“At last, I am free” – a visit to the National Museum of African and American History and Culture

 

I stroll past Trump International whose tycoon owner was once accused of denying homes to black applicants. Moreover, in an attempt to oust the first African American from the Presidency, he persisted with the racist fantasy that Obama was born outside the USA. I mutter Michelle’s words, “When they go low, we go high. ” I refuse to think that this molesting monster will trump us all and indeed oust Obama, but this time by legitimate means.

I join an orderly queue of people waiting to enter the museum. I become impatient, anxious to get inside this bronze, beautiful building whose filigree shroud shimmers in the sun. “We’ve been waiting a century,” says an elderly woman in a large white hat with an even larger brim, admonishing me, urging me to be patient. Then we’re down three flights into the bowels of this graceful, upturned pagoda.

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Three floors down to Slavery and Freedom gallery

We follow the chronology from Slavery and Freedom to the Era of Segregation to Changing America. The queue moves slowly, solemnly; giving every object, every image, every quote and every installation the respect it deserves. In this sacred space we pay homage to the ancestors. To the Igbos in Africa, who preferred suicide to slavery, and to Toussaint L’Ouverture who led the slave rebellion in Haiti.

img_9629a“Slavery is foundational to the modern world,” writes the curator Nancy Berklew. It is a shared history that “everyone can learn from”, white or black. I look around. I am definitely in the minority. The queue comes to a standstill. A woman, tears streaming down her face, stares at a baby’s cradle with shackles attached.

“They never taught me this history in school,” she chokes.

12 of the first 18 presidents owned slaves. The names of 609 slaves are inscribed behind Jefferson, their owner.

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President Jefferson

As an American Founding Father he was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence  and, from 1801 to 1809, served as the third President of the United States. Independence for only some it seems.

img_9712aLarge objects such as wooden cabins inhabited by slaves, a replica of a guard tower at Angola prison, a segregated railway carriage and a bright yellow-and-blue biplane used by the African American Tuskegee airmen, fill the cavernous spaces.

img_9762aBut it is the small, intimate objects that draw me in. The personal letters of ex-slaves trying to trace separated family into the 20th century;

img_9701Harriet Tubman’s book of hymns that helped guide slaves towards freedom along the Underground Railroad; glass fragments from the 1963 combing that killed four young girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

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Many objects have been collected by Lonnie Bunch and his staff at one of their ‘treasures’ events in such cities as New York, Chicago, Detroit. Joan Mulholland, who had attended sit-ins and Freedom Rides organized by fellow undergraduates during the civil rights movement, donated not only the glass fragments but notices of student protest rallies and posters the Ku Klux Klan had posted around her college town, Tupelo in Mississippi. Besides the hymnal, Philadelphia historian, Charles Leroy Blockson, donated photographs of Tubman’s funeral and a silk shawl that Queen Victoria gave to Harriet in 1897 as an invitation to the Diamond Jubilee

img_9681aI know a little about black involvement in the American Civil War but far less about involvement in the earlier Revolutionary Wars. Britain, desperate for manpower, was the first to offer slaves their freedom in exchange for support for the Loyalist cause. This prompted the Patriots to follow.

img_9646But what happened to these black Loyalists? Did Britain renege on its promises? And then I remember one of my favourite reads, the Book of Negroes by the Canadian author, Lawrence Hill (published in the US as Someone Knows My Name). This brilliant novel, winning the Commonwealth Prize for Literature in 2008, was inspired by the original, Book of Negroes. This recorded details of black American Loyalists who were resettled in Nova Scotia. Others were resettled in the Caribbean and 200 went to the UK. Some black Loyalists later chose to go to Sierra Leone , where they created a colony of freedmen in Africa.

img_9737aI grew up knowing about the role of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jnr., as the leader of non-violent civil rights movement but not about others who feature in the Era of Segregation gallery.

img_9739aAs a young man John Lewis, US Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district, was one of the ‘Big Six’ leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. As a young man he organized some of the voter registration efforts that led to the demonstration that became known as “Bloody Sunday” where he was almost beaten to death by Alabama Storm Troopers. Now I understand why he received a standing ovation when he spoke so movingly at the opening of NMAAHC.

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John Lewis in white coat facing the Alabama Storm Troopers (top picture)

Strong women, campaigners, activists and teachers feature throughout NMAACH. Some such as Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parkes and Angela Davis are known to me but not others such as Charlotte Forten Grimke and Susie King Taylor.

img_9689aThe “community” galleries on the upper floors show the social support built up by black communities; how churches became key sites of social and political activism; how black men and women have served in the military; won sports awards; set up barber shops and beauty parlours that serve as a community focus. In the midst of hat boxes, netting and feathers I meet Limerick, daughter of 103 year old Mae Reeves, surrounded by friends. They are admiring the hats Limerick’s mother, a milliner in Philadelphia, made for the most prominent female singers of the 20th century- Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and Marian Anderson.

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The culture galleries at the top of the building are the crowning glory of the NMAACH. I get dizzy watching film footage of the cindy hop, jitterbug and black bottom of the 1930s and 1940s; the hucklebuck and stroll of the 50s; admiring Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac and the P-Funk Mothership, a spoof spacecraft that used to land on stage on the 1970s stadium tours of George Clinton and his band Parliament-Funkadelic;

img_9829aappreciating the talent of black actors from Ira Aldridge to Sydney Poitier.

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As James Baldwin wrote, “ what the black actor has managed to give are moments, indelible moments – smuggled like contraband into a maudlin tale and with enough force if unleased, to shatter the tale to fragments.”

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I move into a side gallery of work by visual artists, and am intrigued by Mothership (Capsule) by Afrofuturist Jefferson Pinder, a recreation of a Mercury space capsule made out of wood from Obama’s first inauguration platform and accompanied by audio by Sun Ra and Stevie Wonder.

img_9857aI sit down to read the words of Maya Angelou and bel hooks, some of my favourite authors, circling above me.

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I reflect on the words of the writer, Clint Smith, who was, “in awe of how black people have accomplished so much amid such an incessantly violent history.”

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This museum inspires that sense of awe. I feel so privileged to have been there on the opening weekend. But there are, understandably perhaps, critics, like Stephen Thrasher in the Guardian, who questions the role of NMAAHC.

“…when we are getting shot in the street daily? When we’re routinely being slaughtered by police? When we die on average years younger than our white counterparts?  When we have 1/12th the wealth of white people, and twice as much unemployment? I worry that the museum is playing into a central trap of respectability politics: that if we just present ourselves in right way – on the National Mall! with a modernist building! – black lives will be seen as worthy. This would be a tenuous fiction at the best of times, but especially while a black man has had the most high-profile seat at the table of respectability politics of them all: the American presidency, which has done little for altering disparities in black health or wealth.”

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Yet Lonnie Bunch, Director of NMAAHC, is all too aware that the opening is just the beginning; that it depends on how the museum develops as to whether it can play some small part in addressing racial and social injustices, educating white and black alike. But in an era of post-truth, fake news, perpetuation of falsehoods and a Trump presidency that threatens to derail us all I, for one, hope that the NMAAHC both thrives and survives.

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Children learning new moves

As I leave I share thoughts about the museum with a young black woman, between 30 and 40 maybe. Brushing off years of metaphorical weight from her shoulders she smiles and says, “I am free. At last, I am free.”

 

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2 thoughts on ““At last, I am free” – a visit to the National Museum of African and American History and Culture

  1. You have so beautifully captured the awe and impact you experienced at the NMAAHC. Thank you for inspiring me to visit one day, Eithne!

    Like

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