National Museum of African American History: Telling America's Story

National African American Museum of History and Culture

On the lower tip of Washington DC’s National Mall, a phoenix rises. Its golden bronze façade sparkles in the sunshine and glistens at twilight. Five stories high, it dominates a skyline whose neighboring structures are vastly different in hue, shape and size. Yet somehow it is at home, familiar, the family member who looks different but knowingly belongs.

It is the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The museum was established as the Smithsonian’s 19th museum by an Act of Congress signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2003.

The museum is located across from the Washington Monument on the National Mall at the corner of Constitution Avenue. Both structures are visible from the northwest side of the museums standing side by side in perfect complement.

NMAAHC tells the long awaited story of African Americans. Of a people who have been instrumental in propelling the ideals, narrative and goals of America to its moral imperative; ‘that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.

“To remember the rich history of the African American,” said its founding Director Lonnie Bunch. “To help American remember and confront its tortured racial past. But, also, while America should ponder the pain of slavery and segregation, also find the joy, the hope, the resilience, the spirituality that was endemic in this community.”

NMAAHC is a museum that itself is a statement. Its placement on the National Mall is a homage to the many who have gathered, marched, demanded equal rights, challenged the government and ultimately changed hearts and minds.

The Corona, the museum façade of elaborate ironwork, engulfs the traditional Greco-Roman form of the museums building and is a proclamation of artistry and royalty. Corona is defined as a light seen around a luminous body, the upper portion or crown of a part as of the head. The museum’s corona was inspired by the three-tiered crowns used in the Yoruban art of West Africa. Take note, the structure seems to say, there are Kings and Queens here! The intricate ironwork that makes up the corona speaks to the architectural roots and work by enslaved African Americans in the American South. The museums entrance is a welcoming porch, a mainstay throughout the African Diaspora that lives today.

All this history without yet venturing inside!

Inside. Powerful! Wonderous! Fabulous! American!

Be warned, the narrative inside these royal walls are not the falsettos of an aborted past, a stilted retelling of slavery, an anecdotal mention of a bus boycott. It is a rich history that travels through a dark beginning, the early crossings, the building of a super nation, freedom, independence and the power of a culture on the masses.

It is told with painstakingly accuracy, filled with innumerable facts and figures. It is breathtaking and at times heart wrenching in its memorabilia. Visual imagery, art and artifacts are deftly placed and the museums use of today’s technology to relate past events is nothing short of inventive.

Let’s take a tour.

The museum is best experienced from the bottom up. Coinciding with the African American trek through history, galleries on the lower level reflect the various narratives of slavery and the fight for freedom. The story begins with the 15th century transatlantic slave trade, through the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Etchings on the walls show the number of African captives transported across the Atlantic to the Americas. 1649-1802 Denmark – 85,000; 1441-1836 Portugal 5.8 million; 1562-1807 Great Britain 3.3 million. ‘This trade, so beneficial to the Adventurers, and important to the State; a Trade sanctioned by the Clergy, supported by the Judges, and authorized by the laws’ – Robert Norris 1788’, quoted in the exhibit.

Slavery spawned and industry. The value of cotton produced by enslaved African Americans in 1832 was over $29.3 million dollars. Some of the first U.S. factories mass produced the tools used by or upon enslaved people.

Slave Ship Schematic, Smithsonian (k.clements)

The artifacts in the exhibit include Harriet Tubman’s Hymn Book, slave shackles and an actual slave cabin from Point of Pines Plantation, Edisto Island, South Carolina. Most pause worthy is a whip which is encased with a portrait of a white man in the process of whipping a negro.

Moving up through the concourse galleries is a journey into fight for freedom. A glorious print, Emancipation Day Parade, 1905, occupies a grand space on a high wall depicting blacks walking together, well suited; hats, skirts, leading visitors into the fight.

