I was always going to go. I didn’t know when, but I knew I was going. It wasn’t even a question. Before another year passed, I was going to this museum. Planning to visit my friend in July who recently moved to the D.C. area, it was a no brainer. #Winning
While my friend was busy working her life away at her job on Friday, I woke up, got my game face on and prepared my mind for the experience I was about to have. I called my Lyft and was on my way.
The museum doesn’t open until 10 a.m., but I was outside all wide-eyed and bushy tailed. I didn’t have a ticket. I was just…there. As I sat outside the museum with all the other early birds, I began to wonder how I was getting in when I kept overhearing that if you didn’t have a ticket, you’d have to come back at 1 o’clock. WHAT!? That was a whole ass four hours away. Nah, fam. Not tah day. I had some culture to see, and history to soak up. Surely I wasn’t going to be hindered from my quest to see the most visited museum within the last eight months?
As luck would have it, the military couple that I was sitting next to adopted me as their cousin so I could get in when the museum opened. Hallelu! Praise Him! I love you sweet baby Jesus! The Lawd heard the cries of my heart! And He said, “let my child in!” And it was so and the doors opened before me. Amen.
I was bubbling with excitement. The museum is huge. A lot of work went into this project and I’m appreciative of that effort. I took the escalator down where we rounded a corner and waited for the elevator to take us down to the uttermost bottom floor. When the door opens…it begins. Everything is bathe in darkness. Only strategically placed lights illuminate the room we all herd into. Part of my essence comes from Queens of Africa, y’all. And I could see their faces and their names in print. Women strong leaders in Africa.
In the beginning, if someone was a slave, they had amassed debt and they worked to pay off that debt. They weren’t owned by anyone. They weren’t sold on a platform to the highest bidder. They weren’t inspected like horses. They weren’t ripped from their mother’s arms and sold to someone for labor. What changed? Sugar.
I wasn’t prepared for the emotional turmoil that gripped me as I walked through the bowls of the dark, dimly lit 1st level. A heavy cloud of gloom cloaked me as I walked across the floor, looking at remnants of shackles, and quotes of horror in the Middle Passage. I had seen these things before in undergrad with the African American Literature courses I took, but still…I wasn’t ready. The way this museum was put together heightens all your senses and gives you a keen sense of awareness. It was really the world against one group of people. And for what? Sugar and the almighty dollar it commanded. That’s beyond eff’d up.
This epiphany chokes your consciousness. The enlarged diagram of the slave ships with their bellies full to the brim with the bodies of people had my feet temporarily glued to the floor. People were stacked on top of each other. Barely able to move. No sunlight. The very idea of the confinement makes my skin crawl. A sense of panic at the idea of not being able to move, stuck in one position for weeks makes my heart beat slightly faster. It’s a feeling of terror. It leaves a bitter taste in your mouth as you walk by the wall of countries emblazoned with the number of Africans transported in the Middle Passage. The numbers are staggering. And have I mentioned that I wasn’t ready? Because, I legit was not ready. I really thought I was…negative.
Just as you become aware of how dark it is in here, and how enclosed you are in this space, the room opens up. It’s just a little brighter now. It’s like stepping off from the ships of horror getting to the Americas and re-acclimated. They never gave up trying to regain their freedom. We’re introduced to the numerous rebellions. Many early rebellions included white indentured servants rebelling side by side with African slaves. It caused enough of a problem that indentured servitude was done away with to keep the bonds of slavery intact and the lines between color drawn in the sands of time. There were rebellions with Native Americans as well and many escaped slaves found refuge in the Florida swamps among Native tribes where they intermarried and settled because the tea drinking Colonists weren’t trying to mess with the swamp land. If you made it there, they weren’t coming after you. You were as good as free.
The rebellion that scared masters? The slave revolt of Haiti. How could a group that was out numbered over power an entire nation to claim their freedom? But they did, and the establishment of slavery was shook. And just when you want to throw your arm in the air and do a fist pump, you’re inundated with another stab of pain. The slave establishment powers that be were scared out of their minds and so the separating of families at every turn was capitalized on. Anything to preserve the might dollar. Follow the money trail and you will see the ugly truth.
We breeze through the heroes of the time; Harriet, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick among them up to the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln was influenced just enough by Frederick Douglas to get the party started and rid the U.S. of slavery. And don’t let anyone tell you any differently. The Civil War was most definitely about the institution of slavery with a few ancillary issues. The war was over and the United States put back together again, but Lincoln’s legacy was cut short and with it, many of the hopes of a clear path of true freedom for Blacks.
With Reconstruction came resistance from those who fought to keep their precious human property. I can imagine the pettiness that ran rampant in the South. Along came the Klan and Jim Crow. And it seems appropriate at this point to mention that many of the statues depicting leaders and prominent figures of the Confederacy began to pop up during the era of Jim Crow. It surely seems like a form of resistance to the efforts of those seeking to be recognized as people and not animals. Pictures of lynchings litter the walls. The levels of petty are astronomical. But my people are a resilient bunch and they still achieved and thrived.
