I didn’t expect the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) to be Black. Don’t groan. I didn’t expect there to be a Sweet Home Café and as delicious as the offerings sounded I dared not brave the lines. Not only were there so many Black people of all hues but a good number were wearing their dashikis or Black Pride inspired graphic tees. Afros and locks were abundant.
The museum is a marvel. It is huge! It can’t possibly be done in one visit. There are just too many floors. Too many exhibits. There are 3 floors underground. Three whole floors in the cavernous underground. It was crowded and there were lines and even though I visited all three floors I doubt I took in even 40% of what is to be seen. It is a treasure trove. It was overwhelming. All the evidence. Tangible evidence. Plain cold facts. So deep.
You are taken back to the 1400s to start. I heard there were pieces of a slave boat. I had to start my visit in the less crowded areas. In the 1700s. There was Nat Turner’s bible. Harriet Tubman’s shawl and silverware. An actual slave shack from South Carolina. Lots of whips. Lots of chains. Lots of evidence of suffering and survival.
As you move up out of the dark underbelly towards the upper levels (but still underground) you are confronted with Black people struggling against the resistance to the notion of a Black personhood, you know the system. Stories are more uplifting but always there’s the struggle. “White’s Only” signs abound. “And still we rise” echos in my head.
Finally, we come to the top floor (of the underground floors) dedicated to galleries of modern Black successes in all walks of life – art, sports, military achievements…and there is Oprah Winfrey’s couch.
There’s so much to see and as somber as some of the exhibits are, I can’t wait to go back.
Now getting back to my surprise of the day. That it felt Black. I mean I’m glad that Black people are visiting in their droves. They absolutely should. But I couldn’t help wonder how the few non-Black people present felt and thought.
It was a damp, cold afternoon the day I visited. There were reasonable lines to gain entrance and go through security. I would guess 15 – 20 minutes wait. Just as it was my turn to present my pass, a young white woman showed up at my periphery. The lines aren’t straight so I assumed she had been there, in my peripheral vision all along. But no. The older Black women behind me started to cluck. “Now how did this chick just walk up in here?”, they asked among themselves. “This chick” heard and responded that she was told to come in front because she had to change her baby, a sleeping baby strapped to her chest. The women behind me laughed incredulously and shook their heads. “They just don’t get it. Even in our space, they think they take precedence”, they said among themselves.
I felt this sentiment throughout my visit. Whenever a white person dared to invade a black persons space, cut them in line, interrupt a picture-taking, cut into a discussion, gasp Whitesplain something, I could feel at least one Black person in the vicinity shake their head, probably expressing that same thought. Like “can’t we Black people just have something that is for us, without having you people take it away from us?”
I’m not saying that black people have to go out of their way to make white people feel welcome. Not at all. White guilt and white fragility be damned. Especially not in a formidable place like the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). But before I visited, I didn’t think of the museum as for Black America but rather of Black America. I imagined the impact was to declare that Black America is America.
As an American institution paid for with both public funds and private donations it should not be “Black space”. White America has much to learn from visiting a museum like this, one that does not sanitize the past. This museum is a perfect opportunity for people who are not familiar with the Black experience to gain context to be able to understand and empathize better. The museum is as much White American history as it is Black American history. It is quintessential American history.
With the current tensions in race relations, when people are actively trying to remind others that Black people in America matter, the last thing we should be trying to do is segregate ourselves.