Visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is a requirement for every American. No, no, no, not just for Black Americans, for all Americans.
In June, I joined a sea of people from all over the world to visit the museum in Washington, D.C. I went as a part of a field experience for the Culturally Relevant Class I took last year with Dr. Gloria Boutee. My classmates were teachers, elementary, middle, and high school, from throughout my school district.
I was struck by the images I saw in the museum, but I also observed how others interacted with certain exhibits. A Black father knelt before a KKK exhibit and whispered to his small sons, who looked like they were four and five years old. A woman explained to a teenager the difference between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois in the Debating the Path forward exhibit.
The long line to wait to view the Emmett Till Memorial.
The Emmett Till Memorial is the only part of the museum where photo and video is not allowed, at the request of the family. His mother Mamie was brave in the face of grief, ignorance, and hate. She showed his beaten and mutilated body to the world in 1955, and many cite the moment as the spark to the Civil Rights Movement.
The Till Memorial had a long line. It was like the viewing line at a funeral where you wait to see the deceased one last time. A Mahalia Jackson song was playing and we slowly shifted pass the empty coffin. The coffin is the original coffin Till was buried in; he was re-buried in a new coffin in 2005 after his body was exhumed.
Although the coffin was empty, it still felt full to me. The weight of what happened to Emmett Till weighted on me as I waited in the line. The weight of the whole narrative of being Black in American weighed on me throughout the museum.
My Black history begins at my grandmother’s knee. How she told me the story of her life over and over and how one day I finally realized her repetition meant she wanted me to remember. And so I started writing it down so I could remember, and later so that others in the family could remember too.
In my early writing is poems about and poems written in the voice of my grandmother. She was the first original storyteller, my griot, who bore the story to her quiet granddaughter.
At some point I realized Black history went beyond my grandmother’s story, that there were gaps and information she didn’t have access to, and that’s when I hit the library and read every book by and about Black people I could find.
I reckon my Black history IQ was pretty high, but the experience I had walking through the museum, looking at the pictures and videos, reading the stories, walking inside of a slave cabin taught me that I have much more to learn.
In the basement of the museum is African American history. It begins with the African Slave Trade and as I walked up, I read and listened to stories about the experience of slavery, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era. The top of the museum is sports, arts, and popular culture. When you come up out of the basement, there is a contemplative fountain there for reflection.
Reflection is built into the museum experience because they know that the experience of wading through the 300+ years of oppression is a heavy one. I’m still processing the museum, the words, images, and sounds contained in it.
As we move forward, our country will have to reckon with this history, and its long reaching legacy. Just last month there was a House hearing on reparations for slavery. “It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery,” writer Ta-Nehisi Coates told the House panel.
This history is living with us now, and how we face it, or not, will impact the future of this nation.
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