“The history of America is too big for one building.” – Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Recently, I had a conversation about the variety of museums in my hometown of Capitol Hill and about the wonderful exhibits surrounding the Washington Mall. The person I spoke with had recently visited, they shared, and they loved it. But they didn’t visit the African American museum because they didn’t like the idea. Why? Because, “I mean, we don’t have a museum for White people,” they contested. “The rest of the museums are diverse,” they said; “they have pictures, figures and representations of minority groups,” they said.
They don’t — not in a historically accurate manner. As anyone who has taken the time to question their elementary history education might know, history has been white-washed. The Washington Mall has a number of museums, such as the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of American History, the American Indian Museum, many, many Galleries of Art and a number of others. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is relatively new: it opened in the Fall of 2016 and has been a hot commodity since — stirring up both interest and backlash. This museum depicts history in a way that it has not been widely taught; it acknowledges the achievements of Black American’s as well as historical oppression and inequity, much of which persists today. The exterior was purposefully constructed as a bold, divergent representation of African American culture and stands out from any other museum on
the Mall. Inside, it details a neglected history — one that some of us may have learned snippets of during Black History Month (February, i.e., the shortest month of the year), which is America’s annual acknowledgement of Black achievement and history; the time of year that we take interest in the historical experiences and contributions of Black American’s.
What the National Museum of African American History and Culture does best, perhaps, is that it encourages race-talk — year round.
Indeed, there are no museums exclusively depicting “White American History and Culture” — but have no fear: White American history is reflected in nearly every other sphere of America, and in surrounding museums and monuments. The white-washed history that we have been taught and continue to teach invalidates the experiences of minority groups and prevents any chance for a conversation, thereby thwarting our understanding. This same history that ignores and denies the oppression of minority groups is perpetuated in the very notion of “Making America Great Again.”
American history has been memorialized in the context of White supremacy and the denial of a pervasively oppressive country. This denial is particularly dangerous as it is one- sided; We ignore the intersection of race in every facet of America: from our history to our culture, our economy and so forth. We call ourselves a melting-pot, simultaneously denying the injection of any culture that we perceive as inferior. The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened their doors to open our eyes. For the most well-intentioned people, race-talk can be uncomfortable — though it’s necessary. To recognize the reality of race and racism is the only way to progress and the facilitation of active dialogue surrounding race, historically and today, is one way to foster equality. When will we recognize history for what it is?
For a generous sneak-peek at the museum, see this article by Michelle Norris published in National Geographic in 2016.