Finally there is a place that tells the blood-and-mortar American story of the African American people, from slavery to hip hop. The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened on the National Memorial Mall September 24, 2016 as the newest addition to the Smithsonian Institution’s network of 19 museums and learning centers.
The NMAAHC is the only national museum devoted solely to documenting African American life, history, and culture. It was established by an Act of Congress in 2003 nearly a century after the founding vision of African American Union Army veterans who met at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, DC in 1915 for a reunion parade. They were frustrated by the racial discrimination with which their efforts to highlight black achievements were met; so they decided to build a memorial to African American accomplishments. That’s how far back the nugget of an African American National Museum can be traced.
On a recent visit to the museum I was struck by the great array of black people there, all clearly prideful and jubilant at the mere idea of a standalone building that extolled and celebrated our existence – the bad, the good, and the in-between. I saw examples of every black personality I’ve ever known. Everybody was there, the young, the old, professionals, housewives, slicksters, students, toddlers, military veterans, the wheelchair-bound, high-strung teenagers, inner-city strugglers, rural country folk and well-to-do suburbanites, and I imagine this is the daily composition of visitors since the museum opened.
Everybody was there to confirm some of what they knew about the black American journey as well as to learn some things they hadn’t known about our journey, but nowhere on any face did I see an acknowledgement of the epic struggle that had been waged in the past 101 years to make this building a reality.
The proposal for a museum took many forms over the early decades and gained lukewarm support, but in 1986 Rep. Mickey Leland (D-TX) sponsored legislation (H.R. 666) advocating an African American museum on the National Mall. That legislation passed the House but eventually failed in the Senate as being too costly. And this was the story of the museum for the next 20 years: cited for being too costly, without a location to build upon, unnecessary because this information could be incorporated in one of the other museums in the Smithsonian’s network. There were all kinds of setbacks that prevented the start of the museum. Legislation to create the museum was introduced at the start of each new session of congress. In 1994 the legislation passed the House and Senate committees but Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), a prominent white racist, refused to let the legislation come to the Senate floor.
The manifestation of a National Museum of African American History and Culture had to travel the same route of struggle and rejection as we African American people did. I mean that in more than a symbolic way, though there are many intended symbolic connections between the museum and the people it represents; a garden, pond and bridge were added to the entrance on Constitution Avenue so that visitors would have to cross over the water like Africans did when they were first brought to slavery in America.
The museum has four upper levels and three levels underground. There is symbolism also in the planning of the building. Deep down in the hull of the building is where the story of the Middle Passage and black slavery is told. The chronicle of the African American people’s rise in society is told on each rising level of the building. The happier times are on the higher levels, and the fifth level, which will tell the story of African Americans’ final liberation, though not built yet, is being inspired by the achievements of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Long before you get to level four and Chuck Berry’s shining red Cadillac, where he was seduced some nights by groups of adoring white teen girls, you pass the memorial to Emmett Till, the teenage boy brutally murdered by white men for whistling at a white woman. Perhaps the second saddest exhibition in the museum, young Till’s actual coffin is on display with a picture of his beaten and distorted face lying in a space in the coffin. The face is so grotesque that they placed it where you have to rise up on your toes to see it. Only the very brave and the tall will endeavor to do so. There are pictures of the funeral and there is a video of Till’s mother explaining why she allowed the world to see her son’s battered body and there is the haunting gospel voice of Mahaila Jackson. This is the only section of the museum where photo taking is prohibited. The whole exhibition has the feeling of a memorial or a wake – a sacred experience.
White obstructionism and the forces of regression conspired for years to block the creation of this building destined to become for African Americans what Mecca is to Muslims – a place to make dedicated pilgrimages – until 2003, when President George W. Bush endorsed putting the museum on the national Mall. In 2005, Lonnie Bunch III was named the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. He had served on the Commission for the Preservation of the White House during the George W. Bush administration and was reappointed to it by President Obama in 2010. It wasn’t easy but Mr. Bunch successfully guided the hundred-year dream home so that main street African Americans can marvel at who we black people are and how we got over.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is a place where all Americans and indeed all the world’s people should come to witness the miracle of those who suffered through the long night of the white man’s brutality creating a culture embraced by the world.
One other thing about the museum: What a cafeteria it has. The Sweet Home Café is like none other I’ve ever seen in public institutions. It carries a large array of traditional African American cuisine prepared to delectable perfection and tastefully displayed.