A Place of Impressive Design
At first glance, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., looks like a giant, caged beehive. The entire facade of the building is composed of bronze-colored filigree panels that are reminiscent of metalwork made by African American workers in Charleston and New Orleans. Designers David Adjaye and Philip Freelon borrowed ideas from other structures in Washington, D.C., along with traditional Yoruban African architecture. The “cutaway” windows highlight neighboring monuments and places of significance to African American history. Escalators, elevators, stairs, and ramps offer a variety of ways to maneuver the 400,000-square-foot space. Wheelchairs and strollers were everywhere, another sign that the museum is accessible for many people.
The museum is split into two sections: C and L. The L sections are above ground and offer a glimpse into visual arts, entertainment, sports, the African American military experience, and an interactive floor. The C sections are below ground and go deep into African American history in America from the 1400s to today. The brilliance of the design is that visitors essentially work their way up from the underground. The C section also includes a reconstructed two-story, walk-in slave cabin, an actual segregated walk-through train car, and a suspended Tuskegee open-cockpit biplane.
There are nearly 37,000 artifacts in the museum, all of which are arranged into meaningful, labeled collections. Lights are focused with purpose on exhibits. Seeing real objects as pieces of a bigger story is one of the reasons I choose to visit museums. The shackles and whips that were used on slaves were a shuddering reminder of the extreme violence and cruelty that plagued America all too recently.
The clothing worn by famous African Americans told a much brighter story: the orange silk and black velvet dress renowned opera singer Marian Anderson wore when she sang at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, the carefully chosen alphabet-inspired outfit Carlotta Walls of the Little Rock Nine wore on her first day at an integrated school, the red wool suit Oprah wore on that epic afternoon when everyone (yes, everyone) got a car.
Each exhibit offers visitors a depth of information that is neither overwhelming nor incomplete so that visitors may choose what to focus on and to what extent. It is a museum that is designed to reach everyone. As the museum’s founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, said, “this building will sing for all of us.”
A Place for Education
Unlike the older visitors to the museum, those of us born during and after the 1980s don’t have the same understanding of the Civil Rights movement, but during times when race riots still happen and injustice is still very much alive, parents are trying to figure out their roles in promoting equality and peace.
In the “Explore More!” section was the front half of a rich blue 1949 Buick Roadmaster. On the bench seat on the other side sat three young African American girls, their adult companions watching as they clicked on a touch screen map.
“I told you!” one father said. “Follow the green book!”
The Negro Motorist Green Book was a guide African American travelers created to inform one another of safe gas stations, restaurants, and other stops on their journey. My son joined the girls, and I got to talking to the parents.
Cortney Jones said she was there because she didn’t want her kids to feel entitled or oblivious to the history of their culture.
“We’re learning, too,” her mother said. “I was born in the sixties, so I remember some of this.”
Jerry Franklin Poe said he is focused on empowering his children through “corrective education,” where parents learn true history and pass it along to their children.
“Know the good,” he said, “But don’t cover up the bad.”
A Place to Pay Respects
I first learned about Emmett Till when I was teaching “To Kill a Mockingbird” to ninth graders in Baltimore. Till was a 14-year-old boy from Chicago who was beaten to death for allegedly making advances at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi in summer 1955. His mother, Mamie Till, brought his body back to Chicago and held an open-casket viewing because she wanted the world to see what hatred did to her son. A photo of his swollen and disfigured face circulated, and the Civil Rights movement grew stronger, particularly through the efforts of Rosa Parks who was inspired by Till’s death to push harder for change.
Deep in the belly of the museum is a chapel dedicated to Till. An open coffin sits on an altar with photographs of him and snippets of his story all around. We waited in line for ten minutes to get in.
“This feels like a real funeral,” the teenager behind me whispered.
While I waited, I reflected on his stolen life and the movement it sparked, on the stolen lives of the slaves, and on the stolen lives of young people caught up in drugs and violence today. Many tears were shed in Till’s chapel and I think Mamie Till (Emmett’s mother) would be honored to know that her son’s life and death are still remembered by many.
Till’s life was tragic, as were many of the other lives depicted in the exhibits of the museum, but there are also exhibits celebrating African Americans who have brought joy, change, and vitality into the world with the things they have created and done.
The Musical Crossroads section was by far my favorite because I got to teach my son about the frustrations of having a Walkman, as well as the history of African American music, from the banjo to the Roland TR-808 drum machine.
A Place to Envision the Future of Equality
In what is probably the most famous line from probably the most famous American novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Given my exclusively white heritage, I likely will never fully understand the African American experience, but visiting the museum deepened my appreciation far beyond the literature I’ve read and the music I’ve listened to.