Monday, October 31, 2016

Our History As Told By Our Museum

During the five plus hour plane ride to Washington, D.C. I passed the time by reading a novel titled “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead. The novel tells the story of a runaway slave named Cora as she attempts a daring escape from her hellish life on a Georgia plantation to freedom in Canada. The author does a masterful job transporting the reader back in time by capturing the lives of slaves in extremely graphic details. The book is littered with tales of slave catchers, night riders, public lynchings, savage beatings, and other sordid particulars that I’ll spare you. Those sinister thoughts clouded my mind as I, a mere three generations personally removed from those real-world accounts that influenced Whitehead's fictionalized atrocities, stood in a line waiting to enter the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. The museum has only been open for a little over a month and experts had estimated it would garner some 7,500 visitors a day but reports say upwards of 30,000 people a day have attempted to enter it’s halls.

The building ironically stands a mere stone's throw from a towering monument to our nation’s first President, a man who’s vast wealth and position is partly owed to the work of slaves. It was hard not to think about that as scores of people, who's skin color would have relegated them to this man’s property, stood waiting to learn their shared history outside a building that rest in the shadow of the world’s tallest obelisk honoring a slave owner.

It’s that echoed history and a kinship of mutual and understood generational suffering that bonds African-Americans to one another. It’s why we could be total strangers to one another with no blood relation and greet one another as "brother" or "sister." It’s why in a crowd of people, when Black faces are scarcely seen, if we meet one another’s gaze, we exchange a nod. Outside the museum, there was an apprehensive yet truly joyous atmosphere of mostly Black faces swelling with a sense of pride and togetherness unlike anything I've ever personally been apart of. I saw one woman walking with her children, smiling as she said to her older daughter, “I like when I hear people say, it’s our museum. I like that. It IS our museum.” I saw older Black women dressed in their finest Sunday outfits. Older Black men wearing those cheap “Obama ’08” hats you'd find at corner stores throughout America's ghettos as if they were stately garb. Young Black men and Black women with dreadlocks falling down their backs toward the bend in their knees and afros stretching skyward wearing "Black Lives Matter" tees. Different corners of the country house us, age separated us, and contrasting events of life have molded us, but when you stood in that line, if you are an African-American, we all shared the same palpable excitement as each of us was eager to behold the unknown and forgotten history that awaited us.

Auction Block

Once inside the simplest way to describe what I felt initially would be a perplexing mixture of profound sadness and suppressed rage. The permanent exhibit of the museum begins in the early 1400s at the start of slavery and works it’s way forward in time to chronicle life for Africans and their descendants throughout our nation’s complicated history. In the earlier parts of the exhibits, you see people in tears, or people fighting back tears, but you mostly see saddened head shakes and hear the sucking of teeth. It’s not everyday you see pieces of a slave ship and read the firsthand accounts of people ripped from their lives to be herded onto a ship with conditions wholly unfit for brainless livestock let alone men, women, and children. You don’t typically see auction blocks and know that is where hundreds of untold human feet, BLACK feet, stood apprehensively awaiting an uncertain fate. In your daily life you don’t get to read a story sewn onto a bag meant for gathering cotton that a mother once filled with a lock of her hair. The bag and that hair was then given to her child moments after the child was sold because she (the mother) had no other possessions to bequeath to her beloved, whom she knew she'd certainly never see again.

Often there was a lot of these hushed exchanges as strangers shared unknown details from something they'd previously learned before their visit, adding a layer of nuance to a given story or artifact on the wall. It’s not until you get to around the 1870s do the personal connections start to build with the museum. An older woman told me a story of remembering the nicest clothing her grandfather owned was his Union soldier dress uniform he received for fighting in the Civil War just like the one we stood in front of. Or another elderly woman offered me details from a childhood memory of seeing the scars her great-mother still bore from a beatings that left her back in a similar condition seen in Private Gordon’s famous photo.

Time has removed nearly all of those firsthand accounts from the world, but it’s when you move further into the 20th century that you learn a lot of our history is still living. There were men and women who could recall what they were doing and where they were when key moments of the Civil Rights struggle happened. For example, a woman acknowledged to me that she heard the bomb that killed four little girls in Birmingham because she lived there at the time. Watching older faces come alive as their past once again comes into focus was as much a part of the experiance of the NMAAHC as any of the aged artifacts on its walls. There were all these conversations about feeling a sense of open racism in 2016 not felt since the days of their childhoods. You'd see and hear scores of people truly fearful of what someone as duplicitous as Donald Trump possibly becoming President means for our nation. Especially what that means for us because African-Americans know all to well how easily our nation can bend toward hate and cruelty.

Ultimately it was a truly moving experiance and one I’ll never forget. I’m eager to go again with my children and I would recommend ALL AMERICANS make the journey to our nation's capital to absorb the museum's wonders firsthand. As cliche as this sounds, African-American History and Culture is AMERICAN HISTORY AND AMERICAN CULTURE. It’s a museum that tells the very uncomfortable truth about the horrors this nation has actively inflicted onto millions of people solely because of their skin color. Further more it reminds us of what little our government has done to truly correct that unforgivable sin.

As saturnine as a visit to the NMAAHC can be, there is something greater to be found at the nadir of our suffering; our strength. You can feel our resilience. You see that African-Americans have always found hope, even in the darkest of places and times. You learn that we've always grown loving families even from poisoned soil that was watered with our blood. You see our capability to find a sense of self and community even as those things were actively being stripped from us. Yes, you see our shameful passivity, but you also see our moments of quiet and open rebellion. You learn about our perseverance, witness our will to survive, and in some cases, our ability to triumph in the face of a government philistine not only to our culture, but indifferent to our very lives at times. The National Museum of African-American History and Culture is a living testimony that highlights the unwavering spirit of African-Americans. Despite an alarming deficiency in love, kindness, and basic human dignity from a majority of the people we’ve shared this nation with, for a majority of our time here, African-Americans DID NOT PARISH. That’s what I think that edifice was build upon. Our collective courage that has culminated into now. "Now" is not our journey’s denouement. "Now" is a continued battle for true equality that I’ve personally never been more inspired to fight for.

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