If you have been to our Nation’s Capitol in Washington D.C., the vast number of cultural experiences you can choose from is both daunting and inspirational. Smithsonian’s latest addition is The National Museum of African American History and Culture. One of the first events I put on my calendar when we moved to the DC area was attending the Grand Opening Ceremony in September 2016.
The grand opening ceremony was every bit as wonderful as expected. From Barack Obama’s motorcade driving past us on our walk from the metro, to listening to Patti LaBelle’s live performance, it was perfection. We ate shrimp po’ boys and listened to the wonderful tribute from Congressman John Lewis. My daughter danced in the grass while the legendary Stevie Wonder performed with his harmonica.
What made it even more special is that my family has spent the last 2 years in West Africa while working for the U.S. Embassy. As we passed the drum circles at the event, we reminisced over learning to play the djembe ourselves. We saw many African wax prints that brought us back to shopping in the bazaars. The smells of the food were as wonderful as the smiles on people’s faces. The mass of people swaying to the rhythm of freedom that was in the air was intoxicating.
Not too long ago in 1963, just a few yards away from this monument was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech”. Now the same massive crowds gathered to see this dream of change become a reality. We are a long way from where we should be as far as racism goes in America, but just for this day, it was a complete celebration of how far we have come. It was an honor to celebrate every single powerful and brave African American who paved the way for this monumental event.
I toured the actual museum with my family over the Thanksgiving holidays, and it was every bit of poignant as I expected. In the attempt to depict the pain and the pride of America’s history, the museum confronts slavery and racial oppression, as well as celebrates the heroes and movements that got us to where we are as a nation today. One of the first artifacts that brought tears to my eyes was an auction block where slaves stood to be bought and sold. While my family and I lived in West Africa (2014-2016), we visited Goree Island where the slaves were first put on the ships. Through our wonderful tour guide’s words and stories, I could visualize the trauma a slave went through traveling from Senegal to America and imagined the strength it must have taken to survive these horrors.
The collection of artifacts (over 350,000) was too much for any person to take in so I have encouraged all of my friends who have since visited to research what they wanted to see before going to be sure not to miss something important. For some this might be sitting for a while at the Greensboro counter exhibit or visiting Emmett Till’s coffin. The Washingtonian put together their own “must see” list of exhibits in the Museum, but everyone has a different experience. For me personally, the exhibit showing the wreckage from a Portuguese ship that sank off the coast of South Africa in 1794, killing more than half the estimated 400 slaves on board was on my list. Having visited Portugal twice and visiting their historical museums and monuments from their perspective of the slave trade, it was fascinating.
As you travel from the underground and dark levels of the Museum, you can almost feel a physical lift of your spirits as you pass segregation and start to see the triumphs that leaders and movements in African American culture. The culmination of the museum on the top floor where history starts moving at a wonderful pace.
The exhibits are lined up hero by hero — Angela Davis, Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm, Anita Hill — and movement by movement, from Black Is Beautiful, to Black Panthers, to Black Lives Matter. You see Olympians such as Carl Lewis, Gabby Douglas, and sports heroes such as Michael Jordan, Jack Johnson, Althea Gibson, and Eddie Robinson. I was able to celebrate each of the famous artists, musicians, actors all who broke down barriers of African Americans being seen as inferior as we toured the exhibits. The sculpture of the 1968 Mexico Olympic runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos with raised fists during the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” was my favorite of the 4th floor.
As the New York Times quoted “The effect is confusing, but history is confusing. If it isn’t, it’s not history; it’s fiction. Mr. Bunch and his curators understand this and they keep the story complicated, lobbing more topics and words in our direction than you can possibly hope to catch, never mind absorb, in one visit.”
You are given opportunities as you move through the museum for a virtual interview. In this private room, you can record your thoughts on the museum. As I listened to my husband and daughter reflect on the experience, I could see the sadness and emotion. However, the overwhelming feeling as you walk out of the museum is a sense of true pride.
Of course with any long day of learning and culture comes the reward of food. The Museum’s Sweet Home Cafe has every wonderful and classic African American dish imaginable. You cannot miss the BBQ Pork Sandwich or the Louisiana Catfish Po’ Boy. (picture from NMAAHC)
For a great list of books to read before or after your visit, click HERE.
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