The Smithsonian’s Black-History Museum Will Always Be a Failure and a Success
The National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C., cuts a striking figure on the National Mall: the building juts up from the ground in sharp angular tiers, and its exterior, blanketed with bronze-colored aluminum latticework, appears from a distance as a textured brown—making a sombre, almost brooding contrast to the bright white buildings around it. The structure, designed by the architects David Adjaye, Philip Freelon, and J. Max Bond, Jr., was inspired by Yoruban crowns from West Africa, with the openings in the lattice meant to invite in the sunlight. “The openness to light is symbolic for a museum that seeks to stimulate open dialogue about race and help promote reconciliation and healing,” says the museum’s Web site. The museum faced an impossible task when it opened, in 2016: representing blackness in America—a task that has become more complex in the past few years, as the White House has changed from a symbol of progress to one of regression.
This September marked the three-year anniversary of the N.M.A.A.H.C., which is the culmination of several decades of advocacy for a museum dedicated to black life and achievement in America. On the day of its anniversary, the museum was swarmed with kids on field trips. Adults helicoptered overhead, trying to direct and focus the attention of their charges. They ventured through the main attraction, the History Galleries, which comprise a serpentine path through a trio of exhibits that trace black American history from its roots, in Africa and the Caribbean, through slavery, several wars, and the civil-rights movement, culminating with a large photo of Barack Obama’s inauguration, as if to say we’ve arrived at the ultimate sign of progress. The design of the exhibits, interconnected and accessible only by elevator, forces you through the chronology. The message: you can’t just skip around through such a history.
But a walk-through reveals some curious quirks in the telling of this account. A display about slavery in various areas of America oddly puts a year on the first conception of race: “Africans were ultimately defined as ‘enslaved for life,’ and the concept of whiteness began to develop.” Some descriptions are overly tidy in their language, such as this cleaned-up description of rape: “Intimate relationships in the Chesapeake crossed color lines. Some were consensual, others were not. Enslaved women were subjected to the sexual demands of white slave owners.” And, in other places, the passive voice shrinks away from any form of indictment (“[African-Americans] received no recognition or payment for what they created”), and racism is described like a naturally occurring phenomenon (“This unease over slavery created dangerous new forms of racism”). Accounts of colonialism, prejudice, and abuse sound watered down and, in some cases, untethered from their perpetrators, so that the state of black America almost feels like an inevitability.
The central question that the museum presents is the degree to which a national memorial to the history and culture of a marginalized people, set in that nation’s capital and funded and supported by that nation’s federal government, can hold the nation accountable to not just its past but its present situation. One room in the History Galleries opens to a vision of lines from the Declaration of Independence. Front and center is a statue of Thomas Jefferson; beneath him, a sign says “The Paradox of Liberty,” alongside a caption: “The paradox of the American Revolution—the fight for liberty in an era of widespread slavery—is embedded in the foundations of the United States. . . . This paradox was embedded in national institutions that are still vital today.” Some of Jefferson’s belongings, like his glasses and pen holder from Monticello, stand alongside a display of shackles, with a note saying that Jefferson enslaved his own children with Sally Hemings. In another section, the museum nods toward D.C.’s specific history with slavery: “Washington, D.C., has long reflected the paradox of America’s ideals of freedom and democracy as related to African Americans. In the nation’s capital, a slave market thrived for decades. Black laborers, enslaved and free, helped build the White House and the Capitol building.”
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In some cases, such language feels like enough. Direct. Educational. Aware of our nation’s hypocrisy. One doesn’t go to museums for invective or censure—at least not the Smithsonians in our capital. But the N.M.A.A.H.C., with its essential role as a monument to black struggle and achievement in America, aims to faithfully represent blackness in America, though in a manner that does not present the full force of its rage and the full range of its experience. How black, exactly, can the museum be? And whom is this history for? Much of the African-American history in the museum is presented with the assumption that those bearing witness to it are outside of that experience. There’s the risk of othering black experiences, even exoticizing them. “Barbershops have long held an important role in African American communities, not only as a source of cultural expression but also as spaces for sharing information about current events,” a caption in a Hip Hop Photography exhibit says, with the slight tone of a nature documentary. In another place, “Community spaces such as this beauty salon are common settings for AAVE [African-American Vernacular English].” One display, called “Movement: Gesture and Social Dance,” describes black movement as if it’s charting the behaviors of a zoo animal: “Many African Americans stand, walk, dance, and communicate in gestures that set them apart. Some of these movements express the marks of blackness—liberation, creativity, improvisation, and self-determination—from the time of slavery to now. African American gestures can be quiet and illusive, or vibrant and confident.” The examples include various “gestures”: “gestures of solidarity,” “gestures of respect,” “gestures of play,” and more. A photo of crips throwing up their gang sign sits above a photo and explanation of dapping and another of Michelle and Barack Obama fist-bumping.
The display is one of many on the fourth floor of the museum, in the Culture Galleries, a vibrant collection of exhibits on African-American culture, with memorabilia and descriptions of black musicians, actors, comedians, and more. There are chronicles of black dances and fashion, with door-knocker earrings featured alongside a Fubu jean jacket and pairs of Adidas and Air Jordans, seemingly plucked right out of the eighties and nineties, recent enough in time that they, too, feel like anthropological tokens of contemporary blackness, set out for display for a primarily white gaze. Even the museum’s restaurant, the Sweet Home Café, then takes on the tint of an interactive tourist exhibit: try cornbread, fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese for a taste of blackness. Chew over this bit of blackness, and let it bring you closer.
