The Newest Smithsonian — With a Move-In-Day Energy

Taking in the National Museum of African American History and Culture — which opens officially and grandly Sept. 24 following a dedication ceremony with President Barack Obama — seems a lot like a difficult, arduous, bottom-to-top, darkness-to-light journey.

In a way, that’s also a metaphor for the journey of African Americans from slavery to freedom, a topic that is also the mainstay, the heart and the historic soul of this museum, which had its beginnings in 2003, the year it basically started from scratch.

It’s also a fair description of what the experience felt like when the museum was opened up to the press this week. A number of areas in the museum still looked like a work in progress, with hard-hatted workmen doing their work of carrying, stapling, structuring, moving, drilling and all the whatnots of work-a-day work, sound and movement. There were missing pieces, titles, wall text, and empty spaces to be filled, and that journey upward was made up of navigating around ropes, cables, people, trying to find your way to higher ground, to stay in step with the chronology.

If it was a bit of a helter-skelter atmosphere, it was also a good way to take in the monumental amount of content, physical and mental, that this museum provides, under the shade of light provided by the beautiful, latticed design, which presents the museum as a kind of imposing box to the outside world.

The history section — arguably the most challenging and difficult section in the museum — for any number of reasons divides itself into three parts. The first deals with “Slavery and Freedom” at the very bottom floor, treating the scope of slavery in the world, its arrival in America and how it became intertwined organically with issues of a country that announced its legitimacy based in freedom, culminating in the gigantic struggle of the Civil War.

It moves on to “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation, 1876-1968.” To many, this may be the most moving, most powerful section of the museum, as it chronicles vividly, honestly and graphically the time after Reconstruction, during which freed slaves briefly touched political power, only to see it smashed into the bits and pieces of segregation and the Jim Crow Era, which lasted until the hard-won battles of the Civil Rights Era.

“A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond” takes us from the death of Martin Luther King to the era of the twice-elected President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, when African Americans who had long hoped for and despaired of such a possibility saw it come to fruition.

As you go up toward the top, you find the light of culture, from “Musical Crossroads” to “Cultural Expressions,” a “Visual Arts Gallery” and “Taking the Stage,” which explores achievements in film, television and theater, as well as literature.

That is a bare-bones description, not helped by what seemed like a move-in-day energy in the building. The museum, its unique construction and building design and everything in it is impossible to take in and digest, embrace, in its totality, or by way of cherry-picking the contents: here a placard, here a phrase, here a song and a shocking, blown-up photograph of a lynching amid a family gathering, here a Bearden, here a video of Willie Mays making an over-his-back catch for the New York Giants, here a fragment of a slave ship, here the overpowering guard tower of a Louisiana prison, here a replica of a North Carolina lunch counter, where they appear to be serving screens and videos.

It’s hard to tell from the company — we are, most of us, journalists, writers, deep thinkers with opinions, cameramen, note-takers, cable-holders and television reporters, bloggers, interviewers and scribblers from newspapers, television stations, magazines, websites and journals of all sorts. But we are also, no matter all that, black and white, if not in our thinking, then in our skin color. We, too, like the thousands of visitors that will follow us, have some thoughts and ideas and family trees and genealogy, and all that we see will affect us in a special, individual, if not entirely professional way. It makes a difference, a difference which this museum by appearance and execution seems to want to bridge through shared experience.

Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the museum, said as much. “This joyous day was born out of a century of fitful and frustrated efforts to commemorate African American history in the nation’s capitol,” he said. “At last, it is open for every American and the world to better understand the African American journey and how it shaped America. … If we’ve done our job right, I trust the museum will be a place for all Americans to ponder, reflect, learn, rejoice, collaborate and ultimately draw sustenance and inspiration from the lessons of history to make America better.”

The contents of this museum are the missing pieces of an American history not yet made whole. We are, today, none of us, masters or slaves, but we are to some degree the descendants of people who lived in a world occupied in part by masters and slaves.

This place takes us on a journey to where we are now by way of the existence of what was once called that “peculiar institution,” to its end and replacement by something vital that managed to stay alive for another hundred years. This experience, this history and how it impacted Americans black and white is who and what we are as a nation today. We would be something different if none of that happened, or was a part of the nation’s thinking, feeling, bleeding heart and soul from beginning to end.

Going through this place from bottom to top and down again may or may not make us whole, but it will enrich us, make us bigger and larger, knowing that empathy has its limits in individual identity, but is also expansive in its possibility. You might note that there is a title called “The Paradox of Liberty” in front of a statue of Thomas Jefferson, in front of the words of the Declaration of Independence.

The place is full of paradoxes and ironies, and things that pop your eyes. On this day, we happened to see the Rev. Jesse Jackson ramble on through, surely coming to the part of the history where he ran for president, as did Shirley Chisholm, who, in pictures, as noted by two older women, “looks so young, so pretty.”

We know a lot of stuff going in, and then, after a tiring long time, we know how little we know. That’s sort of like a going-out-the-door gift for everyone. That, and Chuck Berry’s bright red Eldorado Cadillac, next to which, for a moment, I shut my eyes and listened to music, gospel and blues, Paul Robeson rappers and hip hop all sounding at once.

Coming out, you think: what would we be like, without all this?


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