Washington’s African American History and Culture Museum is how countries should embrace their black DNA

By Marvin Hokstam

There is a sequence that you should adhere to when you visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington DC. When you walk through the doors of the ginormous elevator on the first floor and the security guard announces that she is about to take you down three levels -to the year 1400- and that you will have to walk back to the present day, just do as she says.

If you don’t, and you decide to walk from the present, from the achievements of Afro Americans, past an exhibit about oppression and segregation, to a period in which black people in America were still enslaved, then you might leave this magnificent building depressed. Or confused. And maybe even angry.

Nah. You’re better off sticking to what the guard advises in her little speech she must have rattled off a million times now. “Get your history on” and go all the way down to the lowest basement that is filled with information, photographs and artefacts from the beginning of slavery. When Europeans penetrated Africa and started kidnapping people against their will to America. You will learn when the trade in humans became a business, which countries were involved and when the groundwork was laid for a division of humans based on race, in which Africans were sheer commodity.

All people are equal

Banneker challenged preconceived notionsHalfway through this floor, in the exhibition about the United States Declaration of Independence there’s a bronze statue of the fairly unknown but trailblazing astronomer Benjamin Banneker. “Banneker challenged existing assumptions regarding inferior intelligence of African Americans, when he wrote to founding father Thomas Jefferson in 1701 to point a chilling comparison: that Jefferson was the same person who declared that all men are equal, while he enslaved people himself.”

The white knitted scarf of the legendary Harriet Tubman hovers quietly in a glass display not far off, right in front of a wooden structure, an eerie witness from the days when slavery was norm.

The Point of Pines cabin that stood on Edisto Island in South Carolina from about 1853 to 2005, “served as a shelter or pen for enslaved people, but while its four walls may have offered some property, it gave them no security. As property no enslaved person was free from assault by slave owners, even at home.”

Further down abolitionist Frederic Douglass shares a display with President Abraham Lincoln in the exhibition about how young free black men were enlisted by the Northern States to fight in the Civil War.

Then a labyrint of pathways leads to the post-slavery period, when black people were free but still faced the marginalization of the Jim Crow laws.

An entire wall is dedicated to these decrees that determined where black people could live and work and where their children could go to school, in a period when they were free and living under a constitution that preached equality.

Jim Crow laws

When segregation was law and the KKK could massacre black people at will. The display features a train compartment, with separate spaces, fountains and restrooms for black and white people.

And next to the exhibition, a stark contradiction. The Negro Renaissance –when black people escaped the marginalisation to the big cities and sparked the African American intellectual, social, and artistic explosion in the 1920s-, aside a display with figurines, photographs and advertisements from that same era: minstrels, white actors in blackface, with thick accentuated lips, depicted stereotypical images of black people.

The explanation: “The Purpose of Stereotypes. At the end of the 18th century and well into the 1900s, racist images were common on everyday items such as toys, salt-and-pepper shakers, advertisements and household figures. The images served a common purpose: to justify the mistreatment of African American and the logic of segregation. They depicted African Americans as slow-witted, lazy and untrustworthy, but still loveable and childlike souls who simply needed the oversight of white people to ensure that they did no harm to themselves or others.”

This display could serve as a judgement against the Dutch movement that claims that their blackfaced zwarte Piet is an innocent caricature. Or evidence for the anti-zwarte Piet movement that insists that blackface is insulting, racist and backward.

An ode to the protest

Rosa Parks' dress

Most impressive is the exhibit about the civil rights movement that erupted in the 1960s, with video footage and photographs of heroes like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party. King’s voice barrels through speakers on an audio loop: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” It’s an inspiring display, but at the same time a frustrating reminder of the challenges black people kept facing.

Hidden in a quiet corner is the Emmet Till Memorial, dedicated to the 14-jear-old boy who was lynched in 1955 for whistling appreciatively at a white woman; his murderers never received punishment. Pivotal in the exhibition is Till’s casket, the same bronze coloured coffin in which his mother Mamie Carthan Till placed his mutilated body on display.

