Well, it’s about time. What an amazing place! As a student of Africana history, I have anxiously awaited the opening of this important institution and I was not disappointed.
The first thing one notices is the building itself. It reminded me of a large woven basket, but it can represent many things. It is atop a hill, surrounded by green lawns and the Potomac flows nearby. I had the pleasure of visiting after reserving timed passes online prior to its opening. There is no entrance fee, but you must reserve passes online or go early and wait on line outside. The museum is very family friendly with escalators, and ramps and elevators for wheelchairs and strollers. There are also lockers in which you can store your belongings for a 25¢ refundable deposit. A gift shop downstairs is chock full of colorful handmade jewelry, clothing, books, recordings, toys, and other mementos. On the lower level, there is a café, The Sweet Home Café and the Oprah Winfrey auditorium which was closed when I visited.
The layout is designed so one may casually walk from floor to floor and look around. However, if you follow the intended design, you will wait on line and take the elevator downstairs to the lowest gallery which includes images and objects dating back to the earliest days of the slave trade (15th century) between Europe and Africa; there are historical documents as well as images of Africans in European attire, diplomats to and from Africa to Portugal and Spain in particular. The focus is on the Atlantic Creoles. As you follow the pathway you will walk past the interior of a slave ship and move upwards to the next level that includes pre-colonial and finally colonial American history. Of particular interest is the statue of Thomas Jefferson standing in front of a wall of bricks (609 to be exact) with the names of his slaves inscribed on them. A display case nearby holds a pair of iron shackles from Jefferson’s plantation. I watched as Euro-Americans approached that exhibit. We have been bombarded with the genius of Jefferson, but very little attention has been paid to the fact that he owned hundreds of slaves, including, of course, his teenage concubine, Sally Hemmings.
Also on display is an 18th century letter hand-written by Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution.
(George Washington’s slave breeding plantation was conspicuously missing from this exhibit. Hopefully, more will be added in the future)
The next section illustrates the U.S. ante-bellum period; there were many more objects on display including a cotton gin, a reconstructed slave cabin, shackles, firearms, Civil War uniforms, photographs, currency (individual cities and even businesses issued their own currency) and a tent that was used to house escaped slaves during the Civil War. One of the most touching objects, Ashley’s Sack, was a simple cloth sack that had been passed down from generation to generation; Rose, an enslaved woman on Middleton Plantation in Charleston, South Carolina, was forced to say farewell to her beloved daughter Ashley, who was being sold away to another plantation. Before giving it to her daughter whom she would never see again, Rose put pecans and a lock of her hair inside as a reminder of her love for Ashley. Ashley’s granddaughter, Ruth Middleton, embroidered the touching story on the sack, thereby preserving this precious memory for generations to come.
Reconstruction includes photographs and other items, and there are places where one can sit and watch short videos about the movers and shakers of the period (e.g. Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois) as political change was taking hold in the United States. This brings us to the early 20th century and the ongoing struggles for access to the rights of citizenship. All along the journey, we are confronted with images of protest and Black people standing up for their rights as human beings and as citizens. Whether it is the large, sepia colored photograph of a wizened Harriet Tubman, dressed in white, her hand grasping the head of armrest as if it were the but of a rifle, or images of the Black Panthers, the message is of Resistance to Oppression is clear.
Arts and sports are also included in their own galleries. I spent several hours between the two and still did not get to see everything. My next visit will hopefully include a visit to those galleries as well.
All in all, I was very impressed by the quality of items on exhibit and the persistent effort to show the African experience in the Americas as one of resistance as well as acculturation and invention. There was plenty missing, for example, I did not see a copy of David Walker’s Appeal that I feel should be on display. Again, it is possible that I missed it.
Several times, I found myself needing to sit and take a break; the suffering that my people endured was beyond horrendous. And it continued unabated for centuries. After pondering the abuse heaped on millions of souls in the pre-colonial through ante-bellum periods, I could not sit through the videos of Black protesters, teenagers, elders, women and men, being water-hosed in the south, even as they sought the rights and privileges that were legally theirs according to the U.S. Constitution. It was too much. It was too much to consider the on-going violence against our youth, both boys AND girls, men and women, by law enforcement officials in light of all the violence and torture, physical and psychological that has followed our journey into the 21st century. Sometimes, I just had to sit down and take a breath as I wiped the tears from my eyes. I don’t see how anyone can visit the museum without being moved by the images and the history that goes with those objects. The stoicism I saw in many faces revealed the gravity these images present to people of color and the long buried stories of souls that cry out to be acknowledged.
But kudos to the many families, parents and school aged children and teens, who were present.
The National African American Museum in Washington, D.C. should be a required journey for all Americans of every color and ethnic stripe. It is the first stop on the pilgrimage of any American of African descent to remember on whose shoulders we all stand.
To learn more about the museum, hours, travel and other details visit: https://nmaahc.si.edu