National Museum of African American History & Culture

From inside the museum, overlooking a field of flags with each one representing a death in the United States from COVID-19, over 700,000 in all.

A couple weekends ago my super amazing girlfriend and I finally got to go to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and wow it was phenomenal. It was thanks to the diligent efforts of my super amazing girlfriend that we got to go at all, since she managed to get us tickets. We didn’t actually get to see a whole lot of the museum. All the people we talked to who had visited warned us that it was immense and expansive and would take a whole day at least to see everything. We dismissed these people as less experienced museum-goers than we were. However, they were right. We saw a fantastic amount of artifacts and history and culture and only scratched the surface.

When we entered the museum, the docent who greeted us suggested we start upstairs, in the culture section, because the downstairs history section was “a little crowded.” So to the very top we went, and the first gallery we saw was an art gallery. This was a fantastic collection of art, with the majority (from my impression) from the last two decades or so, but with a selection from the 20th century as well. A running theme of this blog post is going to be that I will have to take many more looks at this museum. Just now, looking at the above picture I took of “The Wives of Sango” by Jeff Donaldson, am I noticing that they are armed with rifles and have bullets around their waists. The docents in the art gallery had to regularly remind people to stay at least a foot or so away from the art; clearly people wanted to get up close and intimate with the works on display.

I’m trying to come up with something to say about the museum other than “wow” that isn’t entirely reductive or which stray into something like a liberal gaze. I was thoroughly embarrassed by the fact that as I went through the art gallery, it was difficult to tell what era each piece was from without relying entirely on the accompanying plaque. There were a number of repeating themes, which I took as speaking to the déjà vu of the Black experience in the United States. It is not a positive sign that icons such as Harriet Tubman, depicted above in “I Go to Prepare a Place for You” by Bisa Butler continue to resonate. My picture above of course fails to do it justice, but it is an incredibly constructed quilt drawing on a whole range of inspirations which, in its presence, creates a very powerful effect. You have to go see it, and I will make sure to go see it again.

After walking through the art gallery, we stepped into the light into a huge display of artifacts from over a century of Black music and musicians. When you step through the door, Chuck Berry’s Cadillac El Dorado greets you, but the sheer number of artifacts they have is hard to believe. I was blown away by how much they had to try to tell even a small fraction of the story of the African American cultural experience. That was an absolute hoot walking around and seeing as they trace the different threads of music and popular culture, and explaining how each era responded both to what had come before and the external forces that both attack Black culture and mined it for its own use.

We had barely scratched the surface of these two galleries before we both checked the time and figured out that something like two hours had passed I think. We decided to take the elevator down to the bottom floor where the line to the history section begins. It was quite a line despite the museum being at limited capacity. For those that haven’t been, after getting through the line you descend another three stories down to the very bottom of the museum, and then walk your way up through African American history. It begins by discussing the early aspects of the Atlantic slave trade. One of the most powerful pieces that I saw there was an amulet in the form of miniature shackles. It was from the Lobi people of what is now Ghana, and I was just blown away by what it meant about the deep effect this evil trade had on the people it touched.

The amulet is at the top, with child-sized shackles below it.

We only managed to get through until about 1950 as we proceeded through the history. One of the areas I learned the most about was with slavery on the gulf coast, and about how the history of colonization there and the different communities built by the native people of the region alongside freedom seekers there. That gave me a much better understanding of Black culture in the gulf coast region, though clearly I was only able to pick up the tiniest of details and I need to learn more. What I appreciated about the museum is that they told the personal stories behind the objects and artifacts that had collected, and used those stories to construct their history. They also did not shy away or attempt to sanitize any portion of the history, showing pictures of lynching and violence perpetrated against Black peoples throughout American history. I regret that we didn’t have more time to absorb it, staying at the museum until close. I look forward to the next time I get to visit and I hope every American can do the same.

Cat Café 5

Yes, dear readers, we are already on Cat Café 5. Last Friday, in our ongoing efforts to truly absorb the cultural sights of our new Alexandrian home, we went to the extremely cute Mount Purrnon Cat Café and Wine Bar. As you can tell from both the opening sentence of this paragraph and also of course being a long-time reader, dear reader, this is not my first experience with cat cafés and I am well placed to give you my review of this one.

My review: it was great! My super amazing girlfriend discovered Mount Purrnon by just walking around Alexandria one day and spotting the sign. It was instant love. First of course the name is a presidential pun and that is almost guaranteed to win my super amazing girlfriend’s favor. Second, their logo and (as of this writing) front page picture on their website feature a cat in a tricorn cat, which is exactly the right kind of twee to send her over the edge. And finally, the pièce de résistance, the coup de grâce for our feelings about the place, was the fact that we are very much in the market for a cat to adopt and so we have been thinking about cats a lot.

