Making a Way Through African American History

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The National Museum of African American History and Culture (Source: Smithsonian Institute)

On Oct. 8 I joined Shepherd University’s International Student Union on their free weekend trip to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

The museum has been a long time coming, with proposals going back to the 1990s. In 2006, then President George W. Bush signed the museum’s construction into law, placing the building on a clear plot of land on the National Mall next to the Washington Monument.

The newest addition to the Smithsonian Institute, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened its doors on Sept. 24, in a ceremony led by President Obama.

Being a fan of the Smithsonian museums, I couldn’t wait to see what the museum’s planners had in store, and if it could do justice to the centuries of struggle, perseverance, and achievement that has come to define African American history.

In light of the renewed presence of racial injustice on the national political stage, I was also interested in how the museum would deal with race in modern America.

The vastness of the ground floor atrium did an excellent job accommodating the massive crowd of visitors.
Demian Nunez
The vastness of the ground floor atrium did an excellent job accommodating the massive crowd of visitors.

We managed to make it through the line and past security at about 2:30 p.m. Saturday. From the moment my friends and I stepped into the atrium, it became obvious that this museum had a very distinct character from the others in the Smithsonian.

The first floor felt more spacious than anything I’d ever seen in a museum before, despite being busier than any museum I’ve ever been in. There were info desks, bathrooms, lockers, a theatre, and artwork hanging from the ceiling, but the scale of the room, the ring of ceiling-high windows, and the absence of any displays on the floor kept the crowded atrium from ever feeling claustrophobic, as some of the other museums can feel on busy days.

It also helped that despite the large crowd, the people I encountered, staff and visitors, were among the most polite and friendly people I’d ever met in D.C. Even when we were shoulder to shoulder or bumping into each other, the exchanges never deviated from polite apologies and friendly banter.

The outer walls were all windows, allowing plenty of natural light filter through the exterior’s three tiered corona.
Demian Nunez
The outer walls were all windows, allowing plenty of natural light filter through the exterior’s three tiered corona.

The museum has five floors above ground, and an expansive basement. Above ground there were halls and galleries dedicated to contemplative space and African American contributions to art, music, culture, as well as to science, medicine, and military service, with no exhibits shying away from the struggles and adversity the black community faced throughout their history.

Below ground, the space was dedicated mostly to history, from the Atlantic slave trade all the way through Jim Crow, civil rights, and the modern day. Some of the biggest draws of the museum are in the lower levels, including a segregated train car and a training aircraft used by the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.

Also downstairs was the Sweet Home Café, where visitors could indulge in a variety of hearty comfort foods.

Given the huge lines to get into the downstairs halls, my friends and I decided to start from the top and work our way down at the suggestion of a receptionist.

The dark and busy spaces of many of the halls contrasted with the bright and open lobby.
Demian Nunez
The dark and busy spaces of many of the halls contrasted with the bright and open lobby.

In the hall dedicated to black contributions to American culture, the wide open and well-lit environment of the lobby and escalators gave way to a much more dense and intimate experience. Even putting aside the throngs of visitors, the room was busy with cases and displays of African American art and clothing, each with detailed descriptions of their history and the context of their message and creation.

A wooden stature in a traditional African style sits at the center for the first room in the hall dedicated to African American culture.
Demian Nunez
A wooden stature in a traditional African style sits at the center for the first room in the hall dedicated to African American culture.

Being so new, I was curious how contemporary technology would play into the experience the museum’s planners crafted. In all the museums I’ve been to I’ve never seen one that so seamlessly and tastefully incorporated technology into the story it told. Most rooms made use of projectors and digital touch screens to set their tones and enhance the museum’s interactive aspects, while never being too in your face.

Projectors and digital screens filled many spaces, ensuring that the room was always in motion.
Demian Nunez
Projectors and digital screens filled many spaces, ensuring that the room was always in motion.

The most visually striking room I had a chance to see was the one dedicated to African American musicians. Upon walking in, the first thing visitors are greeted with is Chuck Berry’s Cadillac El Dorado. Past that was a bright set of rooms filled to the brim with instruments, stage costumes, and props that once belonged to musical greats of all the myriad genres that the African American community created and helped shape to build the unique American sound that dominates the world’s musical charts.

 

Chuck Berry’s Cadillac El Dorado on display.
Demian Nunez
Chuck Berry’s Cadillac El Dorado on display.

 

American music would be unrecognizable today if not for the contribution of countless African American artists and the musical traditions of the black community.
Demian Nunez
American music would be unrecognizable today if not for the contribution of countless African American artists and the musical traditions of the black community.

 

The hall dedicated to African American musical achievement was bright and energetic, and added life to the floor, providing contrast to the somber yet hopeful tone of much of the rest of the museum.
Demian Nunez
The hall dedicated to African American musical achievement was bright and energetic, and added life to the floor, providing contrast to the somber yet hopeful tone of much of the rest of the museum.