Now we’ve reached the 2nd Floor in our assent and we’re headed towards the Civil Rights Era. The lighting is getting brighter, There’s a lot to unpack on this level. You could probably spend a good 2 hours here. I almost did. We see the Tuskeegee Air Men and their struggles after the War. You see all the sting of black face and cartoonish figures that burned me with fury. There’s Rosa, and Malcolm, and Martin. Edgar, and John Lewis, and the 3 slain Freedom Rides. The lone white woman killed during the Civil Rights Movement. It could all make your head spin and then your heart stops…we’ve made it Emmitt Till who has a room all of his own setup to resemble the procession of a funeral. There are no pictures allowed at the request of the family. Put your phones away.
You’ve probably seen the picture of Emmitt’s mutilated face. Or maybe you haven’t, but you’ve heard the story of the boy who was tortured and thrown into the river. After all, his mother boldly displayed him for all the world to see what had been maliciously done to her son. Emmitt was never meant to be fond, but he was and his story was told. When you get to the back of the room, an open casket awaits you, and if you’re tall enough, or can stand on the tips of your toes like me, you can see into the elevated casket. I flinched back. Inside is the enlarged life like picture of Emmitt as he would be if he were really in the casket. It’s too real. And it’s too painful. It’s the only part of the tour where I felt overcome with emotion to the point of tears. That is some kind of evil to do that to a child. When you pass the casket and come back towards the entrance, there are pictures on the wall and a short video documentary of Emmitt’s family. I’m moved to tears again. In many ways, Emmitt was unfortunately a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement. I leave the room.
Now in the open of the high ceilings, I can breathe again. There is a counter of interactive screens where you can pick choices of what you would do in the various situations of the Civil Rights Movement. It resembles a diner counter. Just behind it is a replica of a segregation train car. I sit on one of the stoles and pick sit-ins first on the screen, followed by freedom rides. There are a series of questions that you answer. What would you do type questions. At the bottom of the screen when you answer, it shows you the percentage of people that have answered that they would do the same. I want to believe that I would get on a bus after just seeing a bus nearly bombed or that I would still go to diners and sit down after seeing a person beaten to an inch of death. Would you risk your life? I suppose the answer is yes if your life is filled with terror and you feel like a prisoner, a slave without shackles or a master, a slave to terror in your community.
And now we’re making our way to the 3rd floor where we’re met with colors and the Black Movement, Black Panthers, Black Feminism, Black Arts Movement. It’s a stark difference from the sense of struggle that we just left. Now we’re inching our way through the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, and the 2000s. Before we make our way out of the 3rd floor, we end in a culmination of where we came from to where we are with the presidency of Barack Obama. I think they managed to find every button and magazine from the beginning of his campaign to his first electoral win. And that heaviness that we’ve amassed through the first 3 floors of the museum is starting to lift just a little.
When you exit, you might think it’s over. You’ll be directed to the Contemplative Court where there’s a soothing waterful, cascading down like rain. I stayed here for a minute to collect myself and my thoughts. I didn’t realize how heavy I felt until I walked into that room and took a deep breath. Take a minute. It. Was. A lot.
I had lunch at the Sweet Home Café inside the museum. Guys…it’s expensive, but the food is good and you’re going to need a bit of nourishment to see the rest of the museum above the ground. Also, you’re feet might be hurting. Just me? Whatevs. I had on my best Nikes and I still felt like I walked a thousand and one miles.
Go back up the escalators to the main floor and then the next set of escalators up to the top. You’ve reached the pop culture portion of the museum. There’s nothing but accomplishment after accomplishment upstairs. The whole area is bathed in natural light in contrast to downstairs where everything goes from dark to gradually lighter. You’re introduced to Blacks in the arts, music, dance, and acting. There’s an extensive area on the music industry, and an area on medical achievements, and of course athletic achievements across all sports and activities. You can see academic accomplishments, news, science, and journalistic achievements. There’s even a section of Greek fraternities and sororities. It’s all here. The museum coordinators really went all out for the entire museum. You can tell that a lot of effort from multiple parties came together to complete this masterpiece.
It’s an emotional trip. It’s a painful walk through history, but it’s not bleak. It’s almost ingenious the way the museum was structured. The higher you get, the lighter each floor gets. Now, I know I’ve already been and I spent half a day at this museum, but honestly, I could go again and still see things I didn’t quite get to take my time and see. There’s so much to soak in. Multiple trips are definitely in order to absorb it all.
I wasn’t sure I would be able to put thoughts down on proverbial paper for this mainly because I wasn’t sure if I could convey all the emotional components in a concise way where you would feel this in every crevice of your soul. I hope I succeed. All that’s left to say here is…IT’S LIT. Expectations were exceeded. Take a trip to D.C. and elevate your mind at this museum.