by James A. Kidney
I was fortunate enough to get a sneak preview of the new National Museum of African- American History and Culture (“the African American Museum”) on the National Mall six days before it is to be formally opened to the public with a ceremony featuring the President. It is the nearest building on the Mall east of the Washington Monument and is across 14th Street from the Museum of American History.
One of my first questions when I plan to visit a city for a couple of days is whether it has a museum. If the answer is affirmative, I always visit it. I am familiar with many museums around the world and, as a native Washingtonian, the Smithsonian museums in particular. I am no curatorial expert, but believe I know a good museum when I see one.
In my judgment, the African-American Museum is spectacular. It is a model which every other museum in the world will seek to match for its presentation, design and spirit.
Although I could spend only three hours in the museum, and it was crowded with Smithsonian staff and volunteers getting their own first looks, I saw nearly everything at least briefly, and was able to focus on some exhibits, films and displays for a few minutes. I am confident that the NMAAHC will attract large crowds for a long, long time. Deservedly so.
I will leave it to others to detail the specific objects in the museum. I will just give you some impressions as a white person who considers himself familiar with, but not an expert on, the history of African-Americans. In other words, I am just a reasonably informed white man visiting the museum.
[You can take your own virtual tour of the collection here. You can find press reviews at these links from The Washington Post and The New York Times. The Post review is a bit carping. The reviewer seems to be complaining there is too much information, which is nonsense. As with any good, large museum, a thorough appreciation of the collection will take several visits, hopefully among a smaller crowd than was with me. Crowds will be large through the end of the year and perhaps through Black History Month. For now, you need a timed ticket to visit. You can get one here.]
As I was leaving the museum — sad to depart so soon — I grasped one important theme: The museum is about African-Americans. It is not about white Americans. It is not so obvious that this would be the case.
White Americans view the history of black people in this country as one also about, maybe mostly about, themselves. Whites have been taught from grammar school that they are the principals in the narrative, more or less this way:
Whites brought blacks from Africa to the colonies of the Americas and enslaved them. Whites were both bad to blacks and sought to make them free. Whites fought a war to free black people. Then white people virtually enslaved African-Americans again in the South with Jim Crow laws. White courts and white Freedom Riders freed black people again and white people have been fighting about them politically ever since.
Being as subtly propagandized by this narrative as are other white folk, I expected to see a lot of good and bad white people represented in the history of African-Americans at the museum. There would be George Wallace at the school house door. There would be racist statements by Confederate generals and lots of white folk complaining about civil rights demonstrators and southern school desegregation in the 1960s. Lyndon Baines Johnson would be celebrated with a big exhibit on the signing of the civil rights laws. And so forth. The museum would be as much about white bigotry and liberalism as about black struggle.
I was wrong, and thankfully so. This museum more or less ignores white people, at least the racists. Of course, the racists are reflected in every showcase, movie and interactive because the struggle celebrated is one to be free to be black in all senses — culturally, legally, spiritually, educationally — in a white nation. But the focus is on the heroes of the struggle and, perhaps more importantly, their triumphs.
There are many images of whites. You cannot picture a lynching without whites. You can’t picture civil rights marches without a sprinkle of whites. There are mentions of whites who helped the abolitionist and civil rights struggles, including those Freedom Riders. But there is no focus on the racists. Their presence is felt, but largely ignored in the principal narrative.
As a result, the impact on a white person, at least this one, is profound.
This museum recounting the history of black people enslaved by whites for 350 years and then fighting for rights for another 150 years and continuing, does not hector, lecture or punish the white visitor. The sense of shame for the white race, which includes you, the white visitor, arises from the palpable suffering that Africans endured in the Middle Passage. It arises from the pictures of large groups of grinning whites in a town square entertained by a lynching and, of course, many more images of brutality and segregation. But the whites are incidental. The focus is on the strugglers, not their oppressors.
You will feel shame. But you will not feel threatened or confronted by moralizers in the confines of the museum. Some will say this is a failure. They will say whites should be directly discomfited, challenged and accused. I say it is a triumph. White people will not come if they learn they are made to feel uncomfortable by anything other the recounting of history. They will not come if they are lectured to. Most whites will realize the lessons they should, but the realization will come from within. It is not imposed on them except by the historical narrative itself. This is more than sufficient.
The start of the exhibit tour is in the underground bowels of the structure. It is a little dark, perhaps too dark for older folks, but it is appropriate to the dark subject matter of the Middle Passage. Ramps take you up several subterranean floors and through the chronological history of African-Americans to the present day. The last exhibits in the chronology are bright, cheerful and colorful as they celebrate history of the late 20th Century to the present, paying attention to both the advances made and the challenges ahead.
You, as the white visitor, will begin to shed your shame and embarrassment for your race as you advance up the ramps. Unless you are a hard-core racist, your spirit will rise along with the exhibits portraying victories in the black struggle. It is not, of course, a steady advance. But it is clear that there is progress, and you will brighten along with the exhibits from the shadows into light.
You emerge from the chronological history housed underground to the wide, bright and very large lobby on the first floor, where you entered. A wide window lets in light and a view of the Washington Monument. You then go up on escalators dappled in sunshine with views of the National Mall and the neighboring American History Museum. These take you to two more floors of exhibits.
Then, you are invited to share the success of black Americans.
Here you will see the joyous fruits of the struggle chronicled for you earlier. There is an exhibit on the sports achievements of African-Americans. There is a large exhibit on African-Americans in the arts and culture, both when they were a separate class (such as films for black audiences) and more recently as black culture is embraced by the larger white majority and blacks are integrated into movie and theater roles that called for actors of no colors at all. Matters touched upon in the underground are given more space on these floors. Thus, there is more devoted to education, the black press and the black church. These are among the institutions that make up the black community.
The struggle of black people was long and hard. They mostly fought it themselves, usually with little more than token assistance from whites. It is right and proper that this museum focus on the strugglers. One hopes its existence will help to correct the usual white school narrative.
Another thing this museum shows I was wrong about: I have lamented the seeming mostly political need to “segregate” Native and African Americans (and soon, maybe, women) into separate museums. Why not incorporate their histories by expanding the American History Museum into three or more buildings, each dedicated to a century or two of our history, mingling the history of all? After all, we are one, supposedly.
The answer is shown by the African American Museum, more so than the American Indian Museum. A large part of the power of this museum is the unbroken narrative. The focus on a single race of Americans could not be as moving if scattered among buildings or mingled with the white history of the United States.
You may feel some shame as you move through the first half of the museum, even if your ancestors had nothing to do with the oppression. But by the end of your visit you will share joy in the achievements of the black race in America and be more optimistic about our country’s future — a needed antidote to this electoral campaign year.
After all, the museum tells a tragic story of dark degradation heroically defeated over a long, long time by a people with pride, strength, stamina, intelligence and grit.
Who doesn’t appreciate such a dramatic story?
There is also much joy in this story. Black America is now in the sunlight.
What a fantastic museum that brings all of this history and pageantry to life.