Opening last weekend on the National Mall in Wash., D.C., the African American Museum of History and Culture depicts the experience of Black people in the United States from the era of the Atlantic Slave Trade to Barack Obama’s historic presidency.
The three-day opening celebration included concerts on the National Mall, ranging from Spirituals to Classical, R&B to Gospel, Hip-Hop to Jazz including Oakland’s Latin Jazz band led by Bobi Cespedes, featuring John Santos.
Thousands of people attended: family groups, couples, toddlers in strollers, white-haired elders in wheelchairs and babes in arms.
Advised to begin their museum experience on the bottom floor where relics from a slave ship were displayed, they waited patiently in long lines.
The curators did more than identify the objects –ballast from the slave ship São José Paquete Africa, found off the coast of South Africa in 2010. They mounted quotes about the experience of the captives on the ships.
“Their singing was always in tears, so much that one captain threatened the women with a flogging because their mournfulness of her song was painful for his feelings.” William Corbett, 1806.
The exhibits make clear that chattel slavery, the buying and selling of human beings as if they were domestic animals or furnishings, was unprecedented in human history.
Accompanied by voice overs and testimony and observances of the time, the brutality of the kidnapping and capture of Africans is uncontested as is the benefit to the slavers:
“Are we not indebted to these valuable people – the Africans – for our sugars, tobaccos, rice and rum? Malachy Postelthwayt, 1745.
Standing under the quote on the wall, “We’ve got to tell the unvarnished truth” by historian John Hope Franklin, Courtney Hester-Green of Washington D.C. explained that she has been a student of Black history since she was six, when her uncle gave her a Golden Legacy Series Comic Book.
Now 32, her great pleasure was “Being able to see the stories told how they should be told.”
“I thought I would hold it together,” Hester-Green said. “But I’m misty now. I hope the story is made real to people who haven’t studied it all their lives.”
Gallery after gallery, photos and artifacts show the African American experience on its own terms. It felt like nothing was left out.
Second to the slave-ship exhibit, the display of Emmett Till’s casket was perhaps the most moving.
Till was 14 in 1955 when he was brutally lynched in Money, Miss., for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The killing brought international attention to the racism of the South when his mother insisted on an open casket.
Exhumed in 2005 for DNA testing on his body, the Till family had initially wanted to put his casket in a museum of their own but instead donated it to the museum.
There are life-size statues everywhere on all floors including freedom fighters of many generations and leaders in all arenas of life from art and entertainment to food, activism, entrepreneurship and sports, including one of John Carlos and Tommie Smith with fists raised and bowed heads at the 1968 Olympics.
Eight-year-old T.C. Washington of Atlanta, Ga., stared up at them, put his hand over his heart and grudgingly agreed to let his father take a photo, where he struck a pose just like them.
Not knowing what it meant, his father, Terance Washington, told him it was like what Colin Kaepernick is doing. The boy nodded and skipped on to the next gallery, where paraphernalia from the National Council of Negro Women was on display and a recorded speech by Mary McLeod Bethune was heard in the background.
“What’s a Negro?” the little boy asked.
“It’s good to know how far we have come,” said Shay Moor of Baltimore, MD.