04 August 2018

We went to the National Museum of African American History and Culture this week.  I had to get tickets months ago because they still are requiring timed passes, nearly two years after the museum opened, because there is still so much demand to visit.  It's worth any hassle you need to go through to get there.

I knew we wouldn't have time to see everything, and unfortunately I've had a cold and was feeling pretty run down that day so I didn't have the energy to stay longer even though the boys were happy to metro home without me.  It's also not an emotionally easy place to visit, and that was made worse by being tired.  

So we only saw the history section, below ground.  We didn't even touch the culture section which is in the main part of the building.  I'd read a little about the layout before we went so I knew we needed to go down as soon as we got there.  You ride an elevator down several floors to 1400 in Africa and Europe at the very beginning of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and then you walk up three floors through history.  No escalators, almost no places to sit, no restrooms, no other way out  You couldn't get away from the images of slavery or segregation.  Yes, I am certain that was intentional. I know there are people who don't like the design of the museum, but I like it when even the architecture of a place contributes to the history.

There is a ton of information presented.  Even in three hours, I didn't have anywhere near enough time to take in everything in the history section.  Maybe all day for that part and another full day for the rest of the museum?  There are also disturbing images and parts that are hard to deal with.  Most of the time I was walking through with my 10-year-old and I didn't realize that red-rimmed images were a warning, so he saw some hard things.  But we also talked about some important things as a result.

My son visibly recoiled in some parts.  Not just photos of lynchings (where I told him to look at the faces of the people witnessing the lynchings - sometimes laughing, sometimes with children (who brings a child to a lynching?)) but also the dolls and puppets and caricatures of African Americans.  We talked for a while before going in to see Emmett Till's casket.  For me, it was the tiny shackles that a child would have been forced to wear while crossing the Atlantic.  Again, who does that?  How do you take a child from their parents and sell them to the highest bidder?  (And how do you take a child from their parents and then deport the parents?)

Sometimes everything felt a bit jumbled, but that's how history really is, and real life.  You can be reading something fairly benign and then come up on a Klan hood.  Again, the idea came through clearly to me that you can't get away from this, and that this is history for all Americans, not just African Americans.

The museum is more political than any other Smithsonian.  I would imagine its presentation of history would irritate some people.  It's not the history I heard in school, which glossed over so much but co-opted the Underground Railroad and only ever talked about Rosa Parks. Any museum has its story to tell and this one is no exception.  To me, the way the museum chooses to tell the story tells you as much as the story itself.  This is American history, not told by white people.  And I would hope that anyone who goes here understands why that is important.

The history section ends with Obama's election, on an optimistic note.  But it also talks about Black Lives Matter.  And when you finish, you know what happened a few months after the museum opened, and then the next summer in Charlottesville where white supremacists waved Confederate and Nazi flags and were rewarded with being called good people by the new president. Those images fit the dark side of the history in this museum.

We ate lunch in the cafeteria, which is sort of a must since you can't re-enter the museum.  The food was delicious even though it was expensive.  But I never mind paying more for food at a free museum, especially one as huge as a Smithsonian.

Something else I noticed?  There were far, far more African Americans at this museum than any other Smithsonian I've been to, including Anacostia.  I also didn't hear other languages spoken very often, as I usually would in a Smithsonian.  I don't doubt that having to plan ahead to get timed passes makes it much less likely that international visitors would come.  But when Washington DC's population is half African American, it was good to finally see a museum in Washington that tells a new, American story.

It will be years before I'm able to go back, but I will be back.

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