Editor’s note: From opening day in September, the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture has had record attendance. Admission is booked until April, but Community Word and correspondent Sherry Cannon were able to secure a press pass through John Franklin, senior manager in the office of deputy director at the museum. Cannon has written this first-person account of her six-hour tour through all levels of the museum and through all levels of our nation’s gut-wrenching history. The goal of this museum is to strengthen our country by deepening our understanding of racism, acknowledging the shame of past racism and recognizing the inspiring role of African-American culture in shaping our nation.
My niece Bobbi Mallory and I spent a day in late October at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. We started with the period from 1501 to 1866 when 12 million enslaved people were shipped to The Americas.
My experience went from one of anger to amazement.
What a day, so much to digest! As I began to reflect on my personal experience, my first thought is, NO way could I have survived slavery. I wondered if I would I have had the courage to jump overboard or refused to eat. Could I have even been physically strong enough to survive the Middle Passage?
Beyond the physical challenges, could I have withstood the anguish of having my baby torn from my arms and sold like chattel? Could I have stood under the whip of oppression and degradation and humiliation? Could I have kept my humanity, hope and faith? Would I have given up and not fought for freedom? Would I have had the courage to walk away from the known and ventured into the unknown?
I was humbled and felt a sense of pride knowing I stand on the shoulders of a people who never gave up, never quit; beaten, raped, dehumanized and many murdered, who didn’t allow hate to take residence in their hearts. They made countless contributions to this country, and in my lifetime, we have the first man of color elected president of the nation . . . a nation that once considered us only three-fifths of a person.
On Oct. 28, Bobbi and I entered the museum. It was like stepping into a time capsule and being hurled into the dark past.
The history galleries have three levels of narrow winding spaces that reminded me of the caves in my hometown of Hannibal, Mo. We started at level C3 that covered the period of 1400-1877, the darkest time in American history. This level is called “Slavery and Freedom.”
At C3 you learn about the largest forced migration of a people of anytime in history. North America had 400,000 enslaved people with the largest concentration coming from West Africa. During that time, the driver of the slave trade was sugar. The life expectancy of an enslaved person on a sugar plantation was seven years.
As we made our way through C3 we heard oral first-hand accounts of this era. Olaudah Equiano narrated the horror of The Middle Passage, the journey from Western Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas. He tells of how one in 10 captured African people rebelled against the idea of slavery and chose death by jumping into the ocean and drowning or by starvation.
Despite the forced migration to the Americas, people brought their cultures, food, languages and faith system. They influenced local customs with their African traditions.
The hypocrisy on display during this time was of a nation fighting for its own freedom from Great Britain while actively enslaving the African people. When the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, free and enslaved people from Africa petitioned the courts for freedom, equality and justice.
African men fought on both sides of the war, as loyalist for England and as patriots for the colonies. At the end of the war, both sides reneged on their promise of freedom to the enslaved people.
From 1791-1804, enslaved Africans in Haiti led by Toussaint Louverture revolted. This Haitian Revolution shook the institution of slavery throughout the world. The United States followed Great Britain in abolishing international slave trade about 1808, which led to the period of domestic slave trade. By this time Cotton was King. This monarch economically depended upon slavery. Slavery created wealth, built a nation and caused unspeakable damage to a group of people.
Bobbi and I continued to travel through the eras of the Civil War, Reconstruction and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan. As we made our way through this period, we were shoulder to shoulder with other people, a design decision to physically simulate the historic period. Because of the narrow passage, you can’t help but bump into the person next to you. Several of the people going on this journey with us were in wheelchairs. Throughout this section there are ramps, but no elevator access. Even with the congestion and constant bumps, everyone was exceptionally polite and overwhelmed by the revelations. You hear the constant refrain of excuse me and I beg your pardon. No one is in a hurry or inclined to be offended by these slight bumps.
However, as we continue to travel through this level my niece quietly said to me, “I’m trying very hard not to hold on to anger.” I could only nod because I was experiencing my own struggle with anger and hurt.
