My fellow white people: Listen up, please.
On Saturday, the Smithsonian Institution will unveil the stunning and sometimes searing new National Museum of African American History and Culture to the public. And tens of thousands of black people, long deprived of any true acknowledgment on the Mall of their unique place in the American story, are going to flock there.
But it’s just as important — maybe more important — for white people to see this museum, too. And here’s why.
We are in a deeply divided and dangerous time: Police shootings, protests, riots and fiery rhetoric are part of our daily diet, and it’s often about race.
Late Wednesday, a state of emergency was declared in Charlotte after a fatal police shooting of a black man triggered violent protests that left another man critically injured. And in Tulsa, a police officer was charged in the fatal shooting of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man. White supremacists, rebranded as “white nationalists,” are embracing the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, who has yet to renounce their support. Our nation’s black first lady can’t be on the cover of a magazine without getting loads of racist hate mail.
And too many white folks get angrier about a quarterback kneeling during the national anthem than they are about the outright execution of a black man who did nothing more than have his car break down on the way home from class.
We are still, all these years later, worlds apart. And bridging that divide requires an understanding of our past — hundreds of years of subjugation and racial oppression.
It’s not just African American history that’s on display at our new museum. It’s American history; it’s all of our history. And it’s the piece of the nation’s puzzle that has been missing all along. Let’s just call it the West Wing of the Museum of American History, if that helps.
Or as the museum’s director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, told The Washington Post’s Krissah Thompson, “Even if you think this isn’t your story, it is.”
Of course, the museum has always faced skepticism — and outright hostility — from some people.
“What about the museum for white people?” or “Isn’t this just separate but equal?” snarked far too many white people on Twitter, in the comments section of every story written about the museum, and in the federal register when the planning process was open to comments from the public.
Let me tell you something, my fellow whites.
You can go to plantation museums across America without ever seeing slave cabins or hearing about the lives of the people who did the work that built those fortunes and constructed those grand, antebellum columns.
You can go to Thomas Jefferson’s memorial on the Mall or to his home in Monticello without ever hearing mention of his enslaved lover and mother of his children, Sally Hemings, or the approximately 600 slaves he owned in his lifetime. You’d never know, standing in that gleaming, white marble edifice on the Tidal Basin, that Jefferson had time to write those eloquent words, that “all men are created equal” while his slaves were doing all his other work for him.
You can go to the National Museum of American History and learn all about Eli Whitney and his cotton gin without learning that the machine created a voracious appetite for more cotton, which meant more slaves. And that once they arrived on slave ships slick with mucus and blood, the sheer brutality of the work ensured that they usually died within seven years of setting foot on this new land.
You can visit the White House and the Capitol and all those monumental places, marvel at the American miracle, without ever knowing that the very foundations of this country, the way a young America became a global economic force trading in the world’s most popular luxuries — sugar, tobacco and cotton — depended on slave labor.
This is our history. All of us Americans.
Yet nearly every white person I talked to outside the new museum this week — young and old, from the North, South, East and West — said they learned very little about African American history in school. It was as though those chapters never existed in our history books.
“The truth is, I just don’t know,” said J.D. Souther, 62, who was visiting from Georgia and who believes that few white people, especially in the South, got the whole story of black America growing up. “We just don’t know. We weren’t taught all of this. And we should know.”
And it’s especially important to know everything — from slavery to Jim Crow, from lynchings to civil rights — right now. Because the legacy of that original sin is still part of who we are today.
There is an exhibit in the museum on the Ku Klux Klan. I walked quickly past it during a preview tour earlier this month. Because it’s shameful and scary and so, so far from where we are today. Right?
No, not really.
Just this week, The Post reported that KKK fliers are showing up on people’s front lawns from Pennsylvania to California.
Black people have suffered and protested for years to try to close this nation’s racial divide. But white people need to do their part, too.
So, please, start by learning our nation’s history. Go. Start in the lowest halls of this beautiful new museum, the ones made dark and narrow, like a slave ship’s hold. See a child-size shackle, gaze at a KKK hood, look at the casket of Emmett Till, who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for supposedly flirting with a white woman. Force yourself to look at the disturbing photographs of deaths, the bill of sale for a human and see our nation’s story.
Then stop, have lunch. The food is awesome, if you’ve got the stomach to eat. And go up to the higher levels.
And there, you will see the black people who flew our nation’s planes, fought our wars, built our cities, won our Olympic medals, invented our gadgets, wrote our books, programmed our computers, created incredible music, art, clothes and food.
Go ahead, gawk at Gabby Douglas’s Olympic leotard, Muhammad Ali’s robe, Chuck Berry’s cherry-red Cadillac and marvel at the awe-inspiring resilience of our fellow Americans.
Some of what you see might make you feel ashamed at parts of our past. But now you know. And in knowing, that shame will give way to the deep respect and pride that we should have in all our fellow Americans. And that’s the part that will begin making us whole.
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