In life you come across certain things and situations you know will be hard and know will be painful. But, at the same time, you realize that you need to do them, need to experience them, and need to see them – both for others and for yourself. I’d put visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of African History and Culture in DC into that category. Immediately after visiting, I knew that I wanted to feature and write about it on my blog. But I also knew that it wouldn’t be right away, as I needed to absorb and think about what I was going to share. I felt as though I needed to do it justice.
I’ll start off by saying, I am not at all a museum person. I’d much rather be outside exploring and walking around, just enjoying the scene. But this museum is phenomenal and I’d put it on the top of my list of museums I’ve visited. It is as well done as it is educational. The architecture, the research, the way the different levels conveyed different meanings (will describe that in more detail later), and the comprehensiveness of it is truly spectacular. A ton of people dedicated a great deal of money and time to make this dream a reality.
I won’t go into the details as far as logistics, time the museum is open, and that sort of thing. You can use Google for that. My main goal is to tell you about what you’ll experience and to encourage you to visit. You’ll definitely want to have at least three hours. Three hours won’t get you through the entire museum, but it will give you enough time to absorb what you need without it being too overwhelming. Just know they have enough content for you to stay in there for days, just reading and learning.
The layout is somewhat confusing. Just know you’ll head to the bottom of the museum and work your way up. The museum is laid out chronologically, so start at the bottom in the slavery section. The rooms are confining, darkly-colored and poorly lit. This is done intentionally. As you work your way up, you’ll notice the rooms become more open and better lit. This coincides with the eventual path to freedom.
Three lower levels are dedicated to educating you about the background of slavery, the acts of slavery, those involved in slavery, and the harsh details. You’ll walk through the early days of slavery, Transatlantic Slave Trade, Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation, segregation, Civil Rights Movement, and so forth until you reach modern day. All throughout the years, you’ll learn not only about actions and decisions made, but you will learn about the vast number of individuals who helped pave the way for freedom. What you were taught in school only scratches the surface of historical events and people who aided in abolishing slavery. This DC museum educates you the way no textbook can. One of the things I was most amazed about here was the vast number of other individuals who did amazing and powerful things. It was not a small handful of people standing up to slavery, rather it was tons of individuals. Tons of no name people who all played an integral part. Yes, you’ll learn about all the wickedness and harshness of people; but you’ll also learn about so many remarkable, brave, and heroic souls.
What else that stood out to me was the complexity. It was not as simple as slavery exists during one time period and slavery is abolished at another time period. No – there were phases and phases of small components that were changed. The time period it took to do this was excruciatingly long. And even after it was technically abolished, you’ll learn about how certain states and places had some laws, where others had different ones. Fighting in the military was another huge issue and you’ll learn about those details too.
Shortly into my visit, I overheard a young boy ask his dad about why they were stopping. The dad told his son the story that was displayed and showed him on the map the portion of Louisiana was where his family was from. The severity of his words were not lost on me. In a different time period, this family would have had a very different life and had to experience the horror their relatives did just a few generations back. I saw many more young children in the museum than I would have expected. I observed quite a few similar situations where the parents were working to educate their children about their personal history, not in a graphic way but also not in a sugar-coated way. But in a perfect balance. Knowing how difficult that would have been, I commend all of the families who have taken their children to the museum. I will also say everything is done tastefully and areas that you shouldn’t take kids to are well marked, so that you can avoid them if necessary.
I recommend after you visit the three levels of slavery to take a break at the bookstore. You really will need to decompress, and the bookstore is amazing. They have a vast selection of all genres of books. There are books dedicated to famous African Americans throughout all time periods and a great section of books written by African Americans of today. I saw one of my cookbooks here! I was able to narrow my book selection down to two – a book by Maya Angelou and another book written by a woman who worked to get into journalism and eventually worked on Capitol Hill.
Following the bookstore on the main level, you have three more levels to explore. If you need food, they have a café located in the museum. I remember coming out of the three levels of slavery, emotionally drained and trying to encourage myself that the rest of the museum would be happier. Although it had a more positive tone, the next level up was frustrating to me. You’ll read and learn about all the hardships and non-equalities African Americans faced from the government, the military and even the sporting community. Every single aspect of their lives were a struggle.
On an upper level is a library where you can go and get assistance looking up your African American ancestors. This is an awesome thing the museum offers, and I’d highly suggest utilizing it. Up towards the top of the museum is a section dedicated to art, music, dance, television, theater, and fashion. After experiencing the heaviness of the other levels, this level is quite a treat.
You’ll experience every emotion under the sun as you visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture. You’ll experience astonishment, anger, deep sadness, guilt, frustration, and heartbreak. Overall, you’ll feel very sober and subdued. You will leave emotionally spent and drained. If you are a white person, you will feel guilt. You just can’t help but feel it. Even though I today had nothing to do with the actions of the past and am severely opposed to them, I can’t help but feel the shame and embarrassment that my race and my ancestors from way back were involved in these discriminatory acts.
When you leave you’ll also feel much more educated, much more empowered and much more appreciative for all the great individuals of all races who helped end this horror experienced in our country. Overall, this is one of the most incredible museums I’ve been to, and I hope to go back someday to hit areas I wasn’t able to cover as thoroughly. I think that everyone should visit. No matter who you are, you need to learn about this history and the role it played on America.
While walking past the basketball and golf section (one of my favorite sections), I saw something that captured the ideal of what the world should be. A young white boy ran up to the statue of Michael Jordan, practically jumping up and down and asking his mom to take his picture with Michael. As he stood there proudly posing, this boy wasn’t seeing color or race. He was simply seeing his hero, a man he looked up to for the role he had played in this boy’s life. May we all see others through these same eyes.