Museums are treasure troves that curate and codify events through misty portals of the past. Regardless of the subjects on display, they have the collective power to make us confront ourselves.
And if we are wise and willing, they provide the fuel to activate our critical-thinking skills to gain deeper compassion, particularly when addressing mankind’s scourge of good versus evil.
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture can evoke sensitivity in even the most hard-nosed visitor who takes the time to follow the trail of tears that comprises much of the timeline presented by the facility. Against all odds, the story unfurls of a race that indefatigably pulls itself together. It charts a soaring trajectory brimming with society-altering strides in medicine, music, politics, education, literature, sports and beyond.
Created by an act of Congress in 2003, the bronze-painted aluminum museum’s total cost came in at $540 million, including construction and exhibit installation. Nestled on five acres in the shadow of the Washington Monument, the edifice occupies nearly 400,000 square feet and is unique in that it is the nation’s largest and most complete showcase of African-American history.
On all levels of the unpretentious structure, rich stories abound, highlighted by the 550,000 blacks, most of them from West African, who were chained and loaded onto rat-infested slave ships. The destination was the Americas, Europe and beyond, where they began unspeakable lives serving in the wealthy white man’s world of privilege and entitlement.
The museum’s lobby, which includes a southerly panorama that very nearly brings into focus the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, contains an eye-opening piece of artwork called “The Liquidity of Legacy.” Fashioned from nothing but rubber, tires, wood and steel, New York sculptor Chakaia Booker’s goal was to design a piece that symbolizes the flow of change that helps interpret a person’s legacy.
From the lobby, visitors ride the towering spiral elevator down to a colossal elevator which whisks them to the galleries.
By far, the busiest display area is called “Slavery and Freedom 1400-1877.” While the layout of the twisting room — cramped, dark and dank — resembles sardines in a can, museum officials defend its design. It is intended, they declare, to replicate what daily life was like on a slave ship.
Each exhibit at the museum, opened since 2016, is poignant, judiciously imparting facts and figures to visitors in the hushed spaces. One in particular may change the way we look at the sugar we reflexively sprinkle into our morning coffee.
It tells the story of the slave labor that was assigned to producing the sweetener. In 1787, 90 percent of the sugar produced worldwide came from the parched and weathered hands of slaves on plantations. An iron pot used to boil down cane sugar added texture to the disturbing narrative.
Nearby, a quote from a slave scribbled on the glass-enclosed exhibit reads in part, “I was brought from a state of innocence and freedom, and in a barbarous and cruel manner, conveyed to a state of horror and slavery.” Nearby, these words are etched on another pane: “Are we not indebted to those valuable people, the Africans, for our sugar, tobacco, rice and rum?”
Other galleries shed a light on the abundant literary achievements among African-Americans. A 1976 opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times by author James Baldwin, headlined “Looking for the Bicentennial Man,” voices his views on the state of America on its 200th anniversary.
A stellar list of donors whose philanthropy made the facility a reality hangs prominently on one wall. Along with money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a name emotionally associated with Baltimore broadcasting jumps out — Oprah Winfrey. In 1976, 22-year-old Winfrey scored a job in the news department at WJZ-TV, which for decades garnered the highest number of viewers to its evening and late-evening newscasts.
In an interview with Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawick, Winfrey, now 65, called her years on TV Hill “the greatest growing period of my adult life.” Her $12 million donation earned the pop cultural icon her own theater at the museum and a marquee bearing her name. Audiences in the spacious auditorium are treated to a production called “Watching Oprah”: The Oprah Winfrey Show and American Culture.”
Lack of Diversity
While at the museum stop and meditate on a genuine slave cabin and an assortment of Civil War and Emancipation artifacts. Underground Railroad leader HarrietTubman’s silk lace and linen shawl, a gift from Queen Victoria, is also on display.
The Bible that Nat Turner, an enslaved preacher, carried after he engineered a slave revolt in 1831 draws you in as well. Other displays worthy of your time include the chronologies of African-Americans serving in the military, musical geniuses, visual and stage artists, and the road that black athletes navigated to win respect on playing fields and courts.
Visitor Shamecca Williams offered her feelings about her second visit to the museum. “It’s a great historical document for those who want to learn more,” said Williams, an African-American who teaches high-school English in Montgomery County.
Those who are not black, she said, often “deny the horrors” that befell her ancestors, and the museum serves to crystallize the past. “It should give a full understanding of why and how we do the things we do,” she said.
Another visitor, Bamba Koroma, 53, a native of Sierra Leone who lives in Silver Spring, said she enjoyed her time at the museum but offered this concern. “Considering what is going on [regarding the heated rhetoric of contemporary American politics], I don’t see many white people,” she said. “I see many black faces, which is understandable, but everyone can learn from this, especially white people.”
If you don’t mind standing in line, the Sweet Home Café at the museum dishes up hardy food representative of major geographic sections of the country. The Creole Coast menu features pan-fried Louisiana Catfish Po’boys and red beans and rice; the North offers Yankee-baked beans and smoked haddock, while the West weighs in with jalapeno chutney, high mesa peach and blackberry cobbler.
Sitting in the café and relaxing over a cup of coffee, visitor Chloe Young looked said she was winding up her second visit to the museum.
“The amount of information packed inside the cavernous bottom floor is at once overwhelming and important,” said the 33-year-old educator from Oakland, Calif. “It served to demonstrate just how much I didn’t know and wasn’t taught about the atrocities committed against enslaved Africans and black Americans.”
Despite advancements in bridging the racial divide, Young asserted that the U.S. “has not done even close to enough to reconcile with this history. Overt and systemic racism is still the greatest shame of our country.”
Tony Glaros is a Columbia-based freelance writer.