The story of a people is a million stories, and there are stories told in objects that let us remember but also teach us what we do not know.
Each family has its stories, and sometimes they come together as something collective, of a people. Objects of the sort that have been gathered in this museum — precious objects, handled by generations and thus infused with meaning and power — will allow visitors to recall known experience and passed-along tales. The mystery and force of collective memory is that we can access experiences that we might not have had ourselves but reside in a collective unconscious that the museum will make material.
We — and this “we” means all Americans — have long needed a place where we can come and come again to learn our history through our eyes and hands, the objects that tell these millions of stories. It is a simple truth: It is upon today’s young people of all colors to imagine and forge the future, and it cannot be set right unless there is a clear understanding of the past.
African American history in fact stands at the center of American history. This country cannot begin to be understood without it; indeed, we misunderstand America without the axis of the doings of black people and the concept of race. There is mammoth significance in having a place where we can go in active learning, and it also be a learning that’s infused with feeling.
For my generation, and the generations older than I am, this learning is shot through with emotion of what has not been centered. Of the institutions we have valiantly built and maintained, and of the ones we have not had. Of the struggles to keep stories alive. Of the task of telling history right in the face of denial and distortion.
And of the stories themselves, of the very real heroic quest to build a nation in and out of bondage, and the sheer brilliance and ingenuity with which African Americans continue to, yes, make a way out of no way.
When I was a child my parents gave me Golden Legacy comic books for rainy-day reading treats. The books brought to life the stories of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman in graphic form and made black history exciting. “Crispus Attucks and the Minutemen!” “Joseph Cinque and the Amistad Mutiny!” I dog-eared those comic books, hungry for every single page of race-pride historiography. These stories were mine, my people resisted and created, and I felt that everyone needed to know. It was the beginning for me of a critical thinking process that assumed you needed to always search for fuller truths. I attended progressive elementary school in Washington, D.C., but none of these names were spoken at school, none of this history was taught, and if it was, it certainly was not taught at the center of an understanding of the United States, this complex organism and a country with its infinitely fascinating black center.
This is a new now. This museum feels like the benefits reaped from decades of institutionalized black studies, which of course built on many more decades of great black scholarship. It also acknowledges and is made from the valiant, loving tending of black history and culture that has lived in our homes and church basements, the makeshift archives where material black life was seen as sacred and kept safe, seemingly in preparation for this moment.
The black scholar is motivated by something profound: the desire to preserve, a crusade of service. Even the most sober of historians of black life who pledge faithful allegiance to the methodologies of history is in fact also a warrior, for that is what and who it has taken to piece together lives from fragments in the face of the insistent, indelible stereotypes that challenge black humanity and complexity. Imagine what it would mean to be a spot in time with no past and therefore no future, and you will understand the might it takes to devote your life to working against such minimization of human presence.
The process of making the National Museum of African American History and Culture has been managed by consummate professionals of all stripes led by the extraordinary Lonnie Bunch, but it has also been a process that is collective and grass-roots. Black people have kept our artifacts safe in our hands and homes and in private spaces, not even necessarily able to envision that one day there would be a repository that would begin to tell this collective tale, a safe place where we could leave that which we have guarded. It feels like a dream almost too big to fathom, and one that will produce truly unimaginable results as its archive continues to grow and visitors for generations come to view its treasures.
My mother is a historian, and one of the exercises she does with her students is to have them write a paper that begins with a family story of a grandparent and then doing research to place that story in historical context. Everyone is from a place and a time. There are always records, archives. You and your people are always points on a map or a timeline connected to other points on a map.
The weight of the undertaking, the heroism of it, cannot be underestimated.
Historians and curators are heroes. The digging, the trench work and sleuthing, the conjuration it takes to piece together filament by filament a history, and then to present it so that we understand and experience it as a living in process is nothing short of wizardry.
History is not a triumphal march to the finish line. History is not all upturned faces, nor ascendant. History is made up of struggle, contradiction, resistance. That said, black history is also made of stories that astonish, from human beings epic in their bravery and ingenuity. That history is material in transcendent culture that has rocked the world.
The poet Amiri Baraka used the phrase “history as process,” and that is what this museum deeply understands. History is ongoing. History is made. History is active. History is story upon story upon story. History is not punctuated with a period but rather with continuing ellipses. And history favors the bold colon, punctuation that makes us look ever forward into the yet-to-be.
More from The Washington Post Magazine’s commemorative Museum issue