My First Visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture

I hope this works. I hope this works!

I held up my Smithsonian contractor badge to the National Museum of African American History’s guards, expecting to be turned down. I passed through the staff entrance, and the second guard waved me in to go ahead.

FINALLY.

I was glowing.  Washington, D.C. has been my home for two months, but I still couldn’t get a ticket. I was allowed to be inside, at last! How competitive is it to get into this museum that opened in in September of 2016?

Well, here’s part of their “things to know” part of their website:

“Same-day, timed passes are available online only, beginning at 6:30 a.m. daily.  A limited number of walk-up passes are available at the Museum on weekdays, beginning at 1 p.m.”

I’ve heard friends mention how lucky they were not only go be able to get a timed ticket, but to be able to take time off work in order to do so. Tour buses load people here every day, and I can only imagine how much in advance they must reserve their tickets.

So, how did I get in? Since I’m giving walking tours at the American History Museum, I have a Smithsonian employee badge that grants me employee access (and a sweet discount at the gift shops and food courts!).

I’d finally made it after weeks of cycling past with my bike tours, only being able to explain the NMAAHC’s design from the outside. Tourists cannot help but wonder what this building is, its corona-like, multilevel design and brown color standing in stark contrast to the white monuments. Even the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial is made up of a Chinese, white stone (of hope).

Sir David F. Adjaye, a Ghanaian British Architect, modeled The NMAAHC’ after crowns worn by the people of the Yoruban culture. Step closer, and it looks as if each panel is carved in the most intricate way. It reminded me of the intricate design that gates have in Mexico. They are ornate and functional.

The museum closes at 5:30 daily, and since I’d just gotten off work, I only had two hours. I began my visit at the the amazing Sweet Home Café, and as I expected, I had to wait in line. This museum is still so crowded that they can only let in a few folks at a time. Luckily, the menu was waiting outside with me as I decided what to get. There was regional food from places like the Creole Coast: Gulf Shrimp & Anson Mills Stone Ground Grits – featuring the premier corn-product from popular Columbia, S.C.-based Anson Mills alongside smoked tomato butter, caramelized leeks and crispy Tasso. There was corn bread and there were collard greens.

Sweet-Home-Cafe
I went with The Agricultural South’s BBQ pork sandwich, slaw, pickled okra, baked mac & cheese, and a lemon bar.

I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be alone for long. I walked my tray over to a table in the middle of the huge cafeteria. As I bit into my mac and cheese, Franklin E. McCain’s piercing gaze met mine. His seriousness under his thick, black rimmed glasses reminded me that while yes, I was here to enjoy the food, that I shouldn’t take my decision to sit wherever I wanted to for granted.

Greensboro-sit-in-nmaahc
Franklin was one of four African American college students who, in 1960, sat down at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for service, but after being rejected, they didn’t budge. Their passive resistance sparked a youth-led movement to challenge racial inequality throughout the South-and the world.

Soon enough, an older African American couple with hot dogs and orange Fantas on their trays sat down with me. I was frustrated by the fact that while this café had a variety of Southern comfort foods on display, hot dogs were the most affordable, filling items on the menu for them. The older woman and I started talking about the prices. She said “Can you believe it costs $7 for two sodas? Do you know how many sodas I could buy at the grocery store with that?”

I felt comfortable yet unsure of just exactly how accessible this museum really was. Maybe they have to offset the costs because this is a free museum, after all. One reason I love the Smithsonian Institute is that their initial endowment was given with the assurance that they would continue the dissemination of knowledge and that this would be free to the public-forever.

Soon enough, the granddaughter, who was in town for an interview, came and sat with us. I told her this was my first time here, and she mentioned the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, which is also one of the country’s 19 Smithsonian museums. Her mom rolled grandma up on her wheelchair and offered everyone yams, green beans, and fried fish on little plates. They were from North Carolina, D.C., all over. I could relate to them on that level.

It was nice to sit and chat with a family while enjoying rich, stick-to-your ribs food. “Who wants some potato salad?” Mom said, as she looked at me, and only me, knowing I’d accept. I giggled and spooned some on my plate, mentioning that I was not on a diet.

I only had an hour to explore, and the suggested I start from the bottom floor (there are two floors below and three above ground) because the journey begins with the slave trade and is, needless to say, an emotional one. I was already feeling so many different emotions just while enjoying a sandwich.

As I walked down the elevator, I saw something I thought I’d never see in this museum: Just another white, teenage boy, wearing a “Make America Great Again” sweatshirt. Other than the sweatshirt, he looked like just another boy on a field trip. What is he doing here? Did his teacher make him come? What is he thinking? I was confused, then relieved, that he was at least in a space like this that would hopefully make him question what the phrase on his sweatshirt even meant, once he’d realize that one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, owned 609 slaves.

As a guard lowered myself and other guests down in an oversized elevator, he dismissed us with “I hope you have a kleenex. You’ll need one!”

And so, the journey began, past the miniature shackles used for children crossing the Atlantic-if they survived at all- and into Brazil, Jamaica, Virginia…

Nmaahc-slave-trade-women
“I admit I am sickened at the purchase of slaves…but I must be mumm, for how could we do without sugar and rum?” -William Cowper, you just explained Colonialism in a nutshell.

Then came the exhibit on the American Revolution. For the first time, I’d seen an image of Boston King, a former slave turned Loyalist soldier. That’s how both the British and Americans recruited black men–by offering their freedom, if they didn’t die from smallpox or musket fire. It was so powerful to see images of men like Boston and Crispus Attucks (this runaway slave was the first man to die in the Boston Massacre, which partially led to The American Revolution) being represented along with the countless other images of white men serving in the war that we’ve all seen.

Boston-King-British-Loyalist
Boston King, a former American slave-turned British Loyalist who, after fighting in the American Revolution, peaced out to Canada then Sierra Leone, where he helped found Freetown.. Painting by John Singleton Copley.

The next room was one of my favorites. It exposed Thomas Jefferson’s faults. While, yes, he was an intelligent white man, inventor, Vice President, writer, and more, he also owned slaves. He wasn’t as enlightened as we think. Presidents would continue to hve had slave ownership up until Ulysses S. Grant. Yes, the general who helped the Union win The Civil War owned a slave at one point in his life. I knew Jefferson had slaves, but I hadn’t known that the children he’d had with one of his slaves (starting when she was 17), all inherited the same title as their mother. All men aren’t created so equal, are they?

As I was processing this, a young black girl stood between her mother and a glass case with shackles for slaves inside of them.

“Those were to make sure that the slaves wouldn’t escape” the mother explained to her little girl. “They even put them around their ankles?” she asked, innocently. “Mmhmm, even around their ankles,” mom said, cooly.

As a white presenting Mexican with a white presenting Mexican mother, I would never have been able to feel that sense of “This could have been me” in the way that this mother and her daughter probably felt and were used to feeling.

I barely made it to the section with Harriet Tubman, who was instrumental in bringing slaves up North through The Underground Railroad, when a guard told us the museum was closing. I hadn’t even made it past this floor before it was time to go. So, just like everyone else, I walked intentionally slowly so that I could savor my final seconds in this revealing place.

Finally, the National Museum of African American History’s was giving me what I needed: Real Talk. Real History. I’ll be back for more.

Featured image of the NMAAH by Flickr user cmfgu.

One Comment

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  1. Love it Char! Crying as I type. Can’t wait for you to go back and write more about it.

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