The National Museum of African American History and Culture lived up to the hype. Not only that but it lived up to the frustration getting my hands on tickets. The first time I woke up just before 6:30 AM to register for two timed release ones. Epic fail. Why? My only conclusion is whoever wanted to go had faster web access. Fortunately, the next morning I snatched two tickets for 11:30 AM.
When we arrived inside I asked a lady at the front desk, “Where to begin?” She looked at us with interest, “Well, how much time you got?”
“About two hours,” I said.
“That’s not a lot of time to see this museum.”
“How much time will you need?”
“About three weeks.”
I didn’t believe her but took her advice to sit through Ava DuVernay’s 25 minutes “One Day in History,” film. It’s an exclusive movie about different pivotal moments in African-American history that all took place in different years but on the same day in August. One moment was the creation of Motown Records. Each moment was done with an introduction scene followed by a prominent black actor or actress reciting a poem.
Afterward, we began our trek through the bottom floor which was dubbed, “the one mile walk through four hundred years of African-American history.” It began with Africans enslaved in the United States and culminated with the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States of America Barack Obama. This narrative was weaved together to show how African Americans have progressed. How was this progress measured? My guess the progression of us going from being treated less than human to one of our own becoming the leader of “the free world.”
“Awe” followed me across each picture and artifact. We stepped inside a recreated slave ship. A video image of the sea was used to simulate the last image enslaved Africans would see before the voyage across the ocean. The exhibit showed Queen Nzinga of Ndogno and Matamba who fought against the Portuguese during the 17th century over the enslavement of her people in modern day Angola. I wished it had included the infamous story of how she negotiated with Portugal on equal footing despite them not providing her a seat at the table. She snapped her fingers and a warrior with her became a chair for her to sit. Instead, the small paragraph emphasized her conversion to Christianity later in life which some historians argue was a clear sign she had lost the fight for her people.
The next images that moved me were enslavement. On the walls were the names of each slave ship and records of their human cargo they left shore with versus those who survived. I didn’t realize the slave ships information was written on the walls until half-way through it. I would have made a conscious effort to determine if the “Jesus” slave ship was included. Or if mention was made how some slaves ships were blessed by the pope. One ship was named “Good Intent.” How ironic.
By the time this part of the museum showed the heartbreaking journey of the middle passage, we were brought to the enactment of slavery in different colonies. It was my first time being shown a cotton bag that was expected to be filled with up to ten pounds¾multiple times in a day. A grueling task. If the quota wasn’t met the enslaved were whipped. And if the quota was met it increased the next day.
Then I saw shackles for adults and children. Children were expected to contribute to the plantations at an early age. Others were sold before taking their first breath. The museum explained how many colonies had different levels of treatment of the enslaved. But know, “the enslaved were always treated like property.” I missed any information on how the enslaved was stripped of their religion, identity, and name. Nor how what little they held on was passed down to their kin. However, a story stayed with me about a woman clutching on to her baby at an auction refusing to be separated from her child. Then forced apart through a sale and her agony and anguished being heard across the market. Finally, it was noted that this scene played out often every day the enslaved were sold.
Artifacts of our modern day messiah Harriet Tubman, who made countless trips throughout the south to free the enslaved, was moving. There were several portraits of her throughout the museum and a piece of her clothing like a scarf encased for our viewing. By this time, we had already hit the two-hour mark and was still only on the bottom of the five floors and didn’t even reach the midpoint of the four-hundred-year trek.
There were artifacts of President Thomas Jefferson. He raped some of his enslaved women and enslaved the children (his own children) the women gave birth to. If someone would enslave his own children without losing sleep one could imagine his sinister behavior had no bottom.
At some point, we reached the emancipation proclamation. But what I wanted to see was some sort of account of how many slave revolts took place between enslavement and the emancipation proclamation. Or ways in which the enslaved resisted the conditions of slavery.
I left with the impression that beyond the heroics of prominent figures like Harriet Tubman the average slave accepted the conditions as a way of life. But I don’t believe it.
I was interested in finding some sort of debate or discussion around reparations. Maybe a reference to an article. Instead, I only came across false promises that deeply affected African Americans: a good Christian is a way to be a good slave and have a wonderful afterlife, fighting in the war of independence in either the British or United States side as a way to earn freedom. Then in the civil war fighting for the north for freedom.
At the reconstruction period, we had put some pep in our step. What did the newly freed do? Many found a way out of no way and began to found towns in different parts of the south. There were some examples of progress then the pendulum swung backward in the form of Jim Crow and other forms of segregation. One example, the Ku Klux Klan, American terrorists, who have, is, terrorizing the lives of many African Americans. There was a big section around African Americans migrating across the United States of America. Several binders that held examples of people or families that left one place and settled in another.