 

Shepherd students James Walker and Megan Murray use an interactive display to set the playlist that plays over the musical exhibit.
Demian Nunez
Shepherd students James Walker and Megan Murray use an interactive display to set the playlist that plays over the musical exhibit.

The floor dedicated to African American contributions to American community had a much more somber tone. None of the museum shied away from the history of racial prejudice in America, but here it was front and center, as one cannot acknowledge what African Americans have given to America without taking note of how little America gave back to them through most of her history.

 

In the face of unimaginable adversity, African Americans still managed to carve out their own traditions and build communities that gave back to a country that didn’t always give much to them.
Demian Nunez
In the face of adversity, African Americans still managed to carve out their own traditions and build communities that gave back to a country that didn’t always give much back to them.

Here we came across displays dedicated to African American athletes, scientists, physicians, soldiers, and common people. Normally there wouldn’t be enough room to tell all these stories in a dozen museums, but because of technology, it could fit hundreds of stories into an area the size of a small table. Touch screens allowed visitors to view streams of pictures and letters drift by, picking out whatever caught their eyes and dragging it toward them for a more in depth look.

Technology made the museum more interactive and information dense than any other Smithsonian museum to date, and helped make sure as many stories as possible could be told.
Demian Nunez
Technology made the museum more interactive and information dense than any other Smithsonian museum to date, and helped make sure as many stories as possible could be told.
Museum visitors could spend hours sifting through the digital displays.
Demian Nunez
Museum visitors could spend hours sifting through the digital displays.

 

One of the sections was dedicated entirely to African American military contributions. As far back as the American Revolution, African Americans have taken up arms in service to the United States, although they were often given sub-par equipment and many valiant black soldiers didn’t get proper recognition until well after their deaths.

 

An African American Patriot during the Revolutionary War. Many black people took up arms against the British Empire in hopes it would help them gain more rights.
Demian Nunez
An African American Patriot during the Revolutionary War. Many black people took up arms against the British Empire in hopes it would help them gain more rights.

The exhibit was set up chronologically in a much more traditional museum setup, with a clear path of progression taking visitors up through history into the modern day. Going all through the founding of the nation through to the desegregation of the military and into the modern day where African Americans can serve alongside other American troops as equals.

One of the artifacts I thought was the neatest was a spear made for John Brown’s slave rebellion. I had read about his raid on Harpers Ferry and even visited the site of his last stand, but I had never seen what the spears he planned to arm his rebellion with looked like. I’m afraid to think of how someone wielding one of them would have fared in combat against columns of infantry armed with firearms of the day though.

Closer to home, this spear was one of hundreds that John Brown made to arms slaves in the rebellion he hoped to spark with his raid on Harpers Ferry.
Demian Nunez
Closer to home, this spear was one of hundreds that John Brown made to arms slaves in the rebellion he hoped to spark with his raid on Harpers Ferry.
One of Colin Powell’s uniforms. Collin Powell is a retired U.S. Army four star general, and was the first African American secretary at the U.S. Department of State under George W. Bush.
Demian Nunez
One of Colin Powell’s uniforms. Collin Powell is a retired U.S. Army four star general, and was the first African American secretary at the U.S. Department of State under George W. Bush.

 

I learned about American history at the museum. On display was how much this nation and its people have changed through the centuries, and how much progress we have made, driven by the tenacity and perseverance of African Americans through the ages. But what was even more striking, was how some things have changed so little. Only the most naïve would imply that racial injustice purely exists in the depths of the past.  When I first saw a statue depicting the 1968 Olympics’ controversial black power salute at the 200-meter medal ceremony (which I hadn’t learned about up until then) I didn’t realize it was depicting an event that happened almost half a century ago.

Tommy Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists in the black power salute as the national anthem played, receiving a chorus of boos from the crowd as they stepped down. With the current controversy of athletes kneeling and bowing their heads during the national anthem to protest racial injustice in America, more than a few comparisons can be drawn.

John Carlos and Tommy Smith raise their fists in the black power salute.
Demian Nunez
John Carlos and Tommy Smith raise their fists in the black power salute.

Regrettably, there is only so much time in the day. We didn’t have time to make it to the more historically focused lower levels and see attractions like the Tuskegee airplane or the Jim Crow era train car. There were massive lines to get into the galleries and halls in the basement, and the receptionist said that the wait would be about two hours. Museum organizers did an excellent job fitting hundreds of years of rich history in into one building, and what I saw has me eager to return and see the rest of the museum as soon as I can.

I think it would be impossible to truly do justice to African American history, but from what I’ve seen at least, the museum does a pretty darn good job drawing attention to the rich cultural, civic, and scientific contributions African Americans have given society in the face of unimaginable hardship and adversity, and how much progress America has made toward its founding promise of equality and freedom among men.

Importantly though, it reminds us that there is still work to be done.

Demian Nunez is the managing editor of The Picket. He can be reached at dnunez01@rams.shepherd.edu