It was a cold afternoon on Saturday December 11, when our chartered bus pulled up in front of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C. But the sun shined brightly—welcoming us, beckoning us into this place. And I was biting at the bit to get off the bus and begin my journey. I wanted to travel the road of those who came before me--those who paved the way so that I might stand here today.
I am who I am because of the people who came before me. Their blood flows through and their spirit lives in me. And this museum pays homage to the struggle that it took to get to this place and beyond. I am stepping back into the past and moving through the decades to the election of the nation’s first African-American president—no small feat in a country where we’ve spent much of our time being denied not only citizenship, but basic human rights.
With the rising racial tensions and all of the craziness going on in the world today, there is no better time for me to wrap myself in the history of my people. No better time for me to see American history through the eyes of her African-American offspring. Snatched from the breast of Mother Africa and nurtured on the milk of a reluctant adopted mother. As a Black woman, I know all too well the duality of living in this place we call home.
I was with 17 others as part of the Literary Sisters, a travel group of women who love to read, founded by Ruth Bridges. I was so excited! I knew that I was about to experience something that would leave an indelible impression on me. I felt like a child on Christmas Eve waiting for what day break would bring. And NMAAHC did not disappoint.
What felt giddy at first quickly turned serious and somber as I headed down into the lower level of the museum. It was dark and space was tight by design. It opened up as we moved up. I had dressed for the weather outside—a down-filled coat, a turtle neck and a faux fur vest. I went from feeling warm and cozy to hot and confining. The museum opened in September and the newness has yet to wear off. The tickets are timed. Admission is granted by the time stated on the ticket, and my time was limited, so I didn’t bother with the coat check.
I initially felt irritated as I was forced to move slowly with the masses of people meandering through the space. I saw how we came to America as indentured servants before the color of our skin made us slaves. I removed my vest, and I was trying to hold onto it and my coat as I stopped to study the artifacts. It didn’t take long for me to check my attitude. I had the audacity be annoyed by a little discomfort when I was walking the path of my ancestors. As I moved through the hordes of people clamoring for space I began to absorb the history.
It was a sobering experience as I examined the objects of my past, watched the short films, and read the stories. I felt like I had entered into a sacred space. People spoke in hushed tones as they moved from exhibit to exhibit. If someone was taking photos, people politely moved out of the way. Everyone said excuse me. There was not a lot of chatter—just necessary talk now and then when someone had to find a way to take it all in. A man stopped and pressed his back and head against the wall. “It’s a lot,” I said. He nodded.
There were generations of people sharing the wealth of knowledge that the museum held—elders being guided by their adult children and children being led by their parents. It’s one thing to read about history in a book or watch a movie or documentary. It’s quite different to look directly at the shackles that once held the ancestors from which you came.
I experienced a kaleidoscope of emotions surging through me. I was colored by anger, humility, wonder, pride. and emotions I can’t name. So much history squeezed into one building. So much pain and suffering. And so much triumph and victory. These people didn’t set out be to heroes, they set out to right wrongs. They wanted to make the world a better place for their children, and their grandchildren and the children to come. They wanted to make the world a better place for me.
As the descendant of enslaved Africans, I’m always searching for the missing pieces of our history.
The history that was denied to me until I sought it out for myself. I looked at the dolls that were used to desegregate the schools in Brown V Board of Education. I marveled at toys that were used to change the trajectory of Black people in America. I saw the shards of glass from the window pane of the 16th Baptist Church. My heart raced; my stomach knotted as I was forced to remember that history repeats itself. Thoughts of the recent mass murder at Emmanuel AME Church in South Carolina flooded my mind.
I stared at the coffin that held Emmett Till’s body. A boy from my hometown who did not understand the rules of the South. My time ran out. I didn’t get visit the entire museum. Even if I had, had more time, I couldn’t have taken it all in, in on one visit. As I listened to the women on the bus recount their experiences, I thought back on my own, and I knew I needed to come back to this place again.
That night when I lay down to sleep, my mind was racing as thoughts of what I’d seen played back like images on a movie screen. I wrestled with my anger and the sadness at the pain and suffering housed in the museum. But I also marveled at the resilience and the tenacity that it took to not only survive, but to thrive. I took pride in the skills, the work ethic and the sheer genius of people who had made it through so many trials and tribulations over the years. When I finally settled in, I was lulled to sleep by the awe of it all.