On August 12, 2017, I had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History. Instead of telling you details about the museum (which would just ruin your experience because you should definitely visit) I want to tell you about my experience and what the museum did for me. Here is my journey.
Back in April (2017) I went on a trip to Baltimore, Maryland to visit friends and a potential school that my boyfriend was considering. During this visit we heard so much about the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History in DC and that if we were making our way back to the East Coast to reserve tickets months in advance so that we would be able to visit.
Everyone stressed to us how important it was to visit the museum and after hearing so much about it I was sold. On the way home I checked out the website and was ready to reserve tickets for a day in July. I was sure that for once I was planning well ahead but I was terribly wrong. They release tickets for reservation on a specific day (months in advance) and they are taken quickly. I set an alarm on my phone for the big day in April and couldn’t wait to reserve the tickets but by the time I got on the website-ALL THE TICKETS WERE GONE! After that we began to plan trips for the summer so I pushed the museum trip to the back of my mind and figured we would go when the time was right. Fortunately for us, our friends had two extra tickets, a weekend that we both were free and we were able to visit in August.
The night before our visit I remember feeling so anxious. I had heard so much about the museum; what to expect, things that I couldn’t miss, the Serenity floor and how beautifully put together the museum was. I couldn’t wait. Our tickets granted admission at 1 pm and when we arrived there was a line stretching across the entire perimeter of the museum. We soon found out this line was for people without tickets and who were waiting to see if they were able to get in. Upon entrance, you take an escalator that leads you to another long line that grants you entrance to an elevator that takes you downstairs and back to the 1400’s.
The First Floor
The first floor and arguably the hardest floor to observe, covered slavery dating back to Africa. Although this floor was the hardest to get through, there were things that tugged on my heart that made this experience so much more unique. I read a story about a woman that was being brought over on a slave ship. She was singing with so much pain and it was so agonizing to hear that the captain of the ship threatened to kill her.
As I read that story, I glanced over a saw an older woman in a wheelchair reading and wiping tears from her eyes. I continued on and watched videos, listened to audio clips and got to see iconic memorabilia like Harriet Tubman’s sweater and Nat Turner’s Bible. As I was leaving the bottom floor, I saw a white woman talking to her children and explaining slavery to them.
The Second Floor
The second floor covered Jim Crow, Segregation and issues post slavery. Although much of this floor were things I had learned about or seen in movies it didn’t make it any less difficult to walk through. The hardest part of this floor was the room that told the story of Emmett Till and where his original casket is located. In this same room, there are video clips of his mother talking about why she decided to show the image of her son publicly. The room was somber and the emotions experienced were so real that I felt as if I was at the actual funeral in 1955. Before I left I noticed young black children reading about Till, comparing him to Tamir Rice and trying to come to terms with how something like this could have ever happened.
The room was somber and the emotions experienced were so real that I felt as if I was at the actual funeral in 1955. Before I left I noticed young black children reading about Till, comparing him to Tamir Rice and trying to come to terms with how something like this could have ever happened.
The 3rd Floor
After this floor you enter the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and make it all the way to 2009 with the election of President Obama (this floor feels a little rushed but still completely effective) As I was leaving the floor that focused on segregation, I saw a white father talking to his son as they went over the things they witnessed on this floor. The father explaining to him that people were mistreated based solely on the color of their skin and how wrong it was and still is.
The Top: Black Excellence
There are additional floors that cover black accomplishments in film, television, entertainment, music, art and sports. After reading so much about the hardships of slavery, segregation, and senseless killings, seeing all of the accomplishments and strides that black people continue to make were extremely heartwarming.
Hearing Tupac “Keep Ya Head Up” a few displays down from the election of Barack Obama was one of the moments that further affirmed in me that, “we are going to be alright.” Although there were people and figures that I felt should have been more recognized (Tupac deserves better) or even recognized at all (Vanessa Williams, the first black Miss America), I think the museum is an outstanding journey that everyone needs to go on.
The day of our visit happened to coincide with the Charlottesville protest which made my experience even more impactful. My sister text me asking was I safe because of how dangerous the protest was becoming. It was unreal to me. In 2017 these same issues of hatred and racism were still extremely prevalent and even though we take two steps forward it feels like there is always something to push us three steps back. After the election of President Obama people believed that we entered this post racial world and with events like Charlottesville it is widely evident that we are not even close.
As I was reading about Charlottesville, just after one of the most engaging experiences of my life, I felt discouraged. Would anything ever be enough? Is anything ever going to change? Reminiscing about the stories I read about in the museum and the tragedies that have been overcome gave me comfort.
Putting It All Into Perspective
One thing that brought me peace were the people from vast walks of lives in the museum learning, retracing and examining the dark past of this country. I remembered the young children that were there with their parents, black and white. Learning about black heroes and the accomplishments that black people have been making since they set foot in the states. The examples of strength and courage to fight for what is right even if you feel like you’re fighting alone.
The problems facing our country aren’t just a black problem or a white problem. These are the problems of the American people. It is a responsibility as an American citizen and a decent human being to learn this history, face it, deal with it, bask in its ugliness and then and only then will you be left with the only option, which is to stand against injustices in the same way our black and white ancestors stood before us.
I commend the white and Asian parents I saw at the museum (and no not because they deserve recognition for learning what we all should know) but because I believe it takes great courage and a tremendous amount of responsibility to teach your kids about this dark history instead of leaving it to teachers or acting as if it didn’t happen.
I looked at the museum as a metaphor. It is dark, both literally and figuratively along with emotionally taxing. It will take a lot to get through and can be challenging at times to continue on, but the point is to make it to the top (which is also where it becomes much brighter). No matter how dark things are, keep pushing and things will become brighter. Through adversity comes strength and accomplishments and even though things may seem as if they are taking a turn for the worst, look to the ones who came before you and stay encouraged.