We finally got through slavery and entered level C2. This level is referred to as “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom and the Era of Segregation.” Timeframe is 1876-1968. We listen to oral histories of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. Because Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation only freed enslaved African Americans in rebel states, the 14th Amendment was needed to declare all persons born or naturalized were citizens, including African-Americans. The 15th Amendment gave everyone regardless of race, color or previous servitude the right to vote.
As we go through this era, we read and heard about a time that is almost never talked about in America’s past . . . Reconstruction. The Reconstruction Era was the period after the Civil War from 1865-1876. This time was supposed to reorganize southern states and provide them the means to be readmitted into the union. At one point during Reconstruction, 1,500 African-Americans were elected to public office.
Southern whites did not embrace Reconstruction, which led to the birth of the KKK.
The Supreme Court chipped away at equal rights, and by 1876 Democrats had spread throughout the south and put an end to the Reconstruction Era. This led to the era of Segregation. As we traveled through this era, you learn about the formation of all black towns such as Nicodemus, Kan., a place settled by 350 freed slaves from Kentucky.
From 1910-1970 we witnessed the Great Migration where thousands of African Americans put down their plows and moved to cities like Detroit and Chicago looking for a better way of life.
Bobbi and I finally made our way to level C1, which is billed as “A Changing America.” Timeframe is 1968 and forward. It is at this point that I could finally exhale. This was the time of my coming of age, a time of familiarity and a time I was comfortable with. At this point, everyone’s mood shifted from an almost reverential solemnity to a much lighter mood.
I began to engage with other museum guests, asking them to share their feelings about what they’d experienced. A 40-something lady from New Jersey who came with a church group said she just wanted to cry.
Two male history teachers from Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., brought 200 students, and both teachers called the museum visit overwhelming but necessary. They said books teaching U.S. history and government leave out the African-American experience. One of the teachers said he no longer uses a book to teach his course.
A 50-something guy from South Carolina said he felt humbled. An educator from South-East D.C. Charter School said the 100 elementary school students with her were confused by slavery. She would be spending a significant amount of time in the coming days explaining slavery and its effects.
A guy from Toronto, Canada, said the museum experience was quite moving and on target historically.
My final conversation was with two 20-something students from Frederick Community College of Frederick, Md. Kori and Gabriel expressed a sense of pride and humility. They also saw a parallel with the former times and today’s political climate.
At this point, Bobbi and I had been at the museum for 3 1/2 hours. We decided to take a break and eat lunch. Our Middle-Eastern Uber driver had promised that the Sweet Home Cafe in the museum served the best soul food in D.C.
After lunch we moved on to level 2, titled “Explore More.” This level houses the research library and archives, media art, an interactive gallery, classrooms and other areas where you can actively engage. This is the area I believe school children would be most excited about. It’s like a big space of smart boards and electronics.
We moved on to the “Community Galleries” at level 3. This section shares how the church, black schools and fraternal organizations played a huge part paving the way and establishing Black culture in America. We learned about the enormous contribution men and women of color played in every war ever fought by America. There is a section on the contribution of African Americans in sports from Jesse Owen to Serena and Venus Williams.
We are nearing our sixth hour at the museum and there is one final level still to be seen. Both of us had run out of steam, but we were determined to get to the final floor. Level 4 is called “Culture Galleries,” and we are glad we made it to that level.
The floor has life-size statues of every musician you could think of from Cab Calloway to Michael Jackson. We listened to the Blues, Jazz, Rap, R&B and Gospel. Some of the artists’ original items were on display, i.e. Chuck Berry’s Red Eldorado and Bootsy Collin’s famous guitar and space ship.
On our way out, we discovered the museum’s gift shop and information desk on level one that we had bypassed because of our preferential treatment. Too tired to venture in, we made our way out to catch an Uber back to our hotel.
To sum up my museum experience, I leave you with the words of Maya Angelou:
“Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise, I rise, I rise.”
For ticket information for the museum, go to: https://nmaahc.si.edu/visit/passes