Thoughts on the National Museum of African American History and Culture

While in Washington DC today,

I visited the new Smithsonian National Museum of American American History and Culture. It only opened this past September 2016, and was the first new museum since the National Museum of the American Indian opened in 2004. All the buzz had said it was EXCELLENT, but that getting in was a challenge due to long lines.

The museum uses a timed-entry system to give out passes FOR FREE (like all Smithsonian museums, yay!) each day first come first serve starting each morning, and walk-up tickets are supposedly available after 1pm. I only decided to come this afternoon. Around 1:45pm was initially told by a guard that the walk-up tickets had been given out for the day, but within a few moments I was asked to wait by an orange sign, and another employee came over and handed me an entry. I got in a little after 2pm, so 10 minutes waiting, with no advanced plan to come. Then again, it’s just me.

So to begin with, as with LGBTQ issues, I don’t want to use the excuse “It’s not my world, so I don’t about XYZ.” Rather, coming here, and much like the Native Indian experience as well, a different approach might be, “Wow, I am disgusted that I wasn’t taught ANY of this…”

The museum begins, as one would hope, with a glimpse into life both along the west coast of Africa—from which most America(s)-bound slaves were taken—as well as in the various European nation-states that instituted the sale of human beings for profit and economic growth. The museum pulls no punches in describing the depravity of invading colonialists. There isn’t any moral leg to stand on, and our country is built on plenty of broken backs. Fortunately, the museum does work to highlight both voices of resistance, and voices of those within the African communities forced into impossible choices and sacrifices. I spent over an hour reading every panel from the 1400’s through the Revolutionary War, which was both captivating and forced me to rush through the remaining museum exhibits.

A few things I noticed:

Benjamin Banneker seems to get a bit stiffed. His feature is in reference to his letters to Thomas Jefferson and another paragraph says he was “involved with the surveying of Washington D.C.. As I recall hearing an at least apocryphal telling of the story, this man was an requited genius with a photographic memory. While assisting Pierre L’Enfant and Andrew Ellicott with the surveying, also managed to trace lost entirely plans back from memory, leading to the city we know today.

I guess it is hard for a museum to report things that cannot be confirmed, it just goes to show how little we actually know or cared to record about the black and African-American individuals who shaped our country. Personally, I’d have put the story there, even with a disclaimer, rather than a footnote that he helped two white people—even if that alone would have been remarkable for the time. The fact he did something spectacular is probably why anyone remembers his name at all, even if history has lost the proof of why.

The museum is surprisingly cisgender and heteronormative.

For a museum that opens in 2016, I’d really have hoped to have seen more reference to LGBTQ history as it relates to the Black and African-American communities considering role of people of color (including black and African-American) in this cause since and even before the Stonewall Riots.

Starting with the museum’s acknowledgement of sexual assault, there is a little paragraph on a wall that discusses the fact slave owners abused their captives, first relating to male owners of female slaves. No surprise there, rape is like toes on the footnotes of human history. It also says a line like: Young black men were also abused by some white women and men. No surprise there, some slave owners were gay. I wish we could find more hard accounts of this happening, to plaster on poster boards next to anyone waving a confederate flag around. “They were gay too! We have proof!”

And inevitably, the first reference to homosexuality is never as a loving consensual relationship, but rather as an assault.

Later in museum’s discussion of the segregation,  emphasis put on the “Whites” and “Colored” signs on hotels, restaurants, waiting areas, and even a full segregated train car (in process of being installed for people to walk through). As an aside, its presence immediately reminds me a little of another museum in D.C. that has a train carriage. What I didn’t really see directly referenced were bathrooms. I wish it could have been a point more boldly emphasized, that people were once painted as perverse and predatory based solely on their skin color, and that the justification for this discrimination might have been… hmm… privacy… yeah. Sounds familiar.

Later, we skip to a block that says, “The Movement Inspires Others,” where the words gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender, finally make an appearance. No specific names are mentioned, and the artifact is a single “remember stonewall” button from San Francisco. Really, a single button?

Why are Miss Major Griffen-Gracy and Marsha P. Johnson not in this museum? Or that black (and other POC) trans women are still at DISPROPORTIONATE THREAT of violence, sexual assault, and murder to this day, even as the moral arc of the universe does “bend toward justice” for racial and LGBTQ equality, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once suggested? To be fair, I only saw Michael Jackson once in the museum, but the did manage to find space for Bill Cosby. We know a lot more about him now than when the exhibit was planned no doubt, but this opened less than a year ago.

To be fair, I only saw a fraction of it on this first trip, and did not have time for the upstairs galleries. The restaurant inside, which features dishes