(Editor’s note: We were delighted to receive this review of the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture by Georgia McDade. This sensitive approach to the exhibits and the overall idea of such a museum is eloquently related.)
I was well pleased the night Barack Obama accepted the nomination to run for President; I was there in Denver, Colorado. I was calm the night President Obama was elected. I was calm at the second election—very happy, but calm. I attended both inaugurations. I never shed a tear. But this National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has almost made me cry, more than once.
Never had I seen so much history including African Americans in one place, so many items, so many descriptions, so many persons. There is so much with which I can relate, I know, I understand. And there were so many people—30,000 in two days I’m told—who with a look, a nod, a touch said, “I know what you are feeling.” From timber from the sunken slave ship São José where 212 Mozambican slaves drowned to today’s celebrities and countless persons and events between, the NMAAHC (National Museum of African American History and Culture) covers American History, specifically that American History that does not always get covered. Whether pride or humiliation, good or bad, the emphasis is placed on African Americans, our stories told by us.
To be able to see so much history at one site was never something I could have imagined. And yet, Mr. Lonnie Bunch III and his amazing crew managed to create a site for the ages, a monument for the world but of particular significance to African Americans.
The building itself, designed by Ghanaian British David Adjaye is striking in so many ways. Most obvious to me was its not being the white marble so prevalent on the National Mall. The brown/bronze itself, the ironwork, the corona shape—all make a statement. Says Mr. Bunch, “… much of African American history is hidden in plain sight, unacknowledged, and often unappreciated.”
This Museum may honor more individuals still alive than any other museum anywhere!
The triumphs in every area, each era are there: Jessie Owens, Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall, Brown vs. Board of Education, Voting Acts of 1964 and 1965, Oprah Winfrey, Venus and Serena Williams, Madame C. J. Walker, Thurgood Marshall, boycotts, Michael Jackson, Gloria Hayes Richardson, Gabby Douglas, Freedom Riders, sit-ins, Michael Jordan, Colin Powell, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, Adam Clayton Powell, Lorraine Hansberry, Zora Neale Hurston, a huge photograph taken at the 2009 inauguration. Many of the people at the Museum those first few days were persons who had braved the crowds and cold to view the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama, the forty-fourth president of the United States, 390 years after the first Africans arrived in the “new world.” Of course, he has a section—magazines, photographs, buttons—I have more buttons than the number displayed. The pride exhibited on that occasion is the pride exhibited at the Museum.
The tragedies are there: attacks and murders be they lynchings or shootings, destruction of our property, denial of our rights, the utter anathema of slavery, all are there. So often viewers remembered well the event depicted and conversed with others whose connection was simply the color of their skin. Sometimes introducing ourselves and other times not, we recoiled at facts we didn’t know as often as we did about facts we know. Depending on a person’s age, places serve as mantras: Scottsboro and Tuskegee, Alabama; Detroit, Michigan; Rosewood, Florida; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Philadelphia, Mississippi. References to recent tragedies are also there: Black Lives Matter.
More painful reminders are there: shackles, a slave cabin from South Carolina, the original coffin of Emmett Till, a Pullman car, a diner counter, a guard house from the still functioning, notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana.
So many whose names we may never have known are there: politicians, midwives, demonstrators, educators, painters, judges, educators, ministers, writers, some of whom I had had the opportunity to teach in institutions where little attention was given to African-American literature.
Women who organized and supported, typed and made copies, prepared food are there: community groups that raised money for scholarships for children whose farthest trip from home was that first day at college.
Organizations such as The Black Church with its gospels and spirituals, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), sororities and fraternities, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) are there.
Artifacts line cases and walls; videos and clips are on every floor.
There had to have been folks—other than the slaves themselves—who knew slavery was wrong from the very beginning. I have to believe that some people saw the auctions and decided slavery was bad, inhuman—human beings being examined as if they were farm animals, human beings, families separated and sold. There were folks who helped slaves escape, so they saw slavery was wrong. There were people who fought for abolition; there were always slaves trying to free themselves and their families. There were people who saw the horror of lynching and decided against slavery. Some folks must have come to our side when they saw towns destroyed, churches bombed, children killed, civil rights workers assassinated. Some people had to come to our defense when they saw young people sprayed with water from fire hoses, dogs and police attack people, pictures of Emmett Till’s body or the murders of Goodman, Schwerner and Cheney.
The election of President Obama and what he has endured as President have served to open many eyes. Others joined the cause with Black Lives Matter. I have to believe more than ever before more persons will see via the Museum this horrific part of American history and realize the racism must stop, we’re all diminished by it. The Museum should expose more people than ever before to our history. I continue to have hope. The presence of the Museum increases that hope.
En route to Dulles Airport I listened to the cabbie’s radio—Steve Harvey interviewing President Obama who was encouraging people to vote. The President said, “History does not always go forward; sometimes it goes sideways and backwards.” Regardless of the way our history went/goes, the Smithsonian National African-American Museum of History and Culture covers it. Perhaps best of all, the Museum does not relinquish the space after eight years.
~Georgia S. McDade, Ph. D.
Georgia Stewart McDade, Ph. D has written plays, stories, essays, and poems. She is a charter member of the African-American Writers’ Alliance (AAWA) and an expert on William Shakespeare. She has published three collections of poetry called Outside the Cave; the fourth collection of poetry is at the publisher’s now!