From the moment I first learned about its development, the National Museum of African American History and Culture held a special place in my heart. After the last few years of construction, it finally opened this fall.
A major attribute of people of African descent (and in this case African Americans specifically) is our standing glory and liveliness. Whenever there is an upcoming Black cultural experience, I always hope for a layered approach. One that embraces the complexity of our existence, which is often laced with joy and creativity in spite of attacks or marginalization. Walking in the National Museum of African American History and Culture is like walking into a bubble of Black self-love and never wanting to come out. It’s where we can come face-to-face with our truths and stand in awe of everything we have been through, everything we have accomplished and everything the future holds for us.
There was a deep ache in the room that housed pieces of slave ships and shackles. The voice narration lingered throughout the air, speaking of slave traders raping girls not older than 10 years old. It spoke of people throwing themselves off of ships, starving themselves in hopes that with death, they will return home to Africa.
There was a rumble in the room that housed Emmett Till’s casket, while a video of his mother played on rotation. She spoke of her son, how playful he was, how much joy was inside of him. And she spoke of how he had been butchered. She recounted how murderers tried to chop off his neck, how his right eye dangled from the socket down to his cheek. She spoke of how she wanted the world to see what had been done to her son. “Let the people see what I’ve seen.”
This is the pain, the grief that in the era of Black Lives Matter, we instinctively relive as a collective. This is not because we want to but because in many instances death associated with anti-Blackness continues to be a cruel reality.
And yet, we are still vibrant. The walls are lined with quotes from Black artists, scholars, and activists reminding us of our humanity while rejoicing in our colorful splendor. Many things were stolen from us, still many parts of us can never be stolen. I never wanted my visit to this historic museum to be about pain. Yet, the pain that I had initially set out to not feel became the catalyst for gratefulness and pride. I became more and more enamored with each step.
The greatest experience during my visit was seeing and hearing the reactions of youth.
One little boy exclaimed, “Gosh, they were strict. I’m glad I wasn’t born back then.”
A little girl read a quote on the wall about the slave blocks. She reached up high to rub the words with her fingers. She then looked down and told her sister,”They sold women and children.”
Another little girl, when seeing a hat from modern day Liberia, said her friends “Our African heritage!”
Then there was the child, that was completely in awe of Huey P. Newton’s photo displayed in the Black Power/Black Arts Movement section.
Finally, at Emmet Till’s casket, there was a teenaged girl sobbing in her father’s arms.
Just around the corner, these same children then saw Public Enemy’s bright red banner, Oprah’s stage, huge photos of the Obamas, beautiful pieces made by artisans in the 1700-1800s, Nat Turner’s bible, Langston Hughes words towering over visitors, Fannie Lou Hamer’s voice ringing and so much more.
The children are seeing, hearing, and feeling. They are literally touching the walls absorbing history, Black history…America’s history. The museum’s ability to transport children back in time to experience the tragedies and triumphs, while ushering them into a vibrant future is perhaps it’s greatest attribute of all.
This is a place where children touch the walls.
Jessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is a poet, writer and social justice advocate. She’s also the founder of Our Legaci. Rant or rave to JAMAiwuyor@gmail.com. Don’t forget to join our mailing list!