In my progress from slavery to the present, I only made it to about 1954 today. Sometimes, the weight of history is more than a day can bear.
I did a lot of reading for this week’s blog, but not in the usual sense: it was almost entirely composed of signage in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. This was my first time visiting the museum since its opening last fall. It’s testament to the deep cultural void this museum has finally filled that its entry passes are snapped up almost as soon as they are released – the next batch of tickets, for dates starting in June 2017, won’t be available until the beginning of March. If museums were Broadway shows, it’s like trying to get a ticket to Hamilton.
And quite possibly, the appeal of museum and musical is similar: we know that America needs a new story. The old myths are ringing hollow; the cracks are showing, where the “standard” version of our history has tried to paper over hypocrisy and obscure the lived experiences of millions of people who inhabited the continent and the nation that was eventually formed there. The novelty – the joy – of seeing American history told through the eyes and minds and words and music of a new set of people is irresistible. We’ve been waiting for this, even if many of us couldn’t name or acknowledge that yearning.
And yet, it’s not all joy, not by a long shot. I don’t know what it’s like to see Hamilton, but I know that the NMAAHC is as difficult as it is beautiful. Of course it is; it’s the story of a people striving for their right to life and freedom in the face of 500 years of dehumanization, exploitation, oppression. It’s the story of human beings finding a way to thrive despite kidnapping, theft, rape, destruction, and murder. If facing that history was painless, it would mean we’d lost a significant part of our humanity. The fact that we Americans avoid it at all costs isn’t right … but it might also be a sign that we still have a national conscience left to be pricked.
But of course, national guilt is far from sufficient. After we acknowledge, we must repent – and atone. We must repair. Among the many things I saw and read today, it was some of the earliest exhibit panels that stood out to me: not merely the United States, but the nation-states of Europe owe their modern existence to the enslavement and trade of Africans as property. The global economy we know today was built – both literally and figuratively – by African slaves. That most white people balk at the notion of reparations is unsurprising; the debt Europe and the US owe to descendants of African slaves is breathtaking in its enormity. The magnitude of this debt disrupts every notion of justice or superiority upon which these nations base their economic and cultural dominance.
Panel after panel in the museum’s exhibits attests to this conflict between the American myth of freedom and the American reality of racial injustice. It showed up most starkly when there was a war: the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War I, and World War II all saw people of African heritage fighting to protect and uphold the freedom of nations that withheld that freedom from them. After a while, I was literally bowed down by the accumulated weight of all the broken promises and contradictions.
Well, that, and the relentless, bloody violence.
That’s the part that really gets me – the continued compulsion to brutalize and destroy black lives and livelihoods. Sometimes African-Americans went and formed entire freaking towns separate from white people, and it still wasn’t enough to get people to leave them alone. They wanted perfectly normal things: the right to vote, to educate their kids, to get medical care for their families, to walk on a street or go to the beach without being beaten. It’s just unfathomable that those things could be considered a threat.
Unless, that is, your national and individual identity has been built around white supremacy. If that’s the case, then you can’t just let black people going around being people; because your entire economy and the better part of your history is based on them not being people, and if you ever had to acknowledge that they were people, then that calls into question everything you’ve ever told yourself about truth and justice being the American way. The doctrine of white supremacy – then and now – is essential to the maintenance of America’s identity as a righteous democracy.
Black lives don’t matter. Black lives can never matter.
That’s not an inspiring way to finish this piece. And I’m OK with that. The United States hasn’t faced up to its history yet. James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” This museum is the beginning of that process; it is the beginning of acknowledging how much the force of our racist history shapes our racialized present. We don’t have to have a racialized future.
In the midst of the violence and the hatred, there is another narrative that stands out just as strongly in the history and culture of African-Americans: Survival. Resilience. Love. Family. Joy. Faith. Justice. Dignity. Success. Hope. My forebears in blood and in spirit could not have contributed all that they wove into the fabric of this nation and hemisphere unless there was something in them stronger than all the evil that faced them. The Lord lifted us up, and still we rise.
I will have to take another day to finish my ascent through history. And even then, that’s not the end. The amazingly talented architectural team couldn’t envision it yet, but there is a fourth floor to this exhibit. The descendants of those who built America’s foundation are now building its liberation. Wait ’til you see how beautiful it is.