I thought I was ready for the Smithsonian’s newly opened The National Museum of African American History and Culture. Afterall, I’d seen the original “Roots,” “Twelve Years A Slave” and “Django.” I’ve immersed myself in Black history from visiting arts museum, Civil Rights Museums and reading countless books.
I know my Black history.
Still, the Museum of African-American and Culture history shook me. Mind you, I’ve only been to the history gallery. It’s the main one that tells our story from the Middle Passage to President Obama. That’s kind of sobering to think about isn’t it? Our people were brought to this country as slaves only to have one of our own become President of the United States. But, I’ll get back to that point.
So, what was it about the museum that touched me. It was definitely the bottom levels of the history galleries. The bottom floors tell the history of slavery from what it was like to be aboard a slave ship to what it was like to live as a slave. Seeing real artifacts, listening to the audio story and reading the text on the walls (there’s lots to read), made it seem more real. I could linger in the I tuned out everyone else, and just absorbed the information.
The museum features the Carolinas prominently from the rice plantations in Charleston to segregation in Wilmington. There is a slave cabin from Edisto Island. I was also fascinated by the section on black towns that sprung up during segregation.
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The entire museum was sobering, but seeing Emmet Till’s coffin took my breath away. It’s set up as if you’re entering a real church. Gospel music plays over the speakers, but it’s eerily quiet in the exhibit area. The coffin is refurbished and looks pristine. I’ve seen images of Till’s disfigured and bloated body zillions of times in documentaries and books. Yet, to imagine that his mother had to see her 14-year-old baby like that was almost too much.
The history galleries are almost too much. The museum doesn’t just tell our story. It makes you feel our story from the ground floor. But, it’s what I needed right now. As I looked at the bails of cotton and read, re-read how my ancestors spilled their blood to build America, I became angry and determined. African-Americans have overcome so much, have endured the wrath and aftermath of racism and its enduring legacy. When I hear people say they want to leave America if Donald Trump is president, the police continue to kill black people, I shake my head in frustration. I’m not going anywhere. We built this country, and I will be part of the movement that ensures that lifts up my community to help America be stronger.