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.