On September 24, 2016, celebrities and politicians celebrated the N.M.A.A.H.C. in a grand-opening ceremony. Obama, in his dedication speech, spoke of the museum with his signature blend of hopefulness and awareness of the occasion’s more complex politics. “This is the place to understand how protest and love of country don’t merely coexist but inform each other, how men can proudly win the gold for their country but still insist on raising a black-gloved fist, how we can wear an ‘I can’t breathe’ T-shirt and still grieve for fallen police officers,” he said. But “a museum alone will not alleviate poverty in every inner city,” or “eliminate gun violence,” or “insure that justice is always color-blind,” he continued. Jim Crow isn’t “ancient history”; “it was just yesterday.” “We shouldn’t despair that it’s not all solved,” he said. “And knowing the largest stories should instead remind us just how remarkable the changes that have taken place truly are—just in my lifetime. And thereby inspire us to further progress.”
Much has changed in the three years since the museum’s opening. When Obama delivered his speech, we were just a few short weeks away from the 2016 Presidential election. Donald Trump—who in the seventies violated the Fair Housing Act to avoid renting to black tenants, who ran an ad demanding the death penalty for the wrongly accused Central Park Five (and still maintained that they were guilty in 2016), who tweeted just this summer that several black and brown representatives of Congress should “go back” to their countries, and who has committed a string of other racist offenses—was elected President.
In the past few years, the museum has responded to Black Lives Matter by curating items from and documenting the movement, bridging its presentation of African-American history with a realistic look at contemporary black life in America. And there are brief moments in its current exhibits when it makes the same connections. A display about the history of Angola, the plantation turned prison, reads “In a country with the world’s highest incarceration rate, where African Americans are imprisoned at six times the rate of white Americans, Angola also provides a crucial contemporary lens through which all Americans can focus on race, equality, and the criminal justice system.” In an exhibit about African-Americans in sports, a display reads “Although football was the first of the major team sports to re-integrate, it has lagged far behind others in promoting African Americans into coaching and management positions.” But the extent to which the museum touches the politics of the present is, understandably, limited.
Harriet Tubman’s lace shawl and hymnal are featured, but they may also bring to mind Trump’s opposition to replacing the notoriously racist Andrew Jackson with Tubman as the face on the twenty-dollar bill. Minstrel dolls and puppets, with information about damaging black stereotypes and blackface, are featured, but they may also bring to mind the enduring popularity of blackface and brownface even today. Though the N.M.A.A.H.C. aims to highlight African-American history, daily the repercussions of that history make themselves felt in new ways to black Americans. Those past injustices and abuses are ingrained in the institutions that shape our lives and so continue to color the entirety of our experience.
The museum’s proximity to the White House, home to a black President when it opened but now to a President who has sympathized with white supremacists, somewhat dwarfs its stature. In his memoir, released last month, also on the third anniversary of the N.M.A.A.H.C.’s opening, the founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, writes of the disappointing experience he had when Trump visited the museum and attacks the Administration for its “combative relationship with many in the African American community.” But he also writes that many have found the museum to be a balm since the election. “Many visitors have told me that since the election in 2016, the museum has gained even greater significance,” Bunch writes. “To some, visiting the museum allows them to find the solace, inspiration and hope that the current poisonous political partisanship and racial antipathy will one day be overcome.”
The walls of the N.M.A.A.H.C. are covered with quotes from the greats: Martin Luther King, Jr., Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and more. Tokens of wisdom from figures of peaceful resistance and from men and women of arts and letters exist alongside the footprints of more firebrand revolutionaries—pictures of Black Panthers and Stokely Carmichael, video of Malcolm X, a poem by Amiri Baraka—in a space that cannot fully represent, or atone for, the continued injustices and prejudices of the country. But it’s an act of folly to expect reparations, in any sense, from a museum. As Obama said in his dedication speech three years ago, it’s neither the museum’s role nor responsibility to account for America, nor its intention to provide itself as a vessel for the comprehensive body of the black experience in America. Neither can the museum provide a view of blackness, for blackness, without accounting for those who exist outside of it.
The result is an institution that exists in a liminal space, attempting to be both specific to but greater than a singular racial experience, both historical and savvy to the present moment. For years, many fought for such an institution, the beauty and relevance of which is undeniable, where I witnessed, among the clamor of schoolchildren, a woman with skinny dreadlocks quietly weeping in front of an exhibition of a slave cabin—unceremoniously blotting her nose and eyes as she continued on through the space. In some sense, the museum, by design, by the limits of its perspective, will always be a failure. In another, in the spaces where the black visitors lingered, looking at their ancestry, and where white visitors passed respectfully, silently, noting their own position in the history—a shared history that implicates all of us in this America—the museum was and will continue to be a success. This duplicity is, as the museum called it, part of the American paradox: a museum that represents both stagnancy and change, advancement and retrogression, black America and the rest.
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