Ever since the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016, we’ve been trying to score tickets to see what one very discerning friend said, after an early visit, was “nothing less than transformative.” We make several trips every year to the DC area to visit our daughter and her family. Before each visit Elana waged a determined online campaign to reserve tickets, to no avail. Then, a few weeks before our most recent visit, she wrote to announce, “Success!”
So, there we were, at long last, on a perfect spring-like fall morning last weekend standing before what is arguably one of the most beautiful public buildings in the capital. I’m sure many of you may already have visited the museum, so you’ll either enjoy matching up your impressions with mine or be bored to death by my less-than-original observations.
The building’s exterior consists of an eye-catching bronzed lattice work which covers three floors, each of which is a building-long tapered block slightly offset from the one below. The reason the architects were able to keep the building’s height so low is that much of it is underground for reasons that will become evident when we describe its contents. Someone knowledgeable about the museum’s construction history (thank you, Eli) explained to us the formidable engineering and budgetary challenges posed by the extensive underground construction. The ground on which the building sits was marshland, so to control the seepage the entire structure had to be encased in a concrete container, similar to the concrete shields that many cemeteries require inside which the coffin is laid.
I have to add here a sad note that the lead architect responsible for this signal achievement, David Adjaye, who is Ghanaian-British, is now the target of charges of sexual harassment and creating a toxic work environment. We are once again in the position of trying to separate the achievements of an artist in whatever field from the flawed character of the creator. I chose to put the probably justified accusations aside and bask in the aesthetic pleasures of what Sir David – yes, he’s been knighted – helped create.
We were dropped off where buses for visiting groups unload their passengers. A group of white people were just exiting the bus and watching them – from their dress and bearing they were not city folk – triggered a memory, which, I will admit, cast the group, unfairly, in an unfavorable light. My wife and daughters were visiting the famous Jewish cemetery in the heart of Prague when a group of German tourists arrived. They were of an age that suggested that they had been around during the Holocaust years. I was filled with anger at their presence. Of course, I had no reason to know whether anyone in this group was complicit in the death of Jews, but by association, I found it hard to accept their right to stand on what I considered my people’s holy ground.
Watching this group of tourists in DC, I imagined a Black person in a position parallel to mine in Prague who might feel resentful of these white people’s presence at the museum. They could just as easily resent the presence of me and my family, but the predominantly Black staff was nothing but gracious and welcoming.
It’s time, for God’s sake, to get inside the building. We were here to appreciate and learn from the contents, not the container, something that museum designers sometimes forget. The welcome desk directs you to the elevators which take you to the lowest of the building’s three levels, the starting point of our exploration of the exhibits. Therein lies the genius of the museum’s design because we start in Africa with the learned and prosperous cultures that preceded the slave trade, through the conditions of slavery in various parts of our country, making the point that slavery was not a monolithic institution, but varied with the conditions and needs of each region.
Almost every regional exhibit contains an example of an act of resistance or rebellion. These are a necessary counter narrative to the false perception of passivity in the face of oppression, a problem confronted by the Holocaust Museum as well. The only uprising on display with which I had more than a passing familiarity was Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Virginia which entered the popular culture when it became the subject of a novel by William Styron.
The second level covers a broad sweep of history from Reconstruction, through Jim Crow, right up to the beginning of the Civil Rights era. It’s dizzying, as is the whole museum, too much to absorb in a single visit. We have friends who do a 9-5 visit to the Louvre. I go on overload long before that. It helps that we made a lunch stop in the museum café, which has appropriately themed Black dishes on offer, including banana pudding, which, sadly, they were out of.Consistent with the museum’s themes,the walls are lined with photographs of young Black people at the lunch counters that denied them service in the early days of the civil rights movement. The building contains an extraordinary collection of photos and videos on the walls, projected on giant screens and inside the individual exhibits. Taken together they help drive the story home with great effect.
Because of the configuration of the three-level structure, we had to enter the third level after lunch from the top and work our way backwards through it. Seeing the events that you have lived through memorialized as history is always a strange experience – our lives in Mississippi, the TV and movies we’ve watched, the election of Barack Obama. It was a warm bath in nostalgia, but also an important reminder that through the efforts of millions of courageous people in many fields, things really have changed, even though in our frustration with what remains to be done, we sometimes deny the real progress we’ve made.
Moving through the museum with our 12-year-old granddaughter Dalia created a split vision experience. I was watching her reacting to the exhibits, while reacting to them myself. Not surprisingly, she is a child of her generation. Videos and movie clips held her attention most firmly. The stationary exhibits engaged her less, with the exception of those on the upper, most contemporary level where she had more context for what she was looking at. I’ve worked with kids long enough to know that one is never sure what they’re taking in of what they’re being exposed to. Taylor Swift appears to be drowning out all other messages for now.
Traversing those three levels of the museum was a journey through time and pain, with many heroic and courageous stops along the way. It’s a trip I recommend to everyone, regardless of color.
Correction: In last week’s listing of authors who maintained a consistent focus on one place in their writing, I made the bonehead error of identifying novelist William Kennedy with the city of Buffalo. Thank you John Barrett for reminding me that, in fact, Albany was his territory.