Mamie Till tells the viewers from a TV screen near the exit: “the undertaker said that there were things that he could do to make Emmet look better in his coffin. I said no! Let the world see what they did to my boy.” A selfless decision that has been called one of the most significant acts of defiance in American history; an important catalyst for the civil rights movement.

It is said that Mamie Till’s bravery gave Rosa Parks the courage not long after, to refuse to move the back of the bus where black people were supposed to sit. Park’s yellow dress that she was wearing on that day, is also on display.

Give your emotions free rein as you make your way through the museum. You will soon realize that you’re not the only one who is overcome by feelings that would make you want to sigh … “hm hm hm. My my my. Oh my!”

That sigh people make when they see something heinous but there is nothing they can do about it because it happened in a bygone era not too long ago; that loud whisper of powerlessness against the cruelty that people subjected other people to. You’ll hear it all around you.

A world culture

The next level starts with a huge photograph of Barack Obama. This exhibition is called “A changing era: 1968 and beyond” and is dedicated to the achievements of African Americans over the past years. Movie stars, musicians and other celebrities reign here. Obama, the first black president of the US and his wife Michele form the centre piece. Further down there is an exhibition about Oprah Winfrey.

This extensive display is an ode to how far black Americans have come in spite of the centuries of challenges that they have met along the way. To the influence black people have had on world culture.

The museum intentionally ends with a huge marble placard with the title “Global Impact” inscribed on top. Below it reads “As the experience of being black in America still evolves, so will the ways a more diverse black America influences global history and culture.” In other words: “We are not done yet”. Goosebumps.

The Dutch should take heed: if there ever was one institute that could serve as evidence that there should be a Museum for Afro Dutch History and Culture, that is not ashamed to give a rightful place to the African DNA of the Netherlands, then this National Museum of African American History and Culture would serve that purpose with grace. 

Context

Yes, if you follow the chronology the security guard advises, from deep within the bowels of the Museum of Afro American History and Culture to its pinnacle, you will be better able to place African American history in the right context. Then you will understand things a lot better.

Understanding the resilience of people who for centuries were stripped off everything will leave you baffled; people who demanded a return to freedom and did not despair but went on and changed world history.

You will be proud that they kept resisting continuous attempts at marginalisation, even when they started achieving great things against the odds. That they consistently pushed for justice for the entire world, despite the resistance they faced.

If you walk through the museum as intended, you will leave the building with your head held high, proud of black people, proud to be human.

The Museum of African American History and Culture is not a sad or angry place, despite its content. To the contrary. It narrates the wealth and the diversity of African Americans, what it means to be black in this nation and how black people contributed to the country America is. A proud testament to people whose DNA is part of America’s, even though that was never really intended. This museum is a modern day mecca, sort of.

A lesson

With its collection of close to 37,000 artefacts -each of which tells a story about African American history- the museum serves as the memory of African Americans and the conscience of America. It is an institute that is of utmost importance in these days when intolerant movements of yesterday are experiencing a comeback and are trying to force their fancied dominance upon the world.

The Dutch should take heed: if there ever was one institute that could serve as evidence that there should be a Museum for Afro Dutch History and Culture, that is not ashamed to give a rightful place to the African DNA of the Netherlands, then this National Museum of African American History and Culture would serve that purpose with grace.

To boot: no matter how impressive this museum is, it only tells the story of African American history. Too much goes undocumented and untaught. The story of African Dutch history also deserves its mecca, as does every story of all people’s histories.

The way America dared to embrace its ugly past to teach its present how to influence the future, is a lesson. The security guard said it best when asked how she likes her job: “This is a wonderful place to work. I learn something new here every day.”

The museum was opened on September 24, 2016 by then president Barack Obama. It is located on Pennsylvania Ave in Washington D.C., at a short distance from the White House; but given the current occupant of the imposing American president’s residence, the choice which one to visit when you only have little time to spare in the city, is a no-brainer.