What I Learned from the African American History Museum
Every morning since the election, I wake up and think about the same question all the time.
"To be honest, can we leave to Canada?"
"No," I say. "We're not leaving. My family and others like it started this country. I'm not going anywhere. Especially not now. This is when we stay and fight." (of course with the poster of the great Sidney Poitier, anything is possible)
Even before I became woke on African American plights, I was always curious about the past's left-behinds. When I was younger, I used to spend hours in my bedroom, lying on my bed, lamenting my own shiftlessness. I had been raised on the gospel of denial and sacrifice and bittersweet irony and last-minute tragic reversals: that is, on the gospel of American blackness. I was well aware that my grandparents and great-grandparents had scrubbed floors until their knuckles bled and spent hours minding other women's children so that I could, at seventeen, lie on that futon mattress for hours on end, contemplating my place in space and time and counting up what I owed the past without a care in the world.
I have been to the Smithsonian's new African American history museum twice. The first time was at the end of February, when many of Americans were still reeling from the TV bonanza that we called our Presidential Inauguration.
I am also aware of the strangeness that black history attracts. The people who gloat on the litany of suffering and the people who want to insist that the suffering probably really wasn't that bad and the people who cling to mythic versions of the past, unwilling to talk about the truly fascinating truth or most importantly: scared to confront it.
When my family and I walked through the door of the Smithsonian's African American history museum, it was an explosion of blackness, of "Us-ness", that made us both giddy. From the suspecting security guard who checked our bags and ask where we were from and responded with a the unwanted response of: Washington D.C. Next we stood next to a man in an Obama for President hat who told us about moving from a town near Tupelo, Mississippi, to Gary, Indiana, in the '60s and riding in the back of a bus as a child. His T-shirt read "Triple the Hustle and Double the Heart."
During that initial visit to the museum, my family and I made it through only the first three floors. The museum begins in the basement, at the start of black identity, with the transatlantic slave trade beginning in the 1400s. As you walk through it, the floor slowly elevates, until you are climbing up and out through history, all the way to 2008 and the election of Barack Obama, and then the "present."
We passed numerous parents with small children, winding their way through the dark and cramped corridors. I watched as a girl, her scalp crisscrossed with cornrows, smiled at her own reflection in a display case, patting at her edges.
To my delight, some of the castoffs of history were here, if obliquely — you had to know enough to figure out where to look. But my family and I were pleased to see the exhibits made an effort to remind the audience that blackness is not monolithic — there were exhibits on all black settlements, those spaces for freedom most people don't speak about. There were exhibits on blackness in the West versus the North versus the Midwest versus the South. There were exhibits on the freedom farms; on early black-history museums; on black love and marriage, the middle-class and the Bronx.
In one corner, sanctioned off, you could walk through a room containing Emmet Till's casket. This was the one space my mother and I could almost not bring ourselves to enter. It was so peaceful and quiet and moment of solidarity to respect the man who became a martyr for the black movement.
But mostly, we were overwhelmed by the fact that this space existed. That it was really here, and full of all of us, all the pieces of us collected and set off for proud display.
We went to the second floor, to look through one of the gaps in the façade, out to the National Mall and the Washington Monument. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the sight of a tour bus circling the museum. It was Milo Yiannopoulos's bus, "AMERICAN FAGGOT" sprawled across the side. At the time, I told myself to ignore it. "Don't let them ruin this moment." But it was still there, circling, when we went to grab our coats.
Since the election, among all the other terror, I've been worried that this museum would be the first to be on the Republicans' chopping block. When I went back for my second visit, on the second day of February, Donald Trump had just made his Frederick Douglass gaffe. We really achieved a new low in the mindset of our president on that one: believing that Frederick Douglass is alive and well and matter leading the Black Lives Matter Movement per se Trump.
"No. Black History Month is a sacred space for me, and I prefer not to indulge any white nonsense during this time," I told myself, only half-joking. I'd been on edge because a few weeks before, the White House had issued an ominous announcement that Trump had "plans to celebrate Black History Month," and so I had braced myself for what I was sure was going to be some high-level trolling, which is apparently how we've decided we're conducting politics for the foreseeable future.
"You know," I told my mother, "Trump says he thinks this museum is terrific," and as I walked to the top floors of the place, I could see why. I'd missed this part on my first visit. This is absolutely not shade to the museum—but the top floors are all large flashing screens and glass boxes full of the greatest hits of black entertainment. On the third floor, the first place you enter is an oval reception space, with screens mounted on the curved wall. Impressionistic films about different aspects of black culture — writers, faith, hair — play. The final video is on black hand gestures — just a quick edit of different people slapping palms, doing the Dougie, clapping hands. The final shot is Obama doing his famous "Obama Out" mic drop from the last White House Correspondents' Dinner, which, honestly, is kind of the pinnacle of black American history so far and I think could probably just play on loop in this place and the work would be done here. Every black entertainer and artist you could think of, and some you may have forgotten, seems to make an appearance on those screens, smiling, in their prime.
It's no wonder that Trump would like it up there. It's all success, and joy and triumph, all the time. Done and achieved by black people.
We got to the museum early in the day, and we had to leave before we could see all the things we wanted to. A concierge receptionist told us it would probably take multiple visits to see everything. As we walked out of the museum, we stopped and took pictures in the fading sunlight.
I think about that moment, as we pose for photos in front of the museum. Of the strangeness of American blackness: a position that makes it seem as if this country isn't really mine, but still a place I instinctively claim, an arrogance I am willing to inhabit sometimes. It's the country where white people burned my great-grandfather's ambition to the ground one year, accepted him into a college that is a seat of financial and cultural power the next, and then classified him as a "popcorn seller," not an English professor, in the federal Census a few years after that and they're many other stories out there like that. The best thing about this museum is that it doesn't try to solve this riddle or plant the obvious theme of African and American diaspora. Instead, it lets it unfold in all its color and complexity, its contradictions and beauty big enough for you to walk through and: Learn.