My Trip to the African American Museum

November 7, 2016

My grandmother was a great storyteller when I was a child. I remember vividly the colorful stories she would tell me about the past. The hairstyles, the clothes, the drama. I remember her story about a Native American relative who would sit indian-style on the porch. I remember the stories of how my grandfather was a big jokester when he was in high school and how he used to play on a baseball team. I can clearly see my grandmother’s high school graduation picture in my head, her black-rimmed glasses and all. The stories got even more juicy and funnier when their friends came over. I loved being around my grandparents’ friends because they had the best fun and they told the best stories (when I was allowed because my grandmother used to be famous for her rumballs around holidays, keyword: RUM). I can also remember talking with friends at school, who were predominantly black until about seventh grade, about our families and how our homes were both alike and different. I can’t remember any stories like that about black people being taught in school. I can remember the stories about slavery and the Jim Crow South, but I can’t remember any stories about black life and life in the home without it being included in an overall schematic, which I knew wasn’t always the truth. It seemed to be an objective opinion rather than a factual explanation. The school version was an arid and pale footnote in a big, white textbook, while the at-home version was a juicy narrative, filled with rosy pink and true blue and metallic gold and light green and skin brown in a technicolor film like the Wiz. My trip to the NMAAHC felt like I was walking into a room full of my grandparent’s friends and their friends and their friends, and they all had stories about the lifelong black experience. I felt like I was being told black history and culture by people who EXPERIENCED black history and culture, not the force-fed, this-is-the-truth-and-it’s-going-to-be-on-the-test-because-i-said-so rule book on history.

When people ask me about my trip to the museum, there’s only thing to be said: awe-inspiring. The NMAAHC is an emotional-rollercoaster of a museum. It makes you happy, then makes you sad, it makes you proud and shameful at the same time. (I know some people are going to read this and be like “SHAME? How can black history give you shame?? You should only be proud!” Well, looking back on my history reminds me how far black people have come and the privileges that I have because of the ones that came before me. It forces me to reflect on the privileges and opportunities I have taken for granted that my parents and my grand-parents were denied.) THE NMAAHC is a chance to see black history from the black perspective and the perspective perpetuated by facts. The museum is well-designed, well-researched, and they give credit where credit is due. It’s like we dive back into the simple, censored textbook history we learned over the years, and that abridged version is dissected and aggrandized with ACTUAL truths and factual information. True to Smithsonian credibility, every artifact is labeled with it’s source, so there’s no denying our history now.

Visiting the museum in the opening week, it was very crowded. We had to stand in line 2 hours before it opened just to get tickets to come at a later time to get in; some dedicated people came 3-4 hours before. I wanted to start the museum at the beginning, which is where everyone else wanted to start as well. As soon as we entered the first exhibit, we found ourselves in a line. I wasn’t even sure what we were standing in line for! I just knew that if we’re standing in this line with all these other people, then it must be something good. Then I hear someone say, “If you want to see the slave ship, the line is this way! If not, continue on to the rest of the museum!” We were in line to see a slave ship. A REAL LIFE SLAVE SHIP, Y’ALL. I got really excited. Five minutes later, we entered the room, but there was no slave ship. It was pieces of a slave ship. I immediately got mad. I thought to myself, “This is what we waited in line for?!” I was really burnt up! But as I payed closer attention to my surroundings: to the dark room the objects were placed in, to the sounds of waves crashing against something close by, to the quotes written on the wall and the spoken testimonials playing on top of the waves, I realized why this was so significant. The artifacts I was looking at were from a real-life slave ship. Something that housed and killed possibly thousands of African slaves. I believe the parts of the ship that we saw were from a sunken Spanish ship, so many people were lost at sea along with the artifacts I had just seen. In that dark room, listening to the waves, I thought about how many stolen lives were bound with the tight shackles displayed in the room. Reflecting on all of this at once, made my emotions run circles. The museum is not just an exhibit, it is truly an emotional experience. There were people crying. There were so many people crying. There were parents telling their children stories about the past and grandparents telling their children and grandchildren how they were able to live through it. People looked at the glass shards taken from the Alabama Church Bombing where four little girls lost their lives in disgust. People saw Radio Raheem’s boombox (RIP!) and experienced a happy nostalgia and admiration. I saw a whip used on slaves for the first time and it immediately gave me REAL anxiety. I saw real KKK attire, worn by a real member of the KKK, next to some pictures of lynchings and it made me tear and immediately want to walk away, but I didn’t. It forced me to reflect on how something like that was normal 60 years ago, and that there are still people alive in this country who used to, or still do, think that it was okay to hang people because of their skin color. Especially in the South, where I live. I tried to hide my emotions in fear of judgement, but I realized we were all there for the same thing: to experience our history in it’s entirety. I couldn’t blame myself or anyone else for getting emotional about learning the truth in detail about our past when it is so close to modern day that it’s still tangible through our parents and grandparents.

