When I walked into the new National Museum of African American History and Culture for a preview last week, my excitement was tempered. I’d heard about the feats of engineering: rooms built around a massive guard tower from Louisiana’s Angola Prison, a Southern Railroad train car and a Tuskegee Airman-flown plane. I’d heard about the big donations from Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan. I’d followed the decades-long campaign for real estate and funding that were required to make this new institution a reality. But that was the story of the museum itself. I was worried that the exhibits might fall short of illustrating — panel by panel, artifact by artifact — the story of black America, which is not merely about the biggest names and the best-remembered movements. I was worried about what might have been intentionally left out or inadvertently forgotten.
But my worries were unfounded. The museum succeeds by grappling, in an elegant fashion, with the many strands — sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes uplifting — of African American history, and how closely they’re interwoven with the American experiment from its inception. It tells the stories of black America the way they should be told, the way I, as a historian, strive to tell them: Not an account of black people fitting into American history, but American history told through the black experience.
History, after all, isn’t just curating facts but marshaling the facts of our collective past to help us better understand our present. That’s one of the reasons I wrote “Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson,” to address the misperception that generations of black Americans passively accepted segregation prior to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. My examination of the period when segregation laws were first introduced in the 1840s and 1850s in Northern cities, and then with ubiquity in Southern cities in the decades around the turn of the 20th century, revealed that protest was the norm — and showed a broader truth about the constancy of black struggle in America. Black travelers on trains sued when they were excluded from first-class cars. African American streetcar riders launched boycotts in more than 25 Southern cities between 1900 and 1907.
In the same spirit, the museum works because its artifacts aren’t merely displayed to narrate a tidy through-line of black history’s greatest hits, from Crispus Attucks to Harriet Tubman to Frederick Douglass to Michelle Obama. Rather, its spaces remind us that from before the nation’s beginnings, African Americans have experienced victories and defeats in many times and places, and our traumas have often taken place alongside our triumphs. There’s the exhibit highlighting the people Thomas Jefferson enslaved, with bricks inscribed with their names standing like a wall behind his statue. Around the nation’s third president, author of our Declaration of Independence, stand African American luminaries, such as poet Phillis Wheatley, whom Jefferson dismissed as inferior in his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” and scientist Benjamin Banneker, who challenged Jefferson on race. In the same exhibit you can see shackles designed for a small child; they’re the sort used when people were sold away, just as hundreds of people enslaved by Jefferson were sold on the lawn of Monticello to settle his estate after his death.
This one exhibit takes you from achievement to seemingly insurmountable barriers and back. This isn’t a clean or easy story to tell, but to tell it another way would be wrong, a perpetuation of the too-frequent oversimplification of black history.
This museum’s triumph is that it gives teachers and learners a fresh start at thinking about black life and culture in this country on the same intellectual track as the rest of our nation’s history, rather than as a version that spotlights African Americans as a people apart, feted every February, then relegated to the background.
Yes, some artifacts in some museums are there purely to remind tour groups and summer class trips about milestones in American history. But the African American Museum adds an extra dimension by showcasing lesser-known pieces of black history that tie the narrative together. It shows us that the folks who organized the Niagara, anti-lynching and women’s club movements were just as “woke” to the oppression of white supremacy as the civil rights generation. As you progress through the space you also understand that, as Ella Baker said, black Americans have long been, and should be, demanding “more than a hamburger.” Today’s debate over economic inequality comes to mind when you see the art wall preserved from Resurrection City, a shantytown protest mounted by the Poor People’s Campaign, the last protest initiative organized by Martin Luther King Jr. before his assassination. The striking images from the wall include the command to “tell it like it is”; situating the protest, in other words, in the wider context of the long fight for equality.
The museum’s curators did important work in centering the ordinary and extraordinary people highlighting the stories we know, such as Douglass and King, but placing them alongside artifacts from people we probably have never heard of whose experiences are just as telling. In contrast to the CliffsNotes version of black history that usually focuses on the Great Men, they emphasize women’s experiences with regularity and clarity. A casual observer might miss the panels focused on black female ministers Florence Spearing Randolph, Mary J. Small, Jarena Lee and Julia A.J. Foote. On a first pass, one might not notice that Sojourner Truth is highlighted on a panel with the label “black feminist,” or sense the full import of a panel featuring Maggie Lena Walker and the Independent Order of St. Luke. But in these works, I hope museum-goers absorb the scholarly contributions of female black historians. In reflecting this work, the exhibits consistently tell us more about what we already know and offer nuance about things most Americans have never heard of.
Despite all this, the Guardian’s Steven W. Thrasher describes the museum as a “project of respectability politics ” that is “quite at odds with the current political moment,” asking, “What good to African Americans . . . is a museum dedicated to us, when we are getting shot in the street daily?” But that question strikes me as too narrow and too broad all at once. We know museums can’t stop bullets. It’s certainly fair — in a world where Terence Crutcher is gunned down by Tulsa police, even as Americans castigate Colin Kaepernick for protesting exactly this kind of violence — to recognize that the African American struggle is ongoing. That we live in a country governed by a black man that still treats black people as second-class citizens. But today’s battles demand that we remember our past. The museum does not offer a whitewash or put a feel-good gloss on our collective story. It’s a necessary affirmation that black lives, indeed, matter.
When you see Ida B. Wells, the turn-of-the-20th-century social justice warrior — a journalist who traveled the country writing about the brutality of lynching — honored with a beautiful portrait, part of her china collection and a first edition of her anti-lynching work alongside a display of some of her most poignant words, you feel that her cause, the cause, is being honored righteously. When you see Nat Turner’s pocket Bible in a massive case, you imagine the man, turning these pages, looking for guidance from his God as he sought freedom and justice. When you see a first edition of “David Walker’s Appeal,” you can almost see this black man at a print shop, publishing his treatise on the evil of chattel slavery. You wonder if this was one of the copies he sewed into a coat sold secondhand with the hope that it would reach the enslaved. These simple artifacts are interventions that complicate the present as well as the past. In a country where some museums once systematically refused to preserve artifacts recording black experiences, where archives refused to become repositories for the letters and diaries of black citizens, it is so tremendous to see materials documenting black humanity and black endeavor displayed with such reverence. It is extraordinary.
As a historian, I live with these ideas and stories. But as a black citizen, the experience was personally edifying. As I toured the museum, I’d catch a glance, out of a window, of the Washington Monument, and I was reminded that this massive, beautiful building full of small, extraordinary moments of learning, joy and sorrow was deep in the heart of the Mall, occupying territory where so often African American stories have been absent. It felt like my ancestors, who were brought to this land decades before the nation’s founding, had come home. No longer just a few things in a room on the side, no longer just mentioned outside the plantation house, no longer the whispered-about laborers or servants, they had a place. The things accomplished in spite of violence and Jim Crow were being honored. All the beauty and joy created in spite of pain was enshrined. It felt like an arrival.