Two very different visits to the National Museum of African American History and Culture — one before Trump, one after — reminded me that racial progress doesn’t always move at a steady clip.
By Brandon Tensley
Then-President Barack Obama speaks during the opening ceremony for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., on September 24th, 2016. (Photo: Zach Gibson/AFP/Getty Images)
When the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened last September, the latest among the capital’s constellation of Smithsonian museums, it became, for many, an indisputable sign of racial progress. At its prized location on the last undeveloped museum plot on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the museum enshrined a national home for black history, starting with the transatlantic slave trade and moving into the present, tracing the hard-fought progress toward equality via a trove of artifacts — thousands of which are heirlooms donated by private citizens.
Then, suddenly, that hard-fought progress started to feel tenuous. Now, only months after opening, the NMAAHC has taken on a more sobering duality: It symbolizes progress, yes, but also everything that’s at stake. And a significant reason for this shift is the current administration.
My first trip to the NMAAHC, in October, was an electric experience. A friend and I met up outside the building — designed to look like a three-tiered, bronze-colored Yoruban crown — joining a kinetic line some hundreds of people deep that skirted and snaked along Constitution Avenue and around the building’s base. An hour later, we made it in — only to find that we’d have to wait another hour in another line to descend below ground, where the wildly popular three bottom floors tell a chronological history of racial oppression. So, instead, we ventured through the “community” and “culture” galleries on the third and fourth floors, which tell stories about art, the military, music, and sports.
Given our new political environment, there’s an awful sinking feeling centered around just how fragile, if not illusory, racial progress in the United States can be.
On these two floors, past and present coalesce. “Look, your grandfather received one of these,” a black woman, pointing to a Purple Heart, told her son, who looked to be somewhere around five years old. We were in a section devoted to blacks in the military, and how black service members worked to have their contributions “understood by the nation as a demand for liberty and citizenship.” A poem by Langston Hughes, written in 1943 and printed large on a wall, evokes the sometimes-corrosive paradoxes of black patriotism: “Everything that hitler / And mussolini do / Negroes get the same / Treatment from you.”
Elsewhere on these floors are straight-up cultural treasures. These include the glittery, splashy costume that belonged to Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire, the Grammy-winning band that shook up the sound of funk and pop in the 1970s and ’80s, as well as a leotard worn in childhood gymnastics competitions by Gabby Douglas, who, at the 2012 London Olympics, became the first American woman to win a gold medal in both the individual and team competitions.
By design, it’s largely impossible to leave the NMAAHC with a one-sided vision of black history, which is to say American history; throughout the museum, black achievement is memorialized right alongside black suffering. Still, when I emerged from my first visit, which lasted around four hours, I left with a feeling of uplift. The museum’s birth stretches back to 1915 — when it began its exhausting slog through racialized squabbles over government funding and site location — so to have witnessed it, finally, overcome a century of political wrangling was also to witness blackness in a context that validated my history and identity.
OK, fast-forward a few months.
When I went to the NMAAHC again in January, I saw it through different eyes. The same friend and I spent our entire visit wandering the museum’s depths — the “history” galleries dedicated to slavery, segregation, and the pivotal year of 1968 that we’d missed the first time — which are, on the whole, grimmer than the museum’s upper floors. There’s the white satin Ku Klux Klan hood, sitting in a case near a sliver of rope once used in a lynching. The thing that truly left me speechless was the original coffin of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for supposedly flirting with a white woman. Yet it wasn’t these potent artifacts that created an alternative shading of my experience at the museum, at least not on their own.
(Photos: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
On top of all this, there was — and is — the constant reminder that President Donald Trump has already succeeded in transforming Americans’, not least black Americans’, lived reality. Even before he took power, Trump had spent months on the campaign trail whipping his supporters into a frenzy by calling minority groups rapists and terrorists. And as his administration limps to the end of its first 100 days in office, there’s no sign that these salvos against marginalized groups will stop. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for instance, has called for a review of federal consent decrees with local law enforcement agencies that have allegedly violated civil rights laws systemically, including in Ferguson, Missouri, where police fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in 2014. Critics argue, rightly, that this move shows Sessions’ contempt for change within police departments — indeed, it makes apparent a galling disbelief that such a fundamentally flawed system should be corrected at all.
Given our present political environment, there’s an awful sinking feeling centered around just how fragile, if not illusory, American racial progress can be. Despite the important gains of black Americans over the past few decades — culminating in the Barack Obama-era opening of the NMAAHC, with its abundance of black cultural gems — our sense of belonging is rapidly being plundered, and left in its place is yet another wave of constant threat.
I left my second viewing of the NMAAHC thinking that it was almost made to be consumed in an earlier, better age — to be experienced when the possibility of radical change didn’t seem all that radical. That was wrong. Looking back, what’s most striking about the museum is how it pokes holes in ridiculous post-racial delusions and stitches up our country’s grand narratives with an admirable racial resilience; the museum is tightly bound to an enduring hope through the uniquely black pain that necessitated it. Its mandate, in any age, is that we don’t turn away from history’s mistakes — that we bring our racial realities in line with our racial aspirations.