When I walked into the new National Museum of African American History and Culture for a preview last week, my excitement was tempered.
I’d heard about the feats of engineering: rooms built around a massive a guard tower from Louisiana’s Angola Prison, a Southern Railroad train car and a Tuskegee Airman-flown plane. I’d heard about the big donations from Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan. I’d followed the decades-long campaign for real estate and funding that were required to make this new institution a reality.
But that was the story of the museum itself. I was worried that the exhibits might fall short of illustrating — panel by panel, artifact by artifact — the story of black America, which is not merely about the biggest names and the best-remembered movements. I was worried about what might have been intentionally left out or inadvertently forgotten.
But my worries were unfounded. The museum succeeds by grappling, in an elegant fashion, with the many strands — sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes uplifting — of African-American history, and how closely they’re interwoven with the American experiment from its inception. It tells the stories of black America the way they should be told: Not an account of black people fitting into American history, but American history told through the black experience.
History isn’t just curating facts but marshaling the facts of our collective past to help us better understand our present. That’s one of the reasons I wrote “Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson,” to address the misperception that black Americans passively accepted segregation prior to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Black travelers on trains sued when they were excluded from first-class cars. African-American streetcar riders launched boycotts in more than 25 Southern cities between 1900 and 1907.
In the same spirit, the museum works because its artifacts aren’t merely displayed to narrate a tidy through-line of black history’s greatest hits. Rather, its spaces remind us that from before the nation’s beginnings, African-Americans have experienced victories and defeats in many times and places, and our traumas have often taken place alongside our triumphs.
There’s the exhibit highlighting the people Thomas Jefferson enslaved, with bricks inscribed with their names standing like a wall behind his statue. Around the nation’s third president, author of our Declaration of Independence, stand some of the African-American luminaries he dismissed as inferior in his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” including scientist Benjamin Banneker and poet Phillis Wheatley.
This one exhibit takes you from achievement to seemingly insurmountable barriers and back. This isn’t a clean or easy story to tell, but to tell it another way would be wrong, a perpetuation of the too-frequent oversimplification of black history.
This museum’s triumph is that it gives teachers and learners a fresh start at thinking about black life and culture in this country on the same intellectual track as the rest of our nation’s history, rather than as a version that spotlights African-Americans as a people apart, feted every February, then relegated to the background.
Yes, some artifacts in some museums are there purely to remind tour groups and summer class trips about milestones in American history. But the African American Museum adds an extra dimension by showcasing lesser-known pieces of black history that tie the narrative together. It shows us that the folks who organized the Niagara, anti-lynching and women’s club movements were just as “woke” to the oppression of white supremacy as the civil rights generation.
Today’s debate over economic inequality comes to mind when you see the art wall preserved from Resurrection City, a shantytown protest mounted by the Poor People’s Campaign, the last protest initiative organized by Martin Luther King Jr. before his assassination. The striking images from the wall include the command to “tell it like it is”; situating the protest, in other words, in the wider context of the long fight for equality.
The museum’s curators did important work in centering the ordinary and extraordinary people highlighting the stories we know, such as Douglass and King, but placing them alongside artifacts from people we probably have never heard of whose experiences are just as telling. hey emphasize women’s experiences with regularity and clarity. A casual observer might miss the panels focused on black female ministers Florence Spearing Randolph, Mary J. Small, Jarena Lee and Julia A.J. Foote.
Despite all this, the Guardian’s Steven W. Thrasher describes the museum as a “project of respectability politics” that is “quite at odds with the current political moment,” asking, “What good to African Americans ... is a museum dedicated to us, when we are getting shot in the street daily?” But that question strikes me as too narrow and too broad all at once. We know museums can’t stop bullets.
It’s certainly fair — in a world where Terence Crutcher is gunned down by Tulsa police, even as Americans castigate Colin Kaepernick for protesting exactly this kind of violence — to recognize that the African-American struggle is ongoing. But today’s battles demand that we remember our past. The museum does not offer a whitewash, putting a feel-good gloss on our collective story. It’s a necessary affirmation that black lives, indeed, matter.
Blair L. M. Kelley is an associate professor of history and assistant dean of interdisciplinary studies and international programs at North Carolina State University.