Cat mugshots

Our most recent cat café experience before this one was Crumbs & Whiskers, and while Crumbs & Whiskers is an excellent cat café that I can personally recommend, the experience here at Mount Purrnon was much different. Crumbs & Whiskers would also like you to come and fall in love with a cat and take it home, but they have aggressively optimized for the perfect instagram experience. Mount Purrnon has been open for about a year, and while they also have an excellent instagram, they haven’t gotten anywhere close to that point yet. They in fact reminded me a lot of Crumbs & Whiskers when they had only been open for about a year, so who knows what the fullness of time will bring.

Mount Purrnon is split into two levels, with the ground floor being the wine bar that is in their name. They also serve beer, cider, food, and dessert. Going to Mount Purrnon was for my super amazing girlfriend and me our big Friday night out, so we came early to get a drink before our appointed time with the cats. That was great! Then we head upstairs to meet the cats. We had the place to ourselves, because for some reason our version of a big Friday night out was not the same as everyone else’s. It was a very chill experience, with our non-feline hosts popping in only to make sure the cat’s food was topped off. So my super amazing girlfriend and I got to just hang out with all the cats and really get a taste for their personality.

One unfortunate thing for our particular visit is that the cats had, right before we ascended the stairs to the cats, been in a cat fight. This put a number of the cats on edge and also meant another number were hiding underneath one of the chairs. This is simply the nature of cats. About half the cats in the place when we visited had recently come from a hoarder situation, and the socialization aspects of cat cafés had yet to take full effect. But this is one of the points of visiting a cat café, to give the cats some practice being around a variety of friendly humans that just want to give them pets!

Nonetheless we had a great time hanging out with all the cats. There were plenty of toys and plenty of cats and plenty of time to see how each of them are. We went home talking about which of the cats were our favorite and the next morning we put in an application to adopt one! By the time you read this we will potentially be happy new cat parents, and then this blog will go from being purely a tour of every single Smithsonian to being an endless stream of cat photos!

Carlyle House

The man himself (a picture of him anyways)

Reading this week:

  • Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

Last weekend, on a gorgeous day, my super amazing girlfriend and I went to go visit the Carlyle House. The Carlyle House is an absolutely lovely little historical house/park run by Northern Virginia parks located here in our new hometown of Alexandria, VA. It is also the former home of John Carlyle, a wealthy early Alexandrian who showed off to everybody by building the first stone house in Alexandria. It used to be on a riverfront property, but now it fronts Lee Street, which I am a little stunned hasn’t been renamed by this point.

The house tour is pretty great and at $5 it’d be a bargain at twice the price. Besides it’s age, it’s claim to fame is being the site of the Congress of Alexandria, when some colonial governors got together to talk about how to fight the French and Indian War. The house itself has been through a lot in the intervening years, though I found it very interesting that the room pictured above, which held the congress, had been reserved as a tourist destination throughout most of its existence, even while the rest of the house was tenements.

Our redcoated mannequin friend above is meant to represent Major General Edward Braddock. Our main man Ed here called the congress when he was sent to prosecute the aforementioned French and Indian War. The congress happened in Carlyle’s House because Ed had, upon arriving in Alexandria, promptly quartered himself in the finest house in town, ie Carlyle’s. The running theme of much of the house tour is that John Carlyle would become (according to the totally unbiased tour guides at Carlyle House) an important and instrumental patriot in the American revolution mostly because Ed Braddock was a massive asshole and terrible houseguest. This is the nitty-gritty, people-centric type of history I do love to see.

Speaking of people, another aspect I liked about the house tour is that I think they approached presenting the history of slavery on the site very well. Slavery was presented as an integral part of the history of the house, instead of an addendum, and unlike some other places they didn’t feel the need to pat themselves on the back for doing the bare minimum. As you can see on the sign pictured above (far from the only one, I promise), the museum gave the names of enslaved persons when possible and treated them as their own people. As I just described in the preceding two paragraphs and unsurprising in a place named “Carlyle House,” they’re still doing a version of Great Man history, but we’re getting to a better place I think.

And, uh, yeah. That’s about what I have to say about the place. They also have some very lovely and I think ahistorical gardens in the back, but they’re nice to walk through and you don’t have to pay the admission fee to do so. My super amazing girlfriend and I are excited to be settling into our new home of Alexandria and are trying to make sure we explore around here instead of only being drawn (as loyal readers of the blog have seen and will see again) the wonderful Smithsonians on offer up in DC. We gotta embrace our new identities as Virginians!