The artifacts in this exhibit are grand. There is a segregated Southern Railway rail car from the Jim Crow era. The casket of Emmett Till who was only 14 when he was savagely beaten and lynched for reportedly flirting with a white woman. A dress made by Rosa Parks, known as the mother of the civil rights movement after she refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger. A centerpiece of the exhibit is the lunch-counter including Woolworth’s stools. It was at this and other similar sites where peaceful sit ins against racial inequality were held. The museum blended today’s technology into yesterday’s fight with an interactive counter that allows participants to be a part of the struggle. By swiping an option, today’s counter sitters can choose how they would defend their freedom and get a resulting outcome for their choice.

Rosa Parks photo at NAAMHC Smithsonian (k.clements)

Spencer Crew is the curator of ‘Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation’. The exhibit looks at “African Americans coming out of slavery, the rise of segregation, their response to that and also the creation of an African American community,” he said. It is a time which depicts an era that goes unnoticed by many who only consider absorbing narratives of slavery and the civil rights movement, never pausing to examine the important years leading up to the fight for freedom.

“[It is the time of] Segregation and…how do we continue to get your labor as cheap as possible,” said Crew of the time period of the exhibit. “The convict labor system.” NMAAHC made sure the story told was not only one of victimization. “Communities have found ways and solutions to create a life for themselves and thrive despite the challenges,” said Crew.

There is definitely triumph peppered into the tragedy of the time. There is a ‘For Whites Only’ Waiting Room Sign which is by order of the Police Department. There are mastheads from various black press outlets: The Chicago Defender, The Richmond Planner, The California Eagle. There is Madame CJ Walker as a representation of African American Entrepreneurship, schools, institutions and the black church.

Ascending up from the concourse galleries, the writing on the wall proclaims “I Too Am American”. Leaving behind a sordid past, overhead is the Tuskegee Airplane, Boeing-Stearman PT-13D Kaydet from 1944. It points the direction to ‘A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond’ which illustrates the social, economic, political and cultural aspects of African Americans in the United States. Its bright lights and bold images of African Americans with voluminous afros proclaim black power. Be warned, exclamations of “I’m Black and I’m Proud” will be heard from those moving through the exhibit.

Here again is an exhibit that offers a narrative unlike that of the mainstream. Here the black power and liberation movement is presented from a liberation and not militant perspective.

William Pretzer, is the co-curator of the exhibit and also a product of the 1960s. “I have a personal experience being an 18-year old college freshman in a large auditorium listening to Eldridge Cleaver,” he said. Cleaver was a political activist who became an early leader of the Black Panther Party. Pretzer donated several items from that time to the collection which offers a prideful awareness.

Black Panther Button Smithsonian (k.clements)

“[NMAAHC] takes a perspective on groups like the Black Panther Party that had a particular public image as being radical militant. We talk primarily about their survival programs, their community benefit programs. We talk a lot about the impact of the Vietnam War and the civil right movement and how they intersected during the 60s. Talking about the impact of religion both the Nation of Islam and liberation theology on the Black power movement,” he said. The goal is for individuals “to come to grips that there are other perspectives,” he said.

Artifacts in this exhibit include attire, literature and buttons from the movement. As the exhibit expands into the modern day, it examines the effects of African Americans on mainstream culture. Oprah Winfrey and the first Black President, Barack Obama, have real estate in the exhibit which also includes the rap group Public Enemy.

Higher still on the upper floors NMAAHC explores additional statements of purpose with dynamic exhibits of community and perseverance. A must see is the Military History Gallery. It is a grand exhibition of African Americans’ heroic contribution in wars dating back to the King William’s War in the 1600s. The exhibit is broken into three parts: struggle for freedom, segregated military and a colorblind military. The wall of Medal of Honor recipients will make visitors stand in awe at the many heroes that have served with distinction.

War Hero Exhibit. Smithsonian (k.clements)

The exhibit is adjacent to ‘Making a Way Out of No Way’ which highlights the stories of pioneers in the various education and industrial fields. Visitors might be sidetracked by its adjacent ‘Sports Gallery’. Peering into the gallery is a statue of the iconic Black Power salute of the 1968 Olympics at which athletes made with their fists high in the air. There are also bronze sculptures of sports legends Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens and tennis super athletes the Williams Sisters. The gallery has an extensive array of artifacts from the most influential players across every sport.

