Next to Hamilton, the toughest ticket to get in the U.S. right now is admittance to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Thanks to Dan, I had tickets for this Tuesday and headed down with a small group of friends. We each followed our own path through the museum, checking in periodically and meeting up for lunch. This proved to be a great plan to get the most out of the few hours we had.
The museum has two different paths a visitor can follow: the three-level underground history galleries accessed from a single room-sized elevator, which often has a lengthy wait; or the culture and community galleries which each occupies a floor above. My story-gathering began as soon as I entered the culture gallery and noticed the cast iron skillet and sea green coffee cups that were part of many kitchens. Next to me was a woman who was struck by the inclusion of the skillet as well. And so the conversation began. She mentioned that the cast iron skillet was the one thing she really wanted when a family home was disassembled. Her grandmother used it for fried chicken and cornbread. I shared that my mother’s brisket pot held similarly memories.
And then we kept talking. About growing up in communities where there were people of different religions and ethnicities and children absorbed aspects of these cultures because it was everywhere. We spoke about our surprise when we each entered communities that were less accepting and racial differences created real social barriers. And we talked about where we live in now and how difficult it is to comprehend how far backward we’ve gone as a country in understanding and accepting one another. Sharon lives in New Jersey and was spending two days at the African American museum. She came with a friend who didn’t want to see the Holocaust Museum. So we talked about her coming back to DC and going there together. Two women of a certain age, one African American, the other Jewish American. Both American. Thanks, Sharon. You made my day.
There were other conversations – with a Vietnam veteran from Baltimore; a woman whose family has owned a cottage in an African-American enclave on Martha’s Vineyard for close to a century; and a woman who wishes her son (who was with her) could understand the emotions and importance of Freedom Summer. Each conversation enriched the experience.
When we did enter the floors devoted to the history of African Americans in the US the experience was very different. The artifacts and explanatory signs are
intended to deepen the superficial knowledge that most people have, particularly about the slave trade and the early US economy, and the role of slaves and free blacks in the military from colonial times through the Civil War.
There is a sanctity about the early rooms. By carefully interspersing quotations and artifacts the very personal toll of the Middle Passage is brought to life. The number of slaves captured in Africa by each of the various colonial powers is listed but seeing the ship names, the dates of passage, and the number of slaves at the start and end of the voyage brings the horror of that information to a new level. How can feeling beings put people in shackles and imprison them and name the ship “Happy” or “Excellent”?
A large area, open through all three levels of the history exhibit focuses on the unresolved conflict of “liberty and justice for all” and people as property. The backdrop to a statue of Jefferson is large stacks of bricks, each engraved with the name of one of Jefferson’s slaves. Once again, it is the details of display that connect the visitor in ways that haven’t been done before.
I’m already planning my next visit to the museum. There is so much to see. But since I always look for a book connection wherever I go, here are two:
- Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill, a novel about the Middle Passage and life for a bright, accomplished slave and later, free woman, in the 18th century. A bit about the book and the TV miniseries here.
- The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s National Book Award-winning historical study of the Great Migration of African Americans from the agricultural south to the industrial north during much of the 20th century.