There were highlights of careers that offered African-Americans a decent life like the Pullman Porter, men hired to carry luggage and other loads on overnight trains. Although Pullman Porter was paid well their treatment often was subpar. There was a cart that looked like an old version of an Amtrak train. Once I got to see examples of “progress,” I wondered if there would be any mention on how economically African-Americas progressed? Were Pullman Porters able to transfer their wealth to their kin? I was anxious to see beyond the formations of towns and businesses how had they survived or perished through this four hundred year journey. There was mention of Madam C.J. Walker, a black woman, who became a millionaire from selling black beauty products.
The civil rights movement had lots written on Martine Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. A lot of civil disobedience such as Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat which led to the Montgomery boycott. I would’ve loved to see data on the economic impact it had on Montgomery.
There also was mention of the Black Panthers and some of the initiatives they started like the free lunch program. But my favorite picture was “the Black Panthers’ ten-point plan” which clearly illustrated how they intended to make a positive impact on American society. It’s funny how often the Black Panthers were labeled as a terrorist organization for actively aiming to make a safe environment for their loved ones. Some of their initiatives like free lunch programs were programs that the United States eventually adopted. Meanwhile the KKK an organization known to have lynched countless black people never received half the amount of scrutiny and ridicule it rightfully deserved. Alongside or not too far from the depiction of black folks around this time were signs of “Fight the power” to balled fist afro picks.
Around these artifacts was also a depiction of urban ghettos. There was mention of how drugs impacted the urban ghetto and effectively immobilized this rebirth of African-American consciousness. And African-Americans changing their name to Afro-centric names.
One of the most sort after exhibits was the Emmett Till exhibit. The line went around the corner and the wait to enter hovered around twenty minutes. Out of respect for the family, no pictures were allowed of his original casket. (The one his mother Mamie Till held an open casket funeral to show the world what racists had done to her son). This was possible because his casket was dug up in 2004 in order to do a DNA test to verify his body which up until that point he was only identified by a ring on his finger.
The corresponding video that showed the tragic end of his life had originally been shown on the History channel. Two things his mother said was impactful. Her impression that she had felt Emmett thought she was exaggerating about the dangers in the south. (Leading to him whistling at a white woman and being tortured then thrown into a local river to die.) The second thing was her impression of injustices happening to African Americans throughout the United States. She felt like many of us still do today that since she had a good stable job and racism and injustice didn’t affect her family¾it wasn’t a priority. She learned the hard way when her son became a victim. How will the rest of us learn?
The crowd we walked alongside was filled with mostly black tourists. Some older men and women, some families and what looked like high school students on their senior trip and family reunion. But what I felt through the crowd was mutual respect. It seemed like the general consensus was we were on sacred ground and treated the space and each other as such. The amount of security and cameras helped as well but never seemed to be too imposing on us.
Seeing so many different types of people made me think how great a trip this would be for young children in my family. It would create an avenue to have a constructive conversation around racism and segregation that still affect us. Instead, of just coming off as a parent or mentor just saying things but providing this place of huge context.
Towards the end of our trek, we came across information on the influx of Caribbean people around the 1980s like Dominicans who came to America to live productive lives. There was information about the war on drugs that effectively increased incarceration of black folks. Finally, we got to Barack and Michelle Obama. The dress Michelle wore on inauguration was being shown. The museum is a beautiful token to African-Americans. It is as ambitious as it is a good foundation for a unique experience of a people.
One thing for sure it’s clear that African Americans come from a people who have unimaginable resilience. To look at so many examples of overcoming “Shakespearian” tragedies and still have compassion, remorse, and grace speaks to a place deep inside us. Although, some of us like myself know there are much more hard battles to be fought and won.
On the walls of the museum stood many quotes from prominent African Americans. My favorite was from Maya Angelou, “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave. I am the dream the hope of the slave.” These scattered quotes add to the surreal experience the museum made feel.
The front desk lady was right about needing more time to experience the museum. This piece only focused on the bottom floor of five. At best this museum showed how empowering a museum could be when given the privilege to display the hopes, aspirations, sacrifices, and actualizations of a people. I look forward to going back sometime in the near future.
Rashaun J. Allen (@rashaunjallen) received his MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from SUNY Stony Brook. He’s eyeing agents to help publish his coming of age story, Christine’s Dream—A Memoir of Love, Loss & Life. He is the author of A Walk Through Brooklyn & In The Moment and has been published in TSR: The South Hampton Review and is forthcoming in The Tishman Review. When not writing he runs for the thrill of crossing the finish line. Find more of his work at www.rashaunjallen.com.