I had a friend in town this month, visiting from New Orleans. She's one of those nerdy bosom friends, the kind who you can sit and stare into space with for hours and call it a great time but who is also up for a little learning on the side, especially if cocktails follow. Last time I visited her in New Orleans we took a side trip to Whitney Plantation. Most plantation tours take you on a tour of the Big House and serve you mint juleps while you admire the fine china and perfectly restored banisters. The place only exists because of and in order to extend slavery, but that's always pushed to the side; at Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, you pay extra for the Slave Street and History tour because the main attraction is the flora.
Whitney Plantation is different. The historic district around the plantation house was built expressly to interpret slavery in south Louisiana, and it does so brutally. Our tour was spent in the hot pouring rain of a Gulf Coast summer as we learned about the vicious realities of enslaved people upon whose backs the wealth of this country was built. The site takes a special interest in the realities of enslaved children, and though I sometimes worry the constant refrain of "What about the children?" consigns the rest of us to "lost cause" status (and the real kind of lost cause—not that Confederate bullshit), that part was particularly moving. That tour ends at a wall inscribed with the names of thousands of enslaved people who labored at that site. The sheer weight of those names reduced me to tears in a way that no line of giant oak trees could ever do.
And then we drove back to New Orleans to her place in Tremé—one of the oldest free black neighborhoods in the country and the site of some of the swiftest gentrification I've seen—for a fish fry and some beer at the bar down the street. It's a strange thing, this part where history is tourism and then we just continue to live in the today.
That was my last visit to New Orleans. Her last visit to Baltimore consisted too much in migraines and pizza, but we did manage to make it to the Great Blacks in Wax museum. That was a different kind of black history, focused on celebrating the Great Man (and a few great women) of History. You start in the slave ship, but after making your way through all those heroes you are somewhere else.
Doing history in public is fraught with questions of what we remember, how, why; what our memory is doing and who gets to make those decisions. Doing black history in public has its own set of questions. How do you simultaneously recognize and remember that the country is founded in slavery and not reduce black history to that particular past? We don't seem to have any trouble with this when we do white history. Take a spin around the Maryland Historical Society, for example, and you'll see plenty of stories of rich white folks fighting wars, starting businesses, collecting furniture, and going on hunting expeditions, not at all haunted by the specter of slavery. Slavery is every bit as central to white U.S. history as it is to the history of African America, but you'd never know it.
I kept these questions in mind as my friend and I hit up the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture. I've been to this museum a bunch of times, and it is one of my very favorites. The space itself is monumental, with big open rooms and high ceilings. Walking in, I instantly feel the gravity of the situation—architecture matters. The museum is organized around three central themes: arts and culture, labor, and community and political life. Organized by theme, rather than date, in rooms that circle back to and through each other, the visit moves the visitor iteratively, returning to historical moments from different perspectives to produce a complex picture of an open history.
If I'm being real, though, this visit was a little different. I'm still slogging through the grief of my father's sudden violent death in December. I am still out in the world doing things I love doing, asking questions I've been asking for years with friends who have been asking them alongside me for just as long, but it's different. On this particular trip I was overcome with sadness at how truncated my curiosity feels. I moved through the Lewis with little to say about it. I waited in the foyer for my friend to finish her turn through the museum, fat tears rolling down my cheeks. This museum has made me cry before, but grief has turned me inward; the Lewis Museum isn't a place for white tears, but there I was, white tears rolling down white cheeks, so sad to be missing myself. Grief makes you selfish sometimes.
It wasn't a great trip to the museum, though I got to re-up my membership so I can try again later. That said, I did find the space to see one little thing that moved my perspective that one little bit, a reminder that I'm still here, and so is the world. It was in the Civil War section, about Antietam. I know a lot about Antietam. I've seen Ken Burns' Civil War documentary three times. I've driven around Antietam National Battlefield with 'Ashokan Farewell' on loop, thinking about what it means to call this battle "the bloodiest day in American history" and what bloodshed we ignore. At the Lewis Museum, though, that's not what Antietam's about. Antietam is the military victory that forces Lincoln's hand in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. That small shift in perspective made everything look a little bit different to me. And then we walked and walked and I cried and cried and we got cocktails and crab mac and cheese, because she is such a good, old friend, and we both know she'll be back, and these questions will still be here.