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NMAAHC: Powerful and Dense but Still a Natioanal Narrative

The Unknown's picture

     The NMAAHC is a project of U.S. nationalism which is in conflict with sensibilities of the ways many define and recreate blackness. The new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture rises from slave ships to the mothership, an ascendant course that oversimplifies a narrative of subjugation and injustice that is eventually redeemed by blues, funk, and hip-hop. The lowest-level galleries which depicted the slave trade and the Middle Passage are narrow and confining. The galleries opened up to an expansive entrance for the struggle for liberty and justice, which evidently continues today. Yet, exhibits like the one that gives prominence to Emmett Till’s casket called into question the myth of US egalitarianism and pressured visitors to grapple with the pain of violence, bloodshed, and discrimination that has refused to stay in the past.

     One aspect of the museum I was really intrigued by was its heavy emphasis on place. There were rich maps dispersed throughout the museum that showcased the numerous migrations that have been an essential part of black history: from the domestic slave trade, following the abolishment of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1807 to the Great Migration during the early-and mid-20th century to later returns to the South. These maps described how the African-American experience varied within the states and how states and the country was impacted as a result.

     Objects themselves compete with the visual distraction, forcing me to choose what to see and where to go, knowing there is a lot I will miss or misinterpret. There were large screens devoted to Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. I found that I was less likely to watch a short movie than look at an object or picture because I thought that I might be able to locate some of the short films on my own.

     The low-slung dark galleries provide vehicle to scrutinize and reflect upon some of the most excruciating chapters in African-American history: The Atlantic slave trade and the unceasing violence, mistreatment, and humiliation of slavery. These galleries seemed fairly bloodless and unemotional, especially compared to rooms on the upper levels that discuss Jim Crow, segregation, and the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ‘60s. Some of the artifacts were chilling, particularly rusted wrought-iron shackles that were used during the Middle Passage and the slave cabin, which was transported almost 550 miles from Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island, South Carolina.

     The walk upwards through Reconstruction, then Redemption that leads to the civil-rights movement, and eventually into the present day serves as a reminder of the constant push and pull of dissent and outcry. It was a strange juxtaposition to see African-American towns that no longer exist and black neighborhoods that were scorched memorialized alongside the writings of Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. DuBois. One exhibit features the names of lynching victims, a soul-rending litany that feels even more terrible because of the names themselves. How many freed people renamed themselves after Founding Fathers or as Freemans in aspiration only to be murdered?

     On the third level, “1968 to Today,” the ambience shifts and feels less like a funeral. History starts moving at a breathless, but measurable speed, hero by hero, with Angela Davis, among others, and movement by movement, from Black Is Beautiful, to the Black Panthers, to Black Lives Matter. The walk up through history doesn’t end with the election of President Obama, but with interactives that show the rise of Black Lives Matter and the injustices and tyranny that movement is now confronted by. Revolutions are arranged beside counter-revolutions and demonstrations are exhibited next to the atrocities that initiated them.

     As I ascended through the galleries, I noticed that the storytelling is produced more through moving images, which gave me the impressions that history has come alive. I was frustrated that the museum still seemed to construct the problems of racism as largely in the past. There was nothing about the Prison-Industrial Complex except for the Angola Prison Tower which was acquired from the Lousiana State Penitentiary in 2012 as a donation to explore post-Civil War incarceration. This means that 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons, 1 million of whom are African Americans are not written into and silenced from one of the possibly greatest material productions of history that exists or has ever existed of African Americans in the United States.