One of the bummers about moving around every few years is that you're constantly making new friends, leaving old ones behind. My mother, never one to leave the shine on a rose, told me as I left for college that "getting older means learning to leave the people you love." Ouch. And so true, at least for me.
The bonus, though, is that you end up with people you love scattered all over the country, and when you live in a vacation destination like Baltimore, it also means getting a lot of visitors. This month I got a long weekend with one of my very best friends from New Orleans, up for her fourth visit to our fair city in as many years. She had just a couple of requests: pizza, leaf peeping (fall isn't one of the seasons they get in New Orleans), and the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum. I happily obliged the first with a delivery, the second with a walk in Patapsco Valley State Park—y'all realize we're only 20 minutes from that beauty, right?—and the third with a Sunday afternoon visit.
A trip to Great Blacks in Wax is always a good idea, but it's especially a good one as we reckon with what to do with public memories of slavery and the Confederacy. Those conversations have largely revolved around what to do with our monuments, and rightly so. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, publicly supports taking them all down. In Baltimore, SRB's Commission to Review Baltimore's Confederate Monuments is reviewing, and the monuments might come down here, too. No matter what you think we should do with these things—melt them down, put them in a Hall of Shame, resignify them (pull out yer spray paint, everybody!), or leave them there because that's "our" history—there's a growing sense that building a racially just world means maybe not picnicking in Mount Vernon Place next to a statue of the guy who wrote in a Supreme Court decision that "the black man has no rights a white man is bound to respect" like it's no big deal.
Rather than head to Mount Vernon to complain about how much it sucks that our cities are sneaking celebrations of slavery into every nook and cranny, she asked for a trip to the museum instead. It was raining and I don't have a car, so we hailed a car for a ride to 1601 E. North Ave. The streets were empty the way they are when there's cold rain on a Sunday and there's football on, and I expected we'd be alone in the museum. Not so—the entry hall was noisy with music, and I saw a guy with a name tag that read "Hogan Enterprises." Turns out this was Sunday Brunch with Larry Hogan and Boyd Rutherford, with campaign fund-raising prices ranging from $100 to $500 to raise money for his campaign. It was a quick reminder that no, public history is never ever ever not political, this place included.
We got our tickets, didn't meet Larry or Boyd, and entered at the museum to start at the beginning, which at this museum is the Middle Passage. We were silent as we walked through the wax slave ship, haunting noises over the loudspeaker adding to the affective work of the museum. Unlike, say, the stone statue of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson atop horses ready for a heroic battle, hiding the part that what they're fighting for is slavery, this exhibit is all about the deeply human suffering of slavery, the horrors of it, and the depravity necessary to enslave another. It is an exhibit that silences.
We exited and followed the signs to the Barack Obama exhibit, passing through the room dedicated to ancient African royalty and the corner honoring the founders of FUBU. It's a jarring move from the slave ship to this, but it makes sense. An exhibit that confronts you with the devastating history of forced enslavement and its utter dehumanization risks leaving the visitor with little hope. Going straight from there to view wax figures of Imhotep, Akhenaton, and Queen Ann Nzinga is a reminder that the history of black people did not begin in slavery. (And if you don't know you those people are, visit the museum and find out.)
The rest of the museum tells stories that confront visitors with the history of slavery and what University of Maryland historian Ira Berlin calls "the long emancipation," from those who started rebellions on slaving ships to better-known luminaries such as Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman—three of the first four figures that founders Elmer and Joanne Martin built with money they'd saved to buy a house. There are exhibits of black inventors and scientists, writers and politicians, explorers and teachers. The basement features another chilling display, this one of the history of lynching in America, complete with a wax figure of a pregnant woman, lynched, her baby being carved from her stomach. It's gruesome, a reminder, along with the slave ship, of just how much the Mary Eliza Mahoneys and Guion Blufords of the world had to overcome to "make it." (Yeah, look them up.)
And that is the narrative arc of the museum, an argument to visitors, especially children, that to honor the struggle of the ancestors is to make a success of yourself in the face of current struggles against racism. "Now we lynch ourselves," read the last exhibit on the top floor, a wax alleyway filled with junkies and guns. There's a disconnect here, for me, anyway. The Great Man of History model can't tell the complexity of struggle and change, can't explain why, say, the school that produced Thurgood Marshall now flanks his statue with metal detectors, laying bare, every day, the reality of the school-to-prison pipeline. How do we tell a history that doesn't reduce white supremacy and the struggle against it to a cast of characters? It's a necessary history, yes, but certainly not sufficient to understand what we saw as we headed back to my place in Waverly from this museum on East North Avenue in a car I summoned by pressing a couple of buttons on my smartyphone, privilege and inequalities pressing in and back out through the windows.