There are many statues of influential black people throughout the ages. They are reminiscent of Kehinde Wiley’s paintings: powerful black people situated in powerful positions. There is information on people who spoke out about slavery and, later, brutality against black people, like Frederick Douglas, Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois. The Civil War and World War I & II are addressed from the black perspective and not as a tangent. The museum even has some of Madame C.J. Walker’s original products, one which displayed her picture and rightfully so! HBCUs and black fraternities and sororities are given light. Black inventions are given credit. I learned that black people invented the banjo and that white people didn’t start using the banjo until about 100 years later. There was a printed copy of the emancipation proclamation that was given to slaves after the Civil War. I remember dwelling on the fact that it was so small. Such a small pamphlet with the words ‘“EMANCIPATION PROCLAMATION” in all caps written on it had such a great impact on so many lives.

There were a lot of objects on display that were not so much of historic value but of more sentimental value. In the Civil Rights section, there is a water pail used to soak Martin Luther King, Jr.’s feet. It had nothing to do with the history of the Civil Rights movement but it meant everything to do with the Civil Rights movement. This person kept this water pail in high esteem for decades. The last feet to touch the water pail were probably MLK’s feet. This person probably told everyone who came over about the day he or she was able to help the legend in such a small way. It obviously meant a lot to this person to have the honor to humble such an influential and courageous person, who was probably tired and in need at the time. In that regard, it also meant a lot to me. It meant a lot to me to associate with how black people felt and cared for the people fighting for their rights down South and also gave me perspective.

 

If I can remember, the museum is about 5 stories, with 3 stories underground. I went during the opening week, so it was extremely crowded, and I dont think people will stop coming for a while. It took me about 4 hours to get through all of the exhibits both times I went. If you plan to go to the museum, I would recommend taking your family or close friends, people you dont mind seeing you emotional. I would love to go back with my family. I’d recommend going more than once or going through really slow. I learned so much in the total 8 hours that I spent there. There was so much I’d missed the first time around that I was glad I went twice. It was as if someone sat me down and told me the real deal about black history. I am so grateful and inspired by the experience that I had to sit down and write about it so everyone can know how influential this is to our nation and to young black people, like myself in today’s social climate. Th NMAAHC tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It’s essential for us to be true to ourselves and know our past so we can refrain from repeating the bad and embarrassing parts. I hope that our ancestors can look down on us in pride and feel that we have learned from the lessons they taught us. As a descendant of these great people, I want their stories to be remembered in full color, no grey areas, like the stories my grandparents happily told me.

To keep up with the National Museum of African American History and Culture, visit their website: https://nmaahc.si.edu . You can also find information about admission and if they are still doing tickets. They also have a mobile app where you can read about some of the artifacts that they have and what to expect before visiting.

If after reading this, you have realized that I have misspoken on something, please feel free to let me know. The extent of my research into African American history lately is limited to Netflix documentaries and the internet, so please feel free to bless me with better information!

P.S. : The pictures included are unedited. It was very hard to take decent pictures in the museum because there were just so many people. But please enjoy! If anyone would like to see the rest of the photos I will happily make another album to share more of my experience. Just let me know in the comments or on social media.

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