The Baltimore area is blessed with a multitude of African-American history museums and heritage sites. We've got Great Blacks in Wax, the Lewis Museum, Benjamin Banneker Historical Park, the Eubie Blake Cultural Center, and the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Meyers Maritime Park, just to name a few. This weekend shifted our attention south, though, to the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The museum is incredible, and a reminder that even with this new behemoth a quick MARC ride from home, it is as essential as ever to support our local black heritage sites.
A trip inside was the hottest ticket in town this weekend, and the lines were long, and likely will be for the foreseeable future: timed entry tickets are already gone through the end of the year.
The museum is breathtakingly good. It tells so many different stories in so many different ways, eschewing any attempt to reduce American history to pat narratives. This is not a museum about a long march to freedom, but a museum that demands we ask what freedom means when its very definition is founded in slavery.
The architecture of the museum leads visitors from the bowels of slavery in the basement to a grand dance party on the top floor, but each exhibit recursively reminds us, in James Baldwin's words that stretch up a three story wall in the museum, that "the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it…history is literally present in all that we do."
The museum is also as much about telling stories as gathering more of them. It features rooms for visitors to record their own stories and places to write reflections, but on an even more basic level, it has plenty of places to sit and think and start conversations with other visitors. The museum is as much potential as finished product, and the stage is set for challenging what history means, whose history matters, and how we might use history for understanding the present and future.
It will take much more than one crowded visit to learn all it has to teach us, so here is just a taste of what struck me on this first weekend.
The story of the Middle Passage is incredibly difficult to tell, and to hear. This deadly voyage delivered millions of Africans to the Americas, and it is a gruesome, terrifying history. Great Blacks in Wax interprets the Middle Passage by way of a wax slave ship, complete with wax models of enslaved people stacked in the hold, being force fed, thrown overboard, raped, and assaulted. The affective display attempts to get visitors to reckon, just a little bit, with the horror of it. The Lewis Museum offers maps and wall text, attempting not to evoke the feeling of being in a ship making that Middle Passage, but informing visitors about the breadth and extent of this massive forced migration. In both cases, it is the subjectivity of the visitor that is paramount: What do we need to feel and understand before moving to the next part of the museum?
NMAAHC is a little different. Their Middle Passage exhibit is a small room off the main exhibit floor that takes visitors past two small pieces of wood and a few iron ballasts brought up from the sunken Portuguese slave ship, the São José, recovered as part of the Slave Wrecks project. Wall text shares basic facts, but the focus is the voices reading words from those who survived the trip across the Atlantic. It is a chilling experience, and as the crowd shuffled through the small space, we were completely silent, the only sound the words of survivors of this most deadly voyage, the only scene the remnants of what was lost. Their subjectivity—not ours—is what is on display here, and it is a powerful moment not experienced in any of the myriad museums we've visited that have confronted this same historic event.
And this is perhaps the most powerful work of the museum: It gives voice to African-Americans as the subjects of American history, not its objects. As Barack Obama said in his speech to open the museum, "We're not a burden on America or a stain on America or an object of shame and pity for America. We are America. And that's what this museum explains." In an exhibit about slavery's role in building the early colonial economy, for example, the wall text reminds us that "[Enslaved] lives were embedded in every coin that changed hands, each spoonful of sugar stirred into a cup of tea, each puff of a pipe, and every bite of rice."
This is not to reduce enslaved people to the commodities they produced, but to remind visitors that in every moment, every breath, every move, we are shaped by African-American history. This is a nation of contradictions and no easy answers, and that is laid bare in this new museum. What a gift, to be asked to think without the promise we'll ever be done with thinking. And now that it's built, they can't take this museum away. These stories are here to stay, and to grow and extend, and we are all the better for it.