I pass a stall holder doing a roaring trade in Black Lives Matter T shirts, badges and carrier bags featuring the President and First Lady.
A limousine drives past and a cheer, as in a Mexican wave, ripples through the crocodile of people weaving along the Mall. Barack and Michelle wave through the limousine’s black tinted windows. Perhaps the thought of a Trump in the White House has sharpened the President’s popularity.
I walk though security, into Washington Monument Gardens and search out a bare piece of ground in front of a large screen. In the distance the sun tickles the deep bronze mesh that shrouds the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAACH). The delicate filigree work is a tribute to the skill of freed slaves who became ironworkers. The upturned ziggurat shape of the building, inspired by Yoruba tribal motifs, is significant too. For David Adjaye, the British Ghanaian lead architect, the Museum is, ‘not a story of a people that were taken down, but actually a people that overcame and transformed an entire superpower into what it is today.’ The building is aspirational, reaching for the stars.
We wait for the dedication to begin, for George and Laura Bush, Barack and Michelle Obama to embrace – yes across the political divide – and take their places.
We learn the Museum was 100 years in the making. Ageing African American veterans of the Civil War first argued for a memorial on the Mall in 1915. In 2003 a commission, appointed by President George W. Bush, established the newest Smithsonian Institution.
Dr. Calvin O Butts the 111, Pastor of the Abyssinian church in New York, leads the crowds in a cheer out loud of, ‘I’m black and I’m proud.’ Black and white, rich and poor, Democrats and Republicans have put hearts, minds and hands together to build this monument.
People give a standing ovation to John Lewis, a congressman from Georgia. The young John Lewis, a student activist and active civil rights campaigner, led the march on Selma more than half a century ago. The hushed crowd is transfixed. The museum is a, ‘dream come true … the stories of lives wrapped up in a beautiful golden crown of grace.’ The voices of ancestors, ‘that have been roaming for centuries… have finally found their home, here in this great monument to our pain, our suffering and our victory.’
Opray Winfrey and Will Smith bounce onto the stage, challenging each other to a poetry battle. Opray starts. ‘”History despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived but if faced with courage need not be lived again.” By Maya Angelou,’ she cries.
‘Cool,’ Will responds and takes up the gauntlet,
Langston Hughes,’ Will adds with a satisfied flourish.
Opray and Will go back and forth quoting from the greats.
‘”If there is a book you want to read but it has not been written yet then you must be the one to write it.” Toni Morrison.’
‘”Change does not roll in on the wheel of inevitably but it comes through continual struggle so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.” Martin Luther King,’ and someone I had not heard of, Albert Murray. “We invented the blues. Europeans invented psychoanalysis. You invent what you need.”
I suppress a smile, a wry smile. I feel so privileged to be here.
Another duo, Angela Bassett and Robert De Niro, quote from the words of politicians and activists. ‘Ida B Wells, “One had better die fighting injustice than die like a dog.”‘ ‘Mohammed Ali, “Champions are not made in gymns. They are made by something deep inside them.”’ ‘Rosa Parkes, “I wasn’t tired, I wasn’t old, I was 42. No I was tired of giving in.’” ‘John Lewis at 21, “We may not have chosen the time but the time has chosen us.”‘The camera switches to Lewis’s serious, thoughtful expression. “Ours is not a struggle that lasts a few days, a few weeks, a few months. It is a struggle that lasts a lifetime.”‘And indeed it has, more than a lifetime perhaps.
There is music too. Patti La Belle sings, ‘A change is going to come.’ She sneaks in a raised fist and shouts,‘ Hilary Clinton,’ at the end. Stevie Wonder throws out a heartfelt plea for a, ‘ song of love for all humanity…..that lifts up all humankind.’ Throughout the dedication there is an acknowledgement of the legacy of a troubled history, of lives still being sacrificed, the bridges to be built, the travel yet to go.
George Bush, much to some surprise, steps up to the plate, cracking jokes about his lack of loquaciousness and then strikes,‘A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.”
Lonnie Bunch, the Director who has worked tirelessly for 11 years, talks to us as if we are in his living room, thanking his ‘dream team… better than the 61 Yankees or the 85 Bears,’ – references I don’t understand. But I recognize the Langston Hughes reference, ‘A dream too long deferred is a dream no longer.’
A journalist once asked Lonnie if his ‘dream team’ really thought they could create a museum that had been in the planning for more than a century.
“How could we not believe when we can dip into the reservoir that is African American History?……..
“How would we not believe when hearing the words of Ida B. Wells or Malcolm or Martin?
“And how could we not believe when 100s of families opened their houses, entrusted us with their artefacts, their stories?
He takes a pause.
“We believed because George W. Bush said this museum must be on the National Mall.”
George smiles in acknowledgement.
“We believed a senator from Chicago who told us, ‘Yes we can’”.
A huge roar erupts from the crowd. Every speaker is a poet today, inspired by the ancestors.
‘I feel the spirit, the strengths of those who went before and upon whose shoulders we stand on – it is those memories that breathe life into this building…It is a clarion call to remember not just the well known but also those famous to their families whose lives in quiet ways have shaped this nation ……and maybe it can help American find a bit of healing and reconciliation.’
One morning, before sunrise, Lonnie stepped out to see how the building looked in the morning light. An elderly man was sobbing on the corner. He was not ill, he told Lonnie. He was just moved to have lived long enough to see the birth of this museum.
Lonnie thanks that man, thanks the ancestors and welcomes them home. He promises the crowd, ‘As long as there will be an America this museum will stand on the National Mall.’ The crowd rises in gratitude.
Barack steps up to the podium. I can feel the swell of support for him and his family, with few trips left down the Mall. ‘We’re not a burden on America, or a stain on America, or an object of pity, or charity for America. We are America.’
The President acknowledges the museum’s limitations.
‘A museum alone will not alleviate poverty in every inner city or every rural hamlets. It won’t eliminate gun violence from all our neighbourhoods or immediately ensure our justice is colour blind…. Those things are up to us.’
And yet he hopes some of the exhibits will help a white visitor understand the pain and anger of demonstrators in Ferguson and Charlotte and young people, who didn’t live through the struggles, to see the power of their agency.
Michelle and Barack help a stately old woman, 99 years of age, whose father was born a slave and became a doctor, pull a bell that was rung when slavery was abolished. The Museum is open and the two day festivities can start.
I queue for Kenyan curry and sit down with a Baptist preacher from Baltimore. “You are lucky to have a ticket,’ he says.”They are like gold dust.”
I enjoy country music, protest music from the 60s, Cuban African music.
I meet people from across USA, from across the world– such a brilliant atmosphere, such great fashion
and such evocative t shirts – Dream Like Martin; Lead Like Harriet; Fight Like Malcolm; We are braver and wiser because they existed these strong women.
As I leave I notice the queues waiting to enter the museum – only 2 days to wait.
I buy a first edition carrier bag of Michelle and Barack – I just can’t resist.