitutional law at Yale. In 1954, he helped provide the answer to the question Louis Armstrong’s music had first posed for him: He volunteered for the team of lawyers, black and white, who finally persuaded the Supreme Court, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, that segregating schoolchildren on the basis of race and color was unconstitutional.
What’s remarkable about this story, among other things, is the role of proximity. Just like Armstrong’s jazz required the diverse cultures of New Orleans, a young Charlie Black, a Southern boy attending university in a Southern state, almost bumps into the great musician, discovering, as he said, genius. What he saw was a black man’s humanity.
When Jackie Robinson walked onto that ballfield in the spring of 1947, he may as well have been walking onto another Civil War battlefield, a war finished but not finished. When that proud grandson of a slave made his way to first base at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, turning his cheek for two years against the thousands of racial slights, threats and abuse that he would face, it would be watched with awe and gratitude by a young junior at Morehouse College in Atlanta named Martin Luther King Jr. In a way, U.S. social history made a profound turn that April afternoon.
It is the stories behind the stories that speak to the importance of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Yes, it is Dr. King on the Mall, it is the great leaders, scholars, athletes, artists. It is their collective work. But equally, perhaps more so, it is the lesser known stories that were the steppingstones for the historic occasions that we celebrate as iconic moments. It is the stories of African American men, women and children lining up to enter Ebbets Field for the first time. But it is equally white men, women and especially children watching Jackie Robinson or listening to Louis Armstrong, or a long list of others in the years to come. It is all of us, living out our lives with open hearts.
When we search out these other stories, the ones of so-called ordinary people, we experience history at its most impactful. We can embrace the large moments, but we must recognize that the greatest accomplishments of a people have a direct correlation to the life experiences of many, many others.
“Jazz” tells the story of the magnificent art form Americans invented, but it was invented by Americans who were born in a community that had the peculiar experience of being unfree in a free land. They had to improvise — another spectacular manifestation of American genius — a hell of a lot more than the rest of us. African Americans in general, and black jazz musicians in particular, carry and have carried a complicated message to the rest of us, a genetic memory of our great promise and also our great failing. And the music they created and then generously shared with the rest of the world negotiates and reconciles the contradictions many of us would rather ignore. Embedded in the music, in its riveting biographies and soaring artistic achievement, can be found our oft-neglected conscience, a message of hope and transcendence for all people, of affirmation in the face of adversity.
Museums do not represent a final word. They are majestically built to acknowledge something of importance. Their very presence bestows heightened meaning on whatever is inside. We are inside this newest Smithsonian museum, the story of a people, and the story of a nation. Us.
Here is the opportunity to see ourselves and to better understand this road we travel together.
More from The Washington Post Magazine’s commemorative Museum issue