This was my first visit to the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, and let me just say from the very beginning that I will be going back . It’s phenomenal. The museum opened September 24, 2016, and almost immediately became a daily sell out. I lucked out and arrived early on a cold, rainy December morning just in time to get one of the available daily passes.
I’m glad I went to Antietam and Mount Vernon before I made the trip to this museum, and that I was already actively looking for stories that relate to civil rights. Those visits helped me to see that while both of the prior destinations had small exhibits to address the experience of enslaved people at that time, neither of those were anywhere near sufficient in breadth or honesty to capture the full measure of truth. This was not the case at the NMAAHC, and I quickly understood that is exactly the point. The story of enslaved people of African descent in our country is a huge and highly relevant piece of the overall history of our country, but somehow it’s presented piecemeal in small exhibits and side notes. I’ve never seen it rise to top billing until now.
The museum is organized with levels below and above. An elevator takes visitors down to the lowest level, where everyone steps out into dark, narrow passageways. The design is meant to invoke at least an echo of the feel of being below deck on a ship in cramped quarters. I have to say, I found it claustrophobic and I pushed through that section more quickly than I would have preferred to, because of the discomfort and building tension of panic. They made their point well.
The exhibit starts with a review of what Africa was like when the slave trade began. It’s very clear that the story begins with loss; loss of home and culture and identity. This concept of loss resonated strongly with me, because I see human rights as something not to be given or awarded, but rather something that inherently belongs to everyone, and can only be taken away through the abuse of power. As I walked past exhibits that spoke of the culture and industry of Africa at that time, the sense of loss was palpable. These were people with their own economies and culture and traditions, and they were ripped away from them.
Moving on, the displays follow a historical progression. There are models of the ships that carried the newly captured across the Atlantic, along with the shackles and chains that bound them. I passed by stories of what life was like as an enslaved person on a plantation, and how these people worked to retain their humanity and dignity, despite the accompanying iron and leather artifacts testifying to how difficult it was. The exhibit is brutally honest and curated with a clear intention to tell the full story, not just what is comfortable to process.
I appreciated seeing that as part of the exhibit, there was an attempt to quantify the historical economics, because I think it’s extremely important to understand this:
“The lives and labor of enslaved African Americans transformed the U.S. into a a world power. Yet they received no recognition or payment for what they created. By 1860 four million enslaved people produced well over 60 percent of the nations wealth, and the slave trade valued them at $2.7 billion. Selling an enslaved person provided ready cash, explaining in part why roughly 600,000 people were sold in the domestic slave trade. This vast wealth, in human form, affected the entire nation.”
When I reached the point where the exhibit addresses the activities of the KKK, I stood beside a girl about ten or twelve years old, who was quietly reading the information on the placard. I wondered how she would process it, aware of my own reaction to the exhibits I had seen so far. I paused when she did, and watched her step back, shake her head and proclaim, “That’s messed up.” It was such an understatement that I nearly laughed. A second later she ran off smiling to be part of a group selfie with her friends, striking the two fingers in a peace sign pose. It was a much needed moment of relief and hope that morning and honestly, I stared at that group of kids on a field trip as long as I had any exhibit that morning. Given the circumstances in our country right now, I wondered how long the moral arc of the universe needed to be, because all kids should have every opportunity to be the fullest and happiest expression of themselves, and it feels like a lot of people don’t get that.
The exhibits move on to the civil rights battles of the 1960s, a review of African Americans in pop culture and the media, their role in the military, the requisite homage to Oprah, and right up through to the inauguration of President Obama. This part of the exhibit definitely ends on a hopeful note.
I was surprised to discover there were “U.S. Negro Towns” formed in the 19th century, and at least one will be on the route I have planned for my Big Trip, so I’m working in a stop there for my travels.
The historical part of the exhibit ends right at the entrance to the Sweet Home Café, and if you visit, you should make sure you eat here! Food options are divided by theme: The Agricultural South, The Creole Coast, The North States, and The Western Range. I had the Gulf Shrimp & Anson Mills Stone Ground Grits, and my sister (and traveling companion for the day) had the Thomas Downing-inspired NYC Oyster Pan Roast. I was a little worried that with such a big cafe, the food would be overpriced and not that great. Not to worry! It’s pricey, but worth every penny. The eating area is arranged in tables that I think are intentionally organized to encourage you to sit with complete strangers. We met two women from the Baltimore area, and shared our impressions and most interesting parts of the morning.There were three more upper levels to explore, but my sister is still recovering from a year of chemo and radiation and at that point she had run out of energy. I was grateful she was up for the trip at all, and we decided to call it a day. The upper three levels relate more to cultural expression and art, so I am looking forward to a return trip to explore.
Overall Impression: This is a must see destination! The exhibits are incredibly well curated and a lot of thought went into the design of the building so that the spaces add to the overall experience.
Costs for the day:
Lodging: $83/night at Comfort in Alexandria, VA
Admission: I have the $75 Friends of the Smithsonian Pass, which gives me free access to all of their museums, plus the magazine (which I love!) Advanced tickets are available here, and I recommend you definitely get tickets in advance, as the demand is high.
Metro Pass: $10
Post card and stamp: $136
Breakfast (included in hotel charge)
Lunch – $35.04 for two people at the Sweet Home Café
Dinner – $14 at Denny’s