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The African American Experience

Planned for decades, the National Museum of African American History and Culture finally opened in September. It raises the issue of who is authorised to tell America's national story.

Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

On September 24th, the long-awaited – and long-disputed – National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opened its doors, with the aim of changing the way citizens understand and experience the United States' past and present. After a fitting spectacle on the day – Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey were in attendance – it felt like something profound happened when the 19th museum in the Smithsonian Institution family welcomed its first visitors. From that point on, out of town families and busloads of children from local school districts could arrive on the National Mall in Washington and find themselves immersed in a long-overdue conversation about what it means to be American.

Typical tourists visiting the Mall might move along its western arc, spending time at memorials honouring Vietnam veterans, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr. In so doing, they would also be traversing fault lines of debates about who in the United States' past gets honoured and how. These same visitors might then move through the National World War II Memorial on toward the Washington Monument. As they stand at the base of that towering obelisk they now face the new museum, and in so doing face debates about what stories the country tells of itself and what cultures are acknowledged as contributing to a national collective sense of being.

Different activists, businesspeople, politicians, and museum professionals tried for decades to establish a national museum dedicated to the African American experience. In 1993 and 1994, a museum was on the cusp of being authorised and funded by the US Senate when a disagreement flared up between Senators Jesse Helms and Carol Moseley-Braun, the former the conservative Republican from North Carolina, the latter the first black woman to serve in the Senate. Because of their disagreement, funding for the new museum was scuttled before you could whistle Dixie.

The Helms-Moseley-Braun dispute speaks to the kinds of issues that the new museum raises. Helms was upset that Moseley-Braun had blocked the renewal of a patent sought by the United Daughters of the Confederacy that prominently featured the Confederate battle flag. Pivoting toward an issue that was dear to Moseley-Braun, Helms blocked the Senate from voting on a bill funding a national museum on the African American experience. In this instance, senators from North Carolina and Illinois reached a stalemate over what should be honoured in the American narrative.

In addition to wanting to support the United Daughters of the Confederacy and romantic idylls of the Confederate South, Helms claimed to be concerned that a museum for blacks would necessarily mean that museums of Latinos or Asians (the National Museum of the American Indian was already authorised) would be next. According to Helms's logic, the American narrative should not be fractured among so many different lines. The problem, of course, is that the American narrative of Helms' fantasia was also a commitment to a single story that excluded the experiences of so many people whose work and creativity had made America great in the first place. Those histories – stories of immigrant laborers, domestic workers, enslaved people – had too rarely, if ever, been told at the Smithsonian. If the nation's most prominent museum complex could overlook these experiences and cultures, what story of the national past and present was it presenting? And, critically, what were visitors consuming?

The NMAAHC is an architectural embodiment of a new narrative that adds voices to the national sense of who Americans are and how they came to be this way. Necessarily, this means that the NMAAHC tells stories about a shared past that are unsettling: slavery, racial violence, civil rights struggles. Some will wonder why Americans need to visit these moments of shame and horror, but I can think of no better way to develop an understanding of how the country came to value freedom, civility, and full citizenship than by bearing witness to remnants of such things as a slave trading vessel, shackles, and Ku Klux Klan robes. 

Ideally, when the visitors encounter these vestiges of a terrible past they will also understand how generations have been resilient, steadfast in their determination to be recognised as full-fledged citizens. If visitors cannot make that interpretive leap themselves, then displays that highlight African American military service to the nation – a Tuskegee Airmen plane overhead, artifacts from black troops who fought in World War I in a display case at eye-level –should make the point more directly.

Tuskegee Airman flight jacket worn by Lt. Col. Woodrow W. Crockett, 1942. Collection of the Smithsonian NMAAHC.

The United States is remarkable, but what makes it so is not a triumphalist narrative of unyielding optimism and accomplishment. Quite the contrary; it is the way the country survives despite its size, despite the astonishing heterogeneity of its population, and despite its short attention span that leads it to lurch from one crisis to another. One would think that a country that is so resilient would understand the importance of telling a more complete story of itself, even when that story tends toward the horrific. The NMAAHC is a test that examines who is authorised to tell the national story and what that story should be. 

This test is even articulated through the spatial organisation of the museum: visitors begin at the lower levels where stories of slavery dominate the exhibition space. By the time they reach the top floors the exhibits' narratives are triumphal as they display artifacts related to the presidency of Barack Obama. This would appear to be the tidy conclusion of an arc that bends toward justice. In those same final moments, however, visitors will also find artifacts from the Black Lives Matter movement, articulations that state-sponsored violence and second-class citizenship still retain a crushing relevance when it comes to describing the contemporary African American experience.

Since September 24th, as tourists have walked along the National Mall and stood at the base of the Washington Monument, under the distant gaze of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., they have been looking down a gentle slope at the latest Smithsonian museum. They have been staring at United States' history, seeing it, I hope, with new clarity and complexity. It is not a perfect Union, but the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture is a declaration that Americans can aspire to embody the ideals upon which their country was built.

Jonathan Holloway is Professor of African American Studies, History, and American Studies at Yale University. @JonSHolloway

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