The new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC represents decades of effort and lobbying for an institution to “highlight the contributions of African Americans” but this isn’t how the museum has been received by ordinary Americans. By GLEN RETIEF
Here’s an inductive logic question you’ll likely never see on a US standardised educational test:
If Berlin’s largest public memorial is to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Johannesburg’s major museum commemorates apartheid, and the former Stalinist capitals of Prague and Warsaw catalogue the gulag, then until 2016, which well-known memorial on Washington DC’s National Mall reminded 41 million visitors of grave crimes against humanity?
(A) The US Slavery and Racism Museum
(B) The National Museum of Native American Genocide
(C) The Memorial to the Victims of US-Supported Dictatorships
(D) The National Holocaust Memorial.
Until the last year, the answer was, of course, D. Like Brussels, Tokyo, or Ankara — and unlike, say, Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, or Berlin — DC was a capital dedicated to memorialising its own accomplishments, noting others’ crimes, and conspicuously ignoring its own flaws.
For some reason, South Africans often overlook Washington. Nevertheless, the cultural and historical treasures of the US capital are exceptional. The collection in the Smithsonian alone — spanning Rodin sculptures, to Dorothy’s red shoes, to the space shuttle Discovery out in a converted aircraft hangar near Dulles airport —is as striking as any on Earth, with free admission to boot.
Yet jingoism mars the splendor. In many ways, the Museum of the American Indian provides the most surreal embodiment, with floors of Native cultural artifacts lovingly preserved, but barely a word about what threatened these nations and cultures in the first place.
Enter, last September, the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), in pride of place, right between the Museum of American History and the Washington Monument.
Nominally, this facility represents decades of effort and lobbying for an institution to “highlight the contributions of African Americans” — in other words, one more institution celebrating American progress. However, this isn’t how the museum has been received by ordinary Americans.
One recent Wednesday, I finally landed my free-but-rare-as-chicken’s-teeth timed entrance pass. If the crowds were anything to go by, it isn’t the upper floors of the museum, with Chuck Berry’s red ’73 Eldorado Cadillac or Oprah Winfrey’s golden dress, that have drawn a million visitors in the past four months and made Associated Press call the museum “the capital’s hottest ticket.” Rather, it’s the three historical exhibits located in the basement.
Here, vast crowds of visitors descend three floors in an elevator to, first, Slavery and Freedom, 1400-1877; then, The Era of Segregation 1876-1968; and finally, A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond.
The lift ride is, of course, a metaphorical descent into a claustrophobic slave ship hold. It is also — and here is the crowd-drawing novelty —nothing less than a lowering into a hidden underbelly of American history itself, where truths long-known, yet widely denied, are finally spoken out loud.
Thus, I read almost immediately, on a taxpayer-funded caption: “Profits from the sale of enslaved humans and their labor laid the economic foundation for Western Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas.” The words are worth rereading. This is at the National Museum of America. The John Bull steam locomotive; the Apollo space program; all the glories of the National Gallery of Art — all of this is owed not purely to capitalist innovation, the exhibit argued, but also to the “immense physical and psychological toll on the enslaved,” who lived an average of seven years in their new homes.
This slavery exhibit was encyclopedic, overwhelming. Shackles, ballast, and slave ship diagrams. Facts and statistics. Through it, I couldn’t shake the economics lesson. That whip, I thought — ancestor of my iPad. That neatly-printed charter of sale: I thought of my friend Carolyn Forché helping Georgetown University atone for selling slaves to keep itself financially afloat.
Then I turned a corner into the museum’s rhetorical heart. A vast display hall, with a monumental Declaration of Independence embossed on a grey stone wall. Below it stood Jefferson, author, with, behind him, a wall of 609 bricks marked with the names of all the enslaved people he owned.
“The paradox of the American revolution — the fight for liberty in an era of widespread slavery — is embedded in the foundation of the United States,” the display caption stated. Next door was a sculpture of “King Cotton” and a rebuilt slave cabin from North Carolina.
It is hard to explain to South Africans exactly how revolutionary these words seem in a US context. Forget Rhodes’ toppling. If President-Commander Julius Malema ever orders the Mandela statue removed from the Union Buildings because the 1994 Constitution is considered apartheid-lite, then perhaps South Africa will experience a comparable loss of foundational myths.
It is not just the notion that the promise of American freedom is incomplete. This is, in fact, freely admitted by almost any American — hence the need to keep striving for a “more perfect union.”
Rather, it is the clear implication that the world’s first democracy could only come into being because of slavery. The bricks with the enslaved people’s names built the Declaration of Independence. Only one of the most extreme mass deprivations of liberty the world has ever witnessed permitted a group of wealthy landowners the luxury of dreaming up universal rights.
It has been fascinating to watch America try to process the essential radicalism of this, its latest national landmark.
On the one hand, there have been the eternal optimists. Thus George W. Bush, at the opening, proclaimed that “a great nation does not hide its mistakes.” We will learn and do better, he seemed to be saying, but how? After all, the problems with memorialisation conceived as a magical way to shed the past without doing the hard work of reconciliation are well-documented.
Then there were the cynics, with Steven Thrasher in the Guardian notably calling the creation of the museum a monument to respectability politics. Yet as far as I could tell, most of the largely African-American crowd at the museum were more in agreement with Vann Newkirk III that the museum “undermines the interracial narrative of progress that undergirds the American nationalist project” — and they seemed relieved, if not overjoyed, at this fact.
How much will it all mean, with a white backlash candidate now elected president, and Jeff Sessions restoring the conditions for what Michelle Alexander has called the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration?
Hard to say. Yet like the fact of Obama’s election itself, the NMAAHC now exists. It is almost impossible to conceive of it being dismantled. On the contrary, it will evoke more memorials: a planned monument for four thousand victims of lynching; a new museum in Montgomery connecting the dots between slavery and imprisonment.
Ta-Nehisi Coates was the author of last year’s most talked-about book, Between the World and Me, a call for Americans to turn away from “the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself.” Trump or no Trump, the great turning has begun. Whether Americans are ready for Mr. Coates’ other big idea, “The Case for Reparations,” is, of course, another matter entirely. DM
Glen Retief’s The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood, won a Lamda Literary Award. He teaches creative nonfiction at Susquehanna University.
Photo: President Trump Visits African American Museum in Washington photo information, Photographer Kevin Dietsch / POOL
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