Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Washington, D.C.: Shame and Celebration at a Museum

The museum's exterior is quite a departure from the National Mall's usual white marble. It's
just across the street from the Washington Monument at the western end of the Mall.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (click HERE for its website) has been open a couple of years and continues to draw crowds big enough to require timed entry passes (admission is free).  Jane and I visited in April 2019 during a brief trip back to where we formerly lived in Maryland.  We were there to see friends and family, but this museum was on our must list as well. Our niece, Sharon, who lives in D.C., joined us at the museum.
     When we lived in Talbot County, Maryand, on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, there was and still is on the grounds of the county courthouse a memorial to "the Talbot Boys," white locals who left Talbot County during the Civil War to take up arms against their own country and to fight to keep slavery intact. Maryland was a slave state though it did not secede from the Union; its slaves had to wait until after the Civil War to be freed since the Emancipation Proclamation applied only to the states in the Confederacy. I wish the people who in the 21st century still support honoring the Talbot Boys would visit this museum and see (and read about) the horror that was slavery.
    Slavery isn't the only source of American shame on display at the museum. There's sharecropping, often described as worse than slavery; Jim Crow laws; lynchings; and more. Emmett Till, the 14-year-old from Chicago who was brutally murdered near Greenwood, Mississippi, in 1955, is given a lot of attention because it was his death (and his mother's courageous decision to let the public see his horribly disfigured face) that spurred people like Rosa Parks to action. His original casket is on display at the museum and people file past as respectfully as if his body were still in it. (He was reburied in a new casket after his body was exhumed for a DNA test.) Even today there is controversy about what should be done with what's left of the the store where he was accused of the capital crime of showing disrespect to a white woman (click HERE for New York Times article).
     The museum also celebrates accomplishments. We were there for a special exhibition on Oprah Winfrey, going from her early childhood in Kosciusko, Mississippi, to her early TV career in Baltimore, Maryland, to her current status as one of the nation's most iconic and charismatic media personalities. And one of the wealthiest. You'll find your favorite blues and R&B and rap and jazz artists, too, along with writers, scientists, educators, actors and politicians.
     This is an educational museum. There are a number of artifacts -- including a segregated railway car -- but this is foremost a museum of words and pictures. You have a lot to read as you start three levels below ground and work your way up from the depths of the slave trade.
    Here are a few photos that I hope will encourage you to visit the museum.
Visit the museum's website to obtain a timed entry pass, but when we
were there they were letting people enter up to an hour earlier than
the time on their passes.

Escalators link different levels in the above-ground
portion of the museum. Start at the lowest below-ground
level, though, and you're walking up ramps. 

This is Queen Ana Nzinga who in the 1600's reigned over Ndongo in the Congo River Basin. She
converted to Catholicism and formed alliances to resist the Portuguese in Central Africa. The quote
from William Cowper is, I think, meant to be ironic. He was a leading British intellectual and
poet in the 18th century and was very much opposed to slavery.

The slave trade didn't spring up overnight, and although we think white cotton farmers
in the American South were the prime beneficiaries, many others found ways to profit,
including Africans who captured and sold humans and Creoles who made contacts
between sellers in Africa, ship operators and eventual buyers in the New World.

I had long known that many European, especially I thought British, ships transported
slaves across the Atlantic. What I learned here was that almost every European nation
(even Denmark!) was involved in this trade, and often the governments were invested.

Signage such as this gives visitors new ways to think about our history.

Faces from the 19th century.

Blacks weren't wanted in Union uniforms when the Civil War started, but when the Confederacy
promised freedom and land to slaves who fought, Lincoln and the Union had to match the offer.

Mound Bayou is a town in my home state, Mississippi. I had not
known it was started as a community of freed slaves -- freed
by Jefferson's Davis's brother, Joseph. This is part of an exhibit
on all-black communities in the late 19th century.

The Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and '60s receives considerable attention. Growing up then in
Mississippi, I remember the attitude among whites was that people were coming down from the North
just to stir up trouble. People who got killed were asking for it. Black children killed? Their
parents should have been tending to their own business.
This early 20th century rail car has segregated seating areas, one
marked "colored only." The differences, however, are slight,
mainly that the whites had a larger restroom.

Posters called people to action in the fight for civil rights.

There is almost too much to see, to read and to learn in the museum.

The many accomplishments and successes of African Americans in the arts are given their due.

One of Chuck Berry's Cadillacs is on display.

That's the Capitol dome in the distances, as seen through the
grid that sheaths the museum's exterior.

After the African American Museum, we went to
the National Portrait Gallery to see the celebrated
portraits of Michelle and Barack Obama.

Amy Sherald's portrait of the former
first lady is very elegant, but Jane and I
agreed that it's not a good likeness.
Kehinde Wiley's portrait of the former president, in addition to being a good likeness,
is interesting in composition and concept. The various flowers popping out from
the vines relate to aspects of Obama's life, such as his childhood in Hawaii
and his father's origins in Kenya.