As a student in Dr. Katie G. Cannon’s Code of Ethics in Freedom Narratives class at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond VA, I participated in a field trip to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. When we found out that the demand for the free tickets for April necessitated multiple attempts and finally a three hour wait on the phone in January, you can understand how excited we were to have a chance to go.
Having visited the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England and the Elmina and Cape Coast slave dungeons in Ghana, I hoped this museum would bring the story of enslaved Africans and African Americans together, complete the triangle, and bring closure. I was not disappointed. There was no cognitive dissonance for me, it was cognitive harmony, congruence, and resonance. I was impressed by the building, the presentation, the artifacts, the beauty. The thoughtfulness and intentionality and detail of the research was overwhelming. I remembered, back in the day, when we had few resources to make something memorable for Negro History Week in our all black schools, churches, and organizations. But as if they had been waiting for a place to give their precious items, thousands of donors pulled family artifacts out of trunks and attics and basements and they are here, up close and personal.
I knew I could not see everything in the time allowed, so my plan was to spend as much time as possible on all five floors in the museum. The three underground levels represent Slavery and Freedom 1400-1876, Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom 1877-1968 and A Changing America:1968 and Beyond. The upper two levels are the Community Galleries: Making A Way Out of No Way and the Culture Galleries:Tradition and Innovation.
As I was coming down the escalator from the upper levels to rush back to the bus I felt like I had been in a flower pot. The museum does resemble the shape of a three tiered flower pot if you think about it. We had to spiral our way up the three levels in the basement just like I would imagine shoots from plants have to do before they break ground. Underground were the slave ships, shackles, whips, coffels, bibles, sugar, cotton, and tobacco. Buried deep in the soil were the artifacts describing the rebellions, black codes, Jim Crow, civil rights, resistance and resilience. From the very beginning our ancestors pushed for freedom through legal systems, passive resistance, education, protests, and rebellions. In the bottom were roots struggling with a death dealing environment determined to live and grow.
On the upper levels were the “flowers” produced from the struggle. Upstairs were the blossoms of our beauty, spirituality, art, music, politics, literature, science, fashion design, architecture, technology, entrepreneurship, sports, sculpture, poetry, and community. They were the fruits of our ancestors’ determination to live and be free represented by Willi Smith, Toni Morrison, Tina Turner, Ruby Dee, Gil Scott Heron, Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Black Panthers, Alvin Ailey, Mahalia Jackson, Mae Jamison, Public Enemy, Beyonce, Ella Baker, Patrisse Cullers and so many more. One of our class assignments was to pay attention to what artifacts caught our attention. To my surprise it was George Clinton and the Funkadelics’ Mothership. Having “landed” on the top floor it was in stark contrast to the slave ship underground. To me it represented the creativity and imagination transformed from the subterranean funk in the basement.
I know I have to go back more than once to see it all. However I did see Harriet Tubman’s shawl and Michelle Obama’s dress designed by Tracy Resse and Nat Turner’s bible and the tape recorder Malcom X used to record his speeches. They reminded me that this visit was an excursion into affirmation and validation. It was about belonging, identification, strength, and resilience. I was not just an observer, I was a part of this history.
I did not realize the importance of knowing my history as child and young adult but I do now. I appreciate my parents and teachers’ insistence in keeping our history alive. I will pass its importance on to my children and grandchildren because as the Sankofa bird represents – we can’t know where we are going until we know how we got where we are now.
Here is the link to the museum website. https://nmaahc.si.edu
Lifting as we climb,