The Community Gallery is nestled between all the accomplishments profiled in the sports, military and upward mobility exhibits. Its centerpiece is an interactive console where visitors can view the crucial role place and region plays in the African American experience. The console is more than just an interactive series of photographs, but a social media connection to the ongoing stories of today and the change agents who have made history.

Curator Rhea Combs manages NMAAHC’s film and photography. In her procurement of images of known figures, there are the lesser known figures that are equally impactful that NMAAHC pursues. “History is local. There are these change agents that are within our communities that may not have such a national presence or a story around them, however, they have been instrumental in [many] ways,” said Combs. That is where the interactive component of the Communities’ exhibit is most powerful. “To understand [that] these stories of history are built on the back of people [who] are anonymous figures”, said Combs.

On the highest floor of the museum is the Culture Galleries which includes the high energy ‘Musical Crossroads’ exhibit. Within it are artifacts from the superstars that made them famous. It inspires multiple Wow Moments. Costumes, awards and paraphernalia from the greats: Whitney Houston, Lena Horne, George Clinton, Michael Jackson, Nona Hendryx, BB King and Louis Armstrong. Icons from all genres of music are represented in the collection. In addition, the mothership has landed! The P Funk Mothership is one of the exhibits notable artifacts. Another notable artifact is the fire engine red 1973 Cadillac driven by Chuck Berry onstage in the documentary ‘Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll’.

“A Cadillac in a music exhibit is not necessarily the first thing you think about,” said museum specialist Kevin Strait, who procured the vehicle for NMAAHC’s collection. “The story we are trying to tell through this Cadillac is about personal freedom and liberation not only through music but the choices that these musicians make.”

Chuck Berry's Cadillac Smithsonian (k.clements)

The Cadillac relates to Berry’s totality of work. “Think about some of [Chuck Berry’s] lyrics about driving on the open road and the freedom that is involved with that. Chuck Berry is known for many things including his business acumen. He would drive himself from gig to gig make his demands and then leave on his own terms. That autonomy is something that we wanted to capture through the object,” said Strait.

Musical Crossroads includes the must visit music store. A tribute to the music stores of yesterday where visitors spent hours sifting through record album covers and listening to music. The store has its own version of album covers placed in bins so millennials can experience how boomers connected with music at the time. Using today’s technology, visitors at the music store can use the interactive table console to choose their tune and queue up a sample.

The Culture Galleries also includes the Visual Arts Gallery which is a collection of African American art in various forms. Although this gallery is at the highest floor, parts of its collections greet visitors upon their entrance. Look overhead and on the walls of the main floor for public art pieces that are part of the collection.

“Understanding the depths of where you’ve come from to be who you are is as important for each individual as it is for a country,” said NMAAHC’s advisory council member Oprah Winfrey in her many interviews about the museum. “This museum is a living testament to the struggle, value and victories African Americans have contributed to make America great.”

“Remembering wasn’t enough,” said Lonnie Bunch, NMAAHC’s Founding Director. “We needed to craft a museum that would use the history and culture of the African American community as a lens to better understand what it means to be an American. The goal was to help all, regardless of race or ethnicity, realize how profoundly we are affected as Americans by the African American Experience.”

Lonnie Bunch, Founding Director (k.clements)

“Museums and libraries are a most trusted source of information,” said Dr. David Skorton, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. “This landmark comes at a significant time in history for…our country. It occurs as race and cultural differences dominate the national discourse. This museum can be an ideal gathering place to learn, to hold conversations, to be inspired and to be uplifted. [NMAAHC] can and…should provide forums for discussion…especially when these can shine a light on a history and culture”.

The museum officially opened on September 24, 2016. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama along with former President Bush was in attendance.§

Karen Clements is a journalist and acts as Managing Director of Communities of Color News. Published by Communities of Color News, October 2016

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