By Mariam Williams
In the name of full disclosure, I am charter member of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture. This means I donated money ($50) to the museum before its opening on September 24, 2016. I gave what I could because I believed the NMAAHC’s existence would be important to the wellbeing of our nation.
In his final book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. states, “The history books, which have completely ignored the contribution of the Negro in American history, have only served to intensify the Negroes’ sense of worthlessness and to augment the anachronistic doctrine of white supremacy.”
Not seeing black people as active participants in American history and its ongoing push toward democracy always has been a hurtful and angering thing to me. It says to black people—and especially to black children who have little, if any, control over their education—that they are irrelevant and that black people have deserved all race-based mistreatment they’ve received, past or present. When Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) referred to nonwhite people as “subgroups” and questioned what contributions they’ve made to civilization earlier this year, he reaffirmed for me the necessity of challenging traditional historical narratives.
I carried this recent, personal history with me to Washington, D.C., one week after the official opening of the newest museum of the Smithsonian Institution, but I arrived at a different position in life than I held when I donated.
Today, I’m a full-time graduate student pursuing an MFA in creative writing and a certificate in public history at Rutgers University-Camden. As a nonfiction writer and public history student, I knew the main element I wanted to focus on when I visited the NMAAHC for the first time: narrative. What story of black history and culture would the newest Smithsonian Institute tell? Would the narrative, in its use of objects and original documents, reveal something that I didn’t usually find in academic writing about the history of African Americans in the United States?
The museum attempts to tell a distinct narrative about the African American experience, but I didn’t experience the story as intended. Ideally, visitors begin in the basement’s history galleries, where an elevator descends into the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and make their way up to the culture galleries on level four. Through this orientation, the American story as told through the lens of African American history and culture is a story of ascension.
I went through the museum in reverse. When I arrived with family and friends, the wait time for admission into the history galleries was one to two hours. My group opted to go to the top floor first.
I don’t recommend doing this. We still waited in line for an hour to enter the history galleries, and after the culture galleries, it was really depressing, even for someone like me who’s been studying and working in African American history for years.
The culture galleries are well-lit rooms filled with audio and visual stimuli. Packed with brightly colored objects ranging from film posters to a replica of Parliament Funkadelic’s Mothership, and booming video that salutes poetry, jazz, dance, gospel music, Hip-Hop, and Yoruba drumming and spirituality, they are intended to make visitors consider what American culture would be without black people. And for those who know African American cultural contributions already, a few quotes from writers and artists remind them that black culture was forged in bondage and resistance.
“Songs of liberation—who can lock them up?” —Paul Robeson
“Hard times require furious dancing. Each of us is proof.” — Alice Walker
“People resist by telling their story.” — bell hooks
Level three’s community galleries also are brightly lit, but there, text and photos dominate, creating a much more gray-scale color scheme. Considering one exhibition is called, “Making a Way Out of No Way,” and explores, per the NMAAHC website, African American “agency, creativity and resilience” in challenging oppression, it is intended to be much more somber than level four. Nonetheless, its sheer volume continues level four’s effect of bombarding visitors. In this area, I most appreciated that a space about the size of large executive conference room, is devoted to the life and legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune.
The community galleries also hold space for African Americans’ roles in professional sports. A long wall of double-sided gray panels names an athlete, highlights his or her importance, and features a few artifacts from the athlete’s life. As a black woman, it was incredible for me to see Althea Gibson and Wilma Rudolf occupy the same amount of space as Muhammad Ali. It meant the women’s contribution to the sports world was valued. Additionally, boxing, basketball, football, and tennis each have their own rooms.
I didn’t spend much time on level two, the interactive galleries, but when I have time to either dance or explore my genealogy, I’ll hang out there, because the children doing the virtual reality step show looked like they were having a blast.
Level one. As soon as we stepped into the gallery, the mood changed. The lighting is dark, the colors mostly gray, and somber instrumental music plays. The music continues as visitors board the partially glass elevator and watch a wall count back the years, then the centuries, until they arrive at the bottom: the 1400s.
I didn’t learn anything from the areas covering the 1400s to the 1700s that I hadn’t already learned by reading Ira Berlin’s Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves, and a number of slave narratives, but I was surprised. Museum curators chose to focus not on the mental, physical, spiritual, or emotional brutality of enslavement, but rather on the global economic dependency on the institution. While displays don’t negate the sardine-like conditions of the Middle Passage, the sexual exploitation of African women, or the separation of families as members were sold into bondage, scenes ubiquitous in slave narratives, such as of overseers with bullwhips, cannot be found. (I did, however, spot the iconic photo of “Gordon” in another area of the history galleries.) Additionally, the “Slavery and Freedom” section is strong in pointing out the contradiction between the U.S. achieving freedom from Great Britain and also purchasing other humans.
At first, I was pleased to see this more economic version of U.S. slavery for two reasons. First, I don’t think enough people realize that the wealth and power the U.S. has amassed would have been impossible without hundreds of years of free labor. Second, I don’t think facts can accurately depict slavery’s brutality. Certain artifacts the Museum displays, such as Nat Turner’s bible, an enslaved girl child’s skirt, and a real slave cabin, reached me emotionally, but the terror of the institution is almost unfathomable.
Now that I’ve had more time to think about it, I find this depiction of slavery and the NMAACH’s narrative as a whole somewhat problematic. In preparation for writing this article, I spent much more time on the museum’s website than I did before I went to D.C. There I found this among the NMAAHC’s pillar statements: “[The Museum] explores what it means to be an American and share how American values like resiliency, optimism, and spirituality are reflected in African American history and culture.”
I find the American narrative high on optimism, low on reflection of its inconsistencies, ironies, and vacillations. As the history galleries entered the period following reconstruction, I wanted to see some ambivalence about black American identity. While there is a long history of blacks in military service (a large exhibition of it is on level three), there also are black American ex-pats dating back to the Revolutionary War, artists like Josephine Baker who fled to Europe for acceptance, blacks who allied with socialist or communist ideologies, and even those who reconstructed an African nation in the USA. But those aren’t exactly examples of resilience and optimism.
The decision to focus on a very specific narrative also may explain why there’s so little Malcolm X or Toni Morrison in the museum. When I consider the nation’s homo- and transphobic history (and present) and its link to spirituality, I also wonder if the absence of the recognition of black queer life in the NMAAHC was a conscious choice. Homo- and transphobia within African American circles is, too, a complicated narrative that shows American values and American inconsistency.
Of course, it is highly possible that between the Museum’s vastness and the crowd, I might’ve missed something. That’s okay. I’m thrilled to return to the NMAAHC as many times as I can for as long as it stands. I know African American history and its complexities are too big to be contained to a single space, but with prominence on the National Mall, this museum is a much-needed answer to anyone who would question the significance of African American history to the U.S.
*Mariam Williams is a graduate student in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at Rutgers-Camden.