You guys, this place is incredible. It sits just steps away from where the 1963 March on Washington began, at the base of the Washington Monument. The building itself is a work of art – three inverted bronze tiers evoke the crown sculpture motif of Yoruba – a beautiful and wonderful contrast to the uniformly white buildings so common to the Mall.
Inside, the museum is organized into two major themes – history on the lower levels and culture on the top levels. If you’re planning a visit, we recommend starting with the history sections first – it works contextually as well as emotionally to do it in that order. (Just a warning: the museum is super popular right now. Tickets are free, but they are “sold out” through March 2017).
Entering the history exhibits requires a 70 foot descent via elevator to the beginnings of the slave trade. Visitors to the history exhibits are greeted with these words:
Five hundred years ago, a new form of slavery transformed Africa, Europe, and the Americas. For the first time, people saw other human beings as commodities – things to be bought, sold, and exploited to make enormous profits. This system changed the world.
The United States was created in this context, forged by slavery as well as a radical new concept, freedom. This is a shared story, a shared past, told through the lives of African Americans who helped form the nation.
Over the course of three floors we climbed through slavery, emancipation, reconstruction, Jim Crow laws, desegregation, and more, all the way to the end of the Obama Presidency.
There are Klu Klux Klan uniforms, benches from the infamous Atlanta sit-ins, a segregated train car, planes flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, and don’t miss the Emmet Till room – it’s a heart breaker and so very, very important to see.
After finishing the history sections, we paused for food. It was a relief to get off our feet for a while and process the previous few hours. We talked about what we learned, what surprised us, and we shared a very good meal. The cafe here is magnificent. Food inspired by African American culture from different regions of the U.S. is on offer. Check out the menu here.
The culture exhibits are as uplifting as they are impressive. In stark contrast to the hushed and respectful whispers of the lower floors, here there is lively chatter, singing, and laughing. Again, the amount of information on display here is staggering. It’s easy to get lost in it all, but fun too.
It’s a treasure trove of memorabilia from Oprah’s couch to Gabby Douglas’ gymnastics uniform, original costumes from The Wiz to original records from the Jackson Five.
One piece of controversy that’s been in the news, and is hard to not notice, is that there are no displays about Clarence Thomas. He is mentioned briefly in a display about Anita Hill’s sexual harassment testimony against him, but that’s it. Bill Cosby shows up a number of times. I am not sure what to make of it.
In leaving the museum I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that each exhibit – slavery, emancipation, reconstruction, segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, music, dance, sports – could be its own museum. There is enough material to warrant it. And yet it is so powerful to see it all in one place. As densely packed as it is, the sheer concentration of artifacts and history forces us all to bear witness to the incredible impact African Americans have had on the nation’s landscape, and to the impact that this nation has had on them.
This is a continuing saga. This is not a zero sum game. Black Lives Matter.