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For MLK Day: Recap of My Visit to the National Museum of African American History & Culture

Visitors who had scored timed entry passes for a Martin Luther King Day pilgrimage to the deeply engrossing, profoundly moving National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in DC were out of luck: Its doors remained locked today, due to the federal government shutdown. (Pass holders will eventually be sent instructions on how to reschedule.)

Entrance to NMAAHC
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum, Feb. 11, 2018

I tweeted about (but never got around to posting on) the NMAAHC while I was in Washington last February for an event at another Smithsonian Museum that’s now been shuttered by the federal shutdown—the National Portrait Gallery’s unveiling of portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama. They predictably figured prominently in the upbeat final galleries of the NMAAHC.

That’s Michelle’s frock, on the right in my photo:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I loved that I happened to catch two young men—one white, one black (the latter wearing a coat that matched the dress)—standing almost shoulder-to-shoulder, equally transfixed by this display.

There’s much else to celebrate at the NMAAHC, notably in the sections about art and music. But what most stuck with me was the powerful elucidation of challenges endured and sometimes overcome—the key word in the stirring anthem of the Civil Rights movement.

In my New York public school days, our standard textbook narratives glossed over the disturbing details about the shameful aspects of our country’s early history. We were taught to be proud of our nascent nation as a beacon of religious and political freedom—“sweet land of liberty,” as we were all taught to sing.

The NMAAHC’s early galleries rewrite that saccharine narrative, as the bitterness of slavery is strongly communicated through telling juxtapositions of objects from the Smithsonian’s holdings and other collections.

The vitality of African life and culture is demonstrated by the object at the bottom of the photo below, cast from a 12th-century sculpture excavated at Ife in Nigeria. It “reveals the artistry and metalworking expertise of the Yoruba people,” as described in its label. Installed as if it were about to strike that dignified head is a 19th-century whip, “in the style of a cat ‘o nine tails used aboard slave ships.” (Note the credit line’s famous donor, who is a member of NMAAHC’s Museum Council.)

Bottom: Modern cast of Ife Head of the Yoruba, loaned by UC Berkeley’s Museum of Anthropology
Top: Whip, gift of Oprah Winfrey
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The “ornate silver pieces [that] were used to serve sugar cultivated by enslaved Africans in the killing fields of the Americas” (an analogy to recent Cambodian history?) are represented by luxury objects from the period, including this:

Teapot from Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt Design Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

A label about “The Human Cost” expands on the reference to “the killing fields”: “The average lifespan of enslaved Africans” after beginning work at a sugar plantation “was seven years.”

An iconic American singled out for particularly harsh treatment is Thomas Jefferson, over whom looms a celebrated passage from his Declaration of Independence.

His statue is below, on the left:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s what the museum’s label has to say about the hypocrisy of our third President:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

To hammer the point home, the Jefferson section includes these instruments of bondage:

Shackles, ca. 1850s
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The museum doesn’t mince words in the text connected to these shackles:

Jefferson enslaved his own children. [He] owned their mother, Sally Hemmings, and they inherited her slave status.

The most deeply disturbing moment in the museum’s recounting of the dark side of African American history is the horrific image of the battered face of Emmett Till, published in a 1955 issue of Jet magazine. I had heard about this photo (most recently here), but I’d never before seen it. Easy to miss, it’s inconspicuously posted on a wall outside the photos-prohibited room where the 14-year-old boy’s casket is displayed.

The expression “beaten to a pulp” doesn’t begin to describe its disfigurement. (Upon consideration, I’ve decided not to share that nightmarish photo here.)

In the room with the casket, I broke down while watching the video of Emmett’s mother painfully describing her first encounter with the mangled body and swollen face of her murdered son.

The deeply somber faces of visitors in the Till section and in the section on the early days of slavery in America brought to mind the grimness I had seen and felt in certain galleries of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, just across the National Mall from the NMAAHC.

Visitors at NMAAHC
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The Holocaust Memorial Museum has so far managed to stay open, despite the general shutdown, using non-federal funds. Let’s hope that soon its sister museums on the mall will once again be accessible to the public they are meant to serve.

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