Stepping into the National Museum of African American History and Culture (Part 1)

History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. -Maya Angelou

Museums help us understand other places, other eras, other people. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is not just another stone box with things in it. Its external design cleverly mimics the three tiered crown of the Yoruba people, a prominent tribe of modern day Nigeria. A sizeable population of the African American community can trace their ancestry to the Yoruba. The building is sheathed in ornamental bronze-coloured lattice that pays homage to the intricate craftsmanship of the enslaved African Americans. The space on the inside is just as symbolic. One begins their journey from the third basement – intentionally shrouded in darkness, slowly making their way up to the higher floors that are bathed in more light; exemplifying healing and hope. 

“Ting!” The magnificent metal doors slide open as Ken and I step out of the hangar-sized elevator. It’s dark but the artefacts are well lit so we don’t struggle to read the respective captions around us. It’s very effective. I begin to explore my new environment. The first image that strikes me is a huge portrait of a beautiful black woman adorned with a crown atop her head. Her stunning features draw me in and I linger a few moments more just staring at her, captivated by her charm. It’s a juxtaposition. Next to this beautiful woman hang the ugly words of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. She represents the fraternity of African elites that facilitated the making of the Atlantic World between the 15th and 19th centuries by incessantly supplying slaves.

I turn to Ken, “Whenever I think of slavery I tend to think of white Europeans forcibly capturing Africans and hauling them into ships headed for foreign lands. Well…this photo tells me a different story. Africans had their own powerful civilisations that Europeans could not conquer and various forms of slavery already existed within African Kingdoms. So it was voluntarily aided by the elitists. I feel like too much attention is skewed towards white race prejudice and not enough on our own injustices.”

The next gallery that I spend a bit of time on is the Paradox of Liberty. Behind Thomas Jefferson is a feature wall inscribed with the immortal Declaration of Independence proclaiming that “all men are created equal”. A blatant contradiction as the Land of the Free was founded on slavery. One simply has to spare a moment to reflect and ponder on whether similar injustices exist in one’s own beliefs. 

We still have so much to see and just not enough time. I hastily glaze over the Reconstruction Period not really understanding the significance of the short years between 1865 and 1876. Only much later, when I’m doing my own research, do I get more insight. Here’s a brief overview of what happened during this era: Congress passed three Amendments to the US Constitution: the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) ended slavery, the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) guaranteed African Americans the rights of American citizenship, and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) guaranteed black men the constitutional right to vote.

During this short period, despite the extremely difficult post-slavery environment seven hundred African American men served in elected public office, among them two United States Senators, and fourteen members of the United States House of Representatives. Another thirteen hundred African American men and women held appointed government jobs. The black family, the black church, and education were central elements in the lives of post-emancipation African Americans. Why is this information important to me? Because it demonstrates that black people were not incapacitated by the victim mentality that the media is always too eager to infiltrate our minds with. So there’s another side to the story and it tells us about their determination,  ambition and strong will to overcome their challenges. That’s important.  

We walk up the ramp to see what a life-sized train car from the Southern Railway Company is doing in the museum. It’s another gallery but it’s closed for renovations so I peep through the glass windows to see what it contains. Inside the green locomotive, there are distinct accommodation compartments that separated the Whites from the Coloureds. Indeed, true freedom was short-lived.  After the Compromise of 1877, the Jim Crow laws came in full swing. Segregation permeated every imaginable aspect of society; schools, neighbourhoods, buses, public accommodation, toilets, law enforcement, they even determined what roads black people should drive on. This sounds like a familiar story; one that my own people have endured as a result of colonialism. I try to imagine what it must have felt like to be a second class citizen in one’s own country. I will never really know. I am privileged.

Now we are at the Black is Beautiful gallery. Again, I feel privileged. I have never known that black is not beautiful. It’s also a lot brighter here – the highlights of orange balance out the dark colours and energise my mood. The photographs around the room depict a people who are tired of being oppressed and are now fighting back for equal rights through various movements and protests. “Hey Ken,” I tap his arm, “could you please take a photo of me standing next to THE Black Panther Party?” I ABSOLUTELY love Marvel’s Black Panther film and to miss this photo opportunity, surrounded by Black Power, is simply unthinkable. 

As we leave the museum, I think to myself that I must be extremely lucky to be born in the country and era I live in. Any earlier and I could have been tucked away in a boat well on my way to the Americas, or perhaps smuggling food and water resources to the Mau Mau freedom fighters. Who knows? Instead I get to play a role, however small or big, in creating a better and brighter tomorrow for my beautiful country, Kenya. And so do you!  

Finally, in the words of Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, “Museums enrich our lives through history and commitment to truth, helping us to develop empathy, imagination and sophistication so that we make better informed decisions for what is to come.”

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