For a young black woman whose family has always made it a point to teach her about her history, a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., was a special experience.
Note: The commentary below represents the ideas, observations and opinions of the author.
Upon learning about the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., I knew it was something I needed to experience.
For a young black woman whose family has always made it a point to teach her about her history, outside the four-week window known as Black History Month, this was an important step toward better understanding from where I truly came ― in preparation for where I am going.
You see, the black experience taught to me in the classroom has largely been one of being present, excluded and often misrepresented at the time.
Initially, I wanted to take the journey to the museum by myself as part of my right of passage into adulthood.
But then I remembered that there would be no passage without the struggles and triumphs of those who came before me and that I had a responsibility, as my grandfather has always told me, to “reach one, teach one.” And with that, my grandfather, 12-year-old brother Jackson, and my grandfather’s college roommate headed to Washington, D.C.
The museum is a sight to behold. The building design was inspired by the Yoruba, an African people with origins in Benin and Nigeria and from whom a large number of African Americans are descended.
There are three basement floors and three top floors, with each depicting a different era in African American history. One begins in the basement, where you wait in line to board an elevator that takes you to the lowest of the three levels.
As you exit the elevator, a heavy feeling hits you. Suddenly, you are back to where it all began: “Slavery and Freedom 1400-1877.” Tiny slave shackles used on a child. A slave cabin from an Edisto Island, S.C., plantation. Harriet Tubman’s shawl.
“Those shackles look too small for me,” said my brother, slightly stepping back from the glass encasement. “I wonder how old the boy or girl was when they were taken.”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “But I know that they were strong and resilient; they endured and overcame more than we can ever imagine.”
We moved to the next basement floor. It was called “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation 1876-1968.”
Although this floor was emotional to walk through, as it touched on the Jim Crow era, it was also incredibly inspiring. Seeing artifacts that represented the sacrifices those who came before me endured so that I could be where I am today made me grateful and proud of my ancestry.
One of the sections on this floor that I will never, ever forget was the Emmett Till memorial.
A mob tortured and killed 14-year-old Till for allegedly flirting with a white woman. His gruesome death in 1955, which the whole world now knows was based on a lie ― the woman confessed a decade ago that her claim about Till was false ― helped ignite the civil rights movement.
Approaching the casket in which Till was buried was surreal; yet the reality of that moment brought tears to my grandfather’s eyes, made my brother reach for my hand, and strengthened my resolve to right this all-too-often unjust world where racism, biases and alternative facts determine someone’s fate because of the color of their skin, who they love or where they were born.
The final basement floor is titled “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond.” This floor touches on more modern movements and figures, such former President Obama. It also has a section dedicated to women and the women’s movement, honoring incredible revolutionaries such as Angela Davis.
Posters and other items from the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo., that helped spark the “Black Lives Matter” movement serve as reminders that “beyond” is the destination we have yet to reach.
After completing the basement floors, you have the opportunity to dine at the amazing Sweet Home Café, which showcases the culture and history of African Americans through past and present food traditions. The food was absolutely incredible, and I encourage anyone who visits the museum to check it out.
And visitors still aren’t finished! Whew! After the basement floors of the museum and the café, there are still the top floors to explore, which are much more lighthearted and honor prominent African Americans in the arts, sports and more!
As we ended our visit, I felt present, included and authentically represented by this experience. Isn’t that what we all want?