I am in the building, but mostly I’m in my head.
Thinking of the past, considering the future. Mesmerized by the right now.
This building, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, is monumental in scale. Grand and breathtaking with its elegant filigree panels of bronze-tinted aluminum. The light bounces off the metal, pulling the eye upward, and the building glows. It tugs at emotions, too, because it’s been so long in coming — a century-long dream, a decade-long endeavor.
But mostly, the building is dignified. And that is a source of tremendous pride.
I am here, on opening day, to take it all in. But my first visit to the African American Museum was for a charter member open house. I made my contribution for all sorts of reasons but mostly because of the mantra of my parents to “never forget where you came from.” That was a warning not to ignore the lessons of history, but it also was a reminder that I should not see good fortune or success as something independently earned but as a community endeavor. It was built on a foundation that was established by those who came before and, in some cases, those who came up at the same time but were left behind.
I am a charter member in honor of my parents and my grandparents — in thanks to relatives who cannot afford to be and out of respect for those who did not live long enough to be.
Approaching this David Adjaye-designed museum for the first time, a line of visitors — confused and a bit disoriented — snaked up the gently sloping ground. Was this the right way? “You know how we are,” said the middle-aged black man behind me. I laughed. “We.” It was an inside joke about our unruly national family of black people, about disorder and chaos, a joke he could make because he had faith that it would all work out in the end.
The crowd is dominated by baby boomers, Gen Xers, millennials, too. Mostly black. But above all, there are old folks. Seniors are curled into wheelchairs; some lean heavily on canes; others are ramrod straight and wearing bifocals and sensible shoes. They’re moving slowly, patiently and resolutely. They know patience; they have lived patiently.
I’ve never met any of them, but I know them and they know me. I am a black woman who grew up in a post-Civil Rights America with parents who were part of the Great Migration. I have the life they fought for, endured for. They are my elders.
They have arrived with a bit of extra shine on their shoes, a little more starch in their collar. Of course they have.
Each of my visits begins in the history galleries, on the lowest level of the museum, with the story of the Middle Passage. The rooms are dim, crowded and claustrophobic. People whisper: “pardon me,” “excuse me,” “so sorry,” “please.” Visitors are unfailingly courteous as they take in the brutal savagery of child-size iron shackles, the rough stone of an auction block and a slave cabin that offered shelter but neither privacy nor safety because its door could not be locked.
Being in this space feels a little bit like church, as if we have all entered some communal confessional seeking redemption or forgiveness, understanding or peace. Maybe just knowledge. There are rumblings of anger, resigned murmurs over “how they treated us.”
The basics of slavery have been told to schoolchildren and portrayed in movies. Still, the global financial imprint is stunning. It reached well beyond cotton, tobacco and sugar fields to touch virtually every aspect of the American economic engine. Here, the enormity of the horror is made plain.
Museums typically commemorate the exceptional. But this one also honors the everyday: the entrepreneurs who did not become billionaires but who served a community and provided for their families; the schools that educated black doctors, lawyers and teachers; the seamstresses who dressed black folks; the ministers who offered solace and uplift. The janitors, secretaries and Pullman porters who, quite simply, found joy against all odds.
The artifacts from the Jim Crow era elicit murmurs of recognition — the tiny water faucet for colored people, the door from a segregated restaurant. I come like a mourner to Emmett Till’s bronze-colored casket, set apart in its own small chapel where “Amazing Grace” plays softly in the background. The men and women who lived back then are all around. They are still here, standing next to me.
This isn’t distant history. It is my father’s story. He grew up in Tupelo, Miss., and traveled on segregated rail cars. How do you forget that indignity? Recently, he shared his irritation over the little curtain separating the coach section of an airplane from first class; it is an infuriating reminder of when a similar piece of cloth symbolized disenfranchisement, disrespect and hatred.
As the past unfolds from one subterranean floor to the next, there are brief reprieves. We emerge from the winding galleries into an atrium where a wall rises up three stories bearing the words of James Baldwin: “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it. . . . History is literally present in all that we do.”
It is as though a brisk wind has blasted through. Oxygen. I can breathe.
As I get closer to ground level — to Black Panthers, Public Enemy, Barack Obama, Black Lives Matter — I emerge to a cacophony of emotions: exultation, exasperation, sadness, dismay.
I visited the museum with a close friend. She is white. Not so long ago, I was having dinner with her and two others; I was the only black person at the table. The topic turned to philanthropy, entrepreneurship and community involvement. Why don’t black people do more? And it became clear to me that some things I knew intimately were not common knowledge: the role of historically black colleges such as Spelman and Morehouse, the legacy of black fraternities and sororities and the countless ways in which black people support each other and stand up for each other every day.
Our conversation was emotional but not angry. There were tears. It was the kind of honest, messy discussion activists and historians say that we, as a country, need to have. It seemed that despite the strength and endurance of our friendship, they didn’t know me.
I don’t mean my individual story, but the way in which I am connected to a diaspora of creativity and accomplishment, poverty and heartache. My friends know the gussied-up, Ivy League, lucky, blessed, striving part of me but not my paycheck-to-paycheck, distrustful-of-government-for-good-reason, front-porch-sitting, heartbroken, protesting extended family.
Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director, has spoken often about how he wants people to know that the story of black Americans is the story of America. That we cannot understand ourselves as a nation until we understand each other. So, perhaps I didn’t even realize that the invitation to my friend was in part because I wanted her to know that aspect of me. I trusted her to understand it and to see the value in it.
I believe she did.