By nature of how technology works, journalists, influencers, and large donors spent the better part of September sharing photos of exhibits and intimate details of what thousands of visitors could expect from the National Museum of African American History and Culture during opening weekend. The nerd thirst was so real that Very Smart Brothas did an advice (satirical?) piece about how in-demand tickets for opening weekend were.
Thanks to Twitter, I happened to see when timed passes would be released. I’m not a morning person however this was worth setting several alarms for. I didn’t get tickets for Saturday or Sunday but there were a bunch of slots for weekdays. A few friends and I wound up making the trek into DC anyway Saturday morning and got a decent view of the ceremony too (pictured below). To be there was surreal having missed out on both Inaugurations. Taking in President and First Lady Obama one last time at a major event was so worth it.
When I told my boss I’d need a weekday off to go to the museum, he got excited and suggested we make it a group thing because he has a connect. Yeah, nah fam. Everything I’d read warned me that the curation of the museum’s artifacts and the story it tells needed to be processed delicately. And given the general tone-deafness of
some white people, I didn’t have the capacity to absorb their reactions too. While the museum is one they need to see, I believe it’s an institution for us to consume privately first without white noise.
The obvious path of the museum is to start your journey from the bottom up. That isn’t accidental. Even on a weekday, the bottom floor of the museum swelled with people–mimicking the bowels of slave slips.
I don’t get claustrophobic yet meandering through the exhibit of the ship and the adjoining rooms, you can’t help but feel the insurmountable weight of being trapped. In one of the rooms, people had stopped in front of me to read one of the plaques. Unfortunately, the flow of traffic hadn’t slowed down. At one point, there were a ton of people in this one space. It got to be a bit much and I wound up not seeing everything in there. (There are so many rare, unique artifacts. People stop to take photos or examine what they’re looking at. Which is why you need to go back more than once.)
Moving upward, an artifact caught my eye that slightly enraged me. Colin Kaepernick eloquently told America why he’s protesting the national anthem. Somehow, assholes took his right to protest as an act of disrespect towards US troops. Seeing the recruitment sign is a reminder of how people of color continue to have a complicated duality in serving the country and being citizens of the country.
Throughout the history of this country, not only have our bodies been used for labor but we’ve also been swayed to fight alongside our oppressors for the goal of liberation; first from Great Britain, then from the South.
The United States has always used the military as means to prey on people of color. Kap and many other black athletes are being reminded that they should be grateful that American troops, and by extension America, “gave them” opportunities to enjoy freedom. In some contexts, “shut up and play” isn’t too distant from “take this weapon and shoot”.
There were moments that angered me and plaques that educated on the floors dedicated to finding and fighting freedom. But no two moments broke my heart more than the room that held Emmett Till’s casket and shards of glass from the 16th Street Church bombing.
The former exhibit does not allow any photos or video. You know the story. You’ve seen the horrific image of 14 year old Till lying in an open casket. However, to see the actual casket evokes a visceral set of emotions. It was the first time that day that I couldn’t hold back the tears. The silence was eerie as we all listened to Till’s mother’s voice narrate his life and death.
One of the tragic quotes amplified how she didn’t concern herself with what was happening in the south regarding the lynchings and extreme violence. Many of us used to carry that shield of willful arrogance and comfort. That disconnect unfortunately is gone now because there is no escape.
The 16th Street Church bombing was fresh in my mind because of how masterfully it’s portrayed in Ava Duvernay’s Selma. It’s a little girl excitedly running towards the basement of the church. That sequence immediately popped in my head again as I looked down at these broken pieces of stained glass. These remnants by themselves hold the significance of 4 childhoods that were snatched away violently and a community that was forever destroyed.
It makes me sad how this generation of children are inheriting the same emotional burden. I think about the daughter of Philando Castile and the son of Alton Sterling and countless others who have to openly endure their trauma and shoulder all of this grief. At that point, I had digested enough of that part of the museum.
So it was time for the CULTURE part, which I heard is dope.
Because the lower floors were emotionally overwhelming, I underestimated how much time I’d spent down there. I didn’t get to see a lot of the culture upstairs. I saw some sports stuff. I saw some music stuff. I saw some art. Although I have a huge complaint and it may be an unpopular opinion.
I feel like the museum relies heavily on video screens and digital multimedia rather than actual artifacts like the lower floors. I mostly skimmed since by the time I got up there, the evening crowd was starting to roll in.
I have another set of passes. I’m looking forward to a more detailed tour of the entertainment section. Plus, I need to sample the food.
Have you been to the NMAAHC yet? What did you think? If not, when do you plan to go?