The last time I traveled to Washington D.C., I went for the Women's March. Hesitant to get political on my blog, I never posted those photos here. Last weekend, I returned to D.C. to visit my son. On Saturday night, we attended the Washington Nationals baseball game. As we rose for the National Anthem, the announcer asked for a moment of silence for the victims of the violence in Charlottesville. He expressed a rejection of racism and bigotry in all its forms, and in a very emotional response, the crowd roared its approval.
On Sunday, we toured the National Museum of African American History and Culture. We certainly didn't plan it that way, but the NMAAHC, or the Blacksonian, as it is affectionately nicknamed, seemed like the ideal place to spend the day after Saturday's events. I thought you might like to learn a little about the newest addition to the Smithsonian fleet of museums.
The building itself, which sits on the Mall, only took one hundred years to get itself built. Seriously, it was an uphill battle all the way. The very first rumblings began in 1915 when a group of African-American Union Army veterans formed a committee. Over the next century, there were many fits and starts, but in 2003, President George W. Bush appointed a commission to create a national African-American museum. Bush also campaigned for the museum to be situated on the National Mall.
The Smithsonian did not begin acquiring artifacts until 2007. Given the pressure they were under to make up for lost time, they devised a creative solution. They hit the road, visiting fifteen different cities under the auspices of an "Antiques Roadshow" type of event. People were encouraged to bring their artifacts for appraisal and for lessons in conservation techniques. Not entirely surprising, many people who showed up with objects and heirlooms decided to donate them. Harriet Tubman's hymnal was donated by the ancestor of a slave who escaped with Tubman. Nat Turner's bible was donated by an ancestor of Turner's owner.
In 2009, The Smithsonian sponsored a design contest, won by David Adjaye, a Ghanian British architect who was knighted by the Queen last year. His design called for an eight-story building encased in a bronze screen or "corona" that resembles a Yoruban hat. Once underway, the NMAAHC attracted large donations from many trusts and corporations, and from many celebrated African Americans, including Oprah Winfrey, Shondra Rhimes, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Robert Johnson.
It was dedicated by President Barack Obama in September of 2016 and the Smithsonian continues to tweak its grounds, its collection, and its operations. Getting tickets is difficult, and lines have been so long, the Smithsonian now limits entry. If you don't plan ahead and get your tickets months in advance, you can secure same-day tickets by logging on to the museum website at 6:30 am exactly. Don't be late. They are gone by 6:32. FYI, I tried logging on with my phone the first morning and did not succeed. Sunday morning, I used my laptop and nabbed four tickets.
I did notice that when we showed up at our allotted time, people with extra tickets shared with those in need. So if you forget to set your alarm, try hanging around the entrance for a while, and hope for the kindness of strangers.
Once inside the museum, we toured it backwards due to the crowd. Most people begin in the bowels of the museum, which by the way, is the deepest of any building on the Mall. But we started on the sixth floor where the cultural contribution of African Americans is on dazzling display. Our favorites were Louis Armstrong's trumpet, and Chuck Berry's cherry red Cadillac.
The people of color walking through those exhibits were joyous. They were proud. And they should be. Because the staggering quantity and quality of African American accomplishments are the pride of this nation. The African American experience, translated by artists, musicians, writers, entertainers, chefs, designers, etc., enriches every aspect of our lives. There can be no separating the Black American from the American.
And yet. Separation there was and continues to be.
We left the sixth floor and descended to the lowest level. There, in dark cramped chilly rooms, the brutal history of slavery and oppression is fully on view: a slave ship, cargo holds diagrammed for maximum bodies, iron shackles, an auction block, cat-o-nine whips, a slave cabin. The horrible truth -- that our country was built by white man with one foot on the throat of a slave and one hand on a whip -- shames and angers every single person in the room.
Emmitt Till's casket is still waiting upstairs. As are the names of the thousands of people lynched between the Civil War and WWII. And many many more sights.
We didn't see everything. It's impossible and overwhelming. The enormity of the grief, the hopelessness, the guilt invade your head and make it difficult to think straight.
My husband overheard a conversation between a couple standing in front of the quote by Ida B. Wells. The woman pointed to Ms. Wells' words and said angrily, "There it is! If we don't keep shining a light, nothing changes."
Given the events of last weekend, she is correct.
Founding Director Lonnie Bunch said this:
I think the museum needs to be a place that finds the right tension between moments of pain and stories of resiliency and uplift. There will be moments where visitors could cry as they ponder the pains of the past. But they will also find much of the joy and hope that had been a cornerstone of the African American experience. Ultimately, I trust that our visitors will draw sustenance, inspiration, and a commitment from the lessons of history to make America better. At this time in our country there is a great need for the clarity that comes from understanding one's history.
I'm closing this post with photographs from the art exhibition in the museum. I believe that art heals. It takes time to create. It lasts longer than anger. And it conveys in ways that words cannot.
Thank you for reading this post. It was hard to write. I usually pick topics that are more humorous. If you enjoyed this, consider subscribing to my Friday morning newsletter. There's always a laugh, always a pretty room, and lots of great antique picks from around the web.