Truth Unvarnished: An Epic Journey Through Time at the NMAAHC (by your host Cha)
Updated: Mar 19, 2020
Check out my recorded reading of this post on the American Origin stories podcast! Available on Spotify, Apple Podcast, and more!
In my experience, museums of American history fall short of showing the untold history of Black Americans and how we fit into the success of the nation.
Friday morning, I woke up at 9am and headed to the museum around 11. I was a bit slow to start, sending emails and checking social media to see how to best reach the AOS audience. That weekend I was finally visiting the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Of course, I'd heard it was "great!" but I didn't make the trip from NY to DC until I launched the blog and decided it could be a source of inspiration for future stories and podcast episodes. Because I was visiting during "Off-Peak" season, there was no line or ticket required for entry. It felt like it was just me, a sprinkling of other solo or coupled people, and a few groups of student tours led by enthusiastic but reasonably stressed guides. I grabbed a map from the welcome desk in Heritage Hall, the ground level floor, and decided where to begin.
If I seem blasé, it's only because I was using a defense mechanism. I didn't want to get too excited about the museum given my history with others presumably like it. In my experience, museums of American history fall short of showing the untold history of Black Americans and how we fit into the success of the nation. Even state sponsored tributes specifically for Black history have fallen flat, so I leveled my expectations. I anticipated an overview of the major points—slavery, wars, some modern Civil Rights exhibits, maybe even something "radical" like the Black Panthers, but mostly just a tribute to the known, to the palatable. I predicted that I'd find a story in a caption that would lead me down a rabbit hole once I was back in the hotel at my computer. Well, I found that and so much more.
To begin the History Galleries tour, you have to go down to the Concourse and then take an elevator to C3, the lowest level of the museum. There is an operator who takes you down and explains the rules: photography is allowed, except of the Emmett Till memorial, there's only one bathroom and it's right by the elevator exit (so go now or forever hold your pee), and there is only one way out and thats through. You must go through each level of the galleries by ramp, which is over a mile long, to reenter the Concourse. The only way out is up. That wasn't all she told us, though. In a hushed tone she added:
"You are going back in time. The further we travel down, the further back in history you will go."
I looked at the walls behind her and saw that through the glass were numbers—dates on a timeline. We landed at the year 1400. As the elevator doors opened, I saw that this floor was devoted to history from "Slavery & Freedom 1400-1877." And the intention of this museum and its galleries became quite clear, expressed explicitly by American historian John Hope Franklin:
"We've got to tell the unvarnished truth."
A voice boomed out of the speaker to educate us about the rich Africa of this time. The enormous continent and its inhabitants were not thought of in the monolithic way that modern society views them now, but instead were known to be a vibrant, diverse, mixture of cultures and communities.
Queen Anna Nzinga, circa 1581-1663.
Reading about figures like Queen Nzinga, I was captivated. She was a warrior queen of Angola known for her diplomacy and vision as a military leader. She resisted the Portuguese and their slave raids for 30 years. She fought against European invasion and influence. Generally, she was a badass. I read every placard, surveyed every photograph, crouched when necessary. I stopped at every wall bearing an engraved quote.
Never had I heard of Rebecca Protten (pictured below with husband and babe). She was born of African and European descent and likely kidnapped into slavery. When she was freed at the age of 12, she had been taught Christianity and went on to become a missionary, spreading the gospel across three continents. She eventually settled in Ghana where she and her husband ran a school for mixed-race children, as described below.
Stories like Esteban de Dorantes' engulfed me (pictured below; captioned above). He is believed to be the first African to come to the modern United States. Not in Jamestown (as I‘d thought) but much earlier as a skilled linguist. He guided the Spanish and assisted in their interactions with Native people during the Coronado Expedition. Esteban—the African Explorer.
And there was Benjamin Banneker who fills me with pride unmatched. "A free black man who owned a farm near Baltimore, Benjamin Banneker was largely self-educated in astronomy and mathematics." What struck me most was that I did not know his name, though he had a great many achievements. For instance, he helped survey the land for the national capital, and had correspondence with President Thomas Jefferson about the plight of black people, advocating in his content and demonstrating with his prose that we are equal in humanity and intellect.
I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th. instant and for the Almanac it contained. No body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America..."
- Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Banneker, August 30, 1791.
It was this floor that most impacted me, because it is the time period that I have learned the least about, particularly with regard to black lives and their contributions. I could never do justice to the depth of humanity—and subsequent horror—captured on this floor. However, it should go without saying that a trip through this gallery would have an impact on anyone willing to pay attention.
Slaves ships packed with human cargo (see above for the mechanics of such horrors). Quotes were displayed from those who lived through it with one man describing the sight of the docks as so full of blood that it reminded him of a slaughterhouse.
Yet, there is no denying African people of this period (or any) were human. Talents like Phillis Wheatley were on display to showcase the breadth of the population, even in subjugation.
The next level of the galleries, "Defending Freedom: The Era of Segregation 1876-1968" was much more familiar to me, but still ripe with fresh details and perspective. Unlike any other museum or mainstream presentation of history, the gallery highlighted how swiftly emancipation turned into another form of bondage. Abraham Lincoln's murder and the subsequent actions of his replacement, Andrew Johnson, were highlighted to show the clear oppression that followed in a nation still deeply invested in white supremacy. The American paradox at work again: liberty granted, liberty stolen.
Jim Crow Laws
The Ku Klux Klan
Race (Terror) Riots
Stories like Emmett Till's sucked the air from the gallery. Walking through his memorial where his family has graciously donated his casket and reasonably requested no pictures be taken, my eyes stung. I viewed a familiar story with a fresh lens. Amidst her grief, his mother had the strength to share his story with the world so that people would be motivated into action. She held an open casket funeral and went on a speaking tour in the hopes that no one would ever forget her son and the cruelty of racism. Our line of viewing emulated the hordes of strangers who attended Emmett Till's funeral. They witnessed the outcome of our nation’s premature end of Reconstruction and implementation of Jim Crow and white terrorism, embodied in a young boy's casket.
On a video in the memorial, his mother recounted the first time she saw his body. She said she stared at his feet and moved up, trying to build courage as she worked to his head and face. Mutilated is the word that races to mind when hearing the gruesome details. He had been bludgeoned and abused so much so that one eye hung from the socket. He was dumped and discarded by his killers thinking he'd simply disappear like so many before him. He was 14 years old. He was lynched. His mother had to lay him to rest in this unthinkable state. And it ignited a movement.
"Two months ago I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to the Negros in the South I said, 'That's their business, not mine,' Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all."
- Mamie Till
Beautiful Emmett Till, described as charismatic, charming, and funny.
The final floor, “The Changing America: 1968 and Beyond” showcases the part of Black American History that I was most familiar with. The modern Civil Rights Movement, Black Panthers, 90s protests, and more. Despite regularly learning about and even knowing this history, I felt chills. Something had sparked inside of me, and I was at once cognizant of the excellence existing in this compulsory gallery sequencing—from bottom to top.
On this floor and the one below, there is a wall that invites guests of the museum to Share Your Story. In a private booth (“close door for better sound quality”) you can sit and after a brief instructional video, record an answer to a handful of prompts. Mine was “What inspires your social activism.”
And there you have it. For me, it all boils down to a straightforward, inclusive history. Unvarnished, history has the power to ignite movements, to bring glory to a people. It has the power to educate and to unite. And we are all our history. No one is a product void of it. James Baldwin said it best:
“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”
I did not think I would cry visiting the museum. Maybe that was naïve. Maybe I had low expectations. Maybe it was a mixture of my own miseducation and denial. I haven’t quite pinned it down. But cry I did, and almost from the moment I exited the elevator and stood listening to the opening message of the first floor.
Thank you NMAAHC for bringing our untold history to life. For sharing a story that requires the guests to literally and figuratively rise through the pain and (often hidden) beauty of our past. For exposing the depth of human capacity for evil. But also, for shining light on human tenacity and our ability to rise up.
Bringing the gifts that our ancestors gave
I am the dream & the hope of a slave
we rise, we rise, we rise.
Of course, one short essay cannot do justice to the wonders of this museum. And yes, there are other exhibits beyond the History Galleries—Cultural, Community, & Exploratory.
For instance, I am pictured here in front of the Urban League display. Fun fact: I spent my first summer in NYC working at the National Urban League. It is just one small bite of what is not included in this article.
In fact, I spent two full days going through each floor of the museum and still wasn't able to see it all. There are tributes to the varied and complex cultural contributions of black people from athletics, to dance, to writing, and culinary arts. It is EPIC, indeed.
If you want to learn more about the NMAAHC, including the wonderful story behind the architectural design, check out the website: https://nmaahc.si.edu/. And plan a visit. You'll be glad you did.
Note: Many pictures included in this piece were taken by iphone at the museum; others were provided by the NMAAHC (click images to be redirected); all else should have a citation embedded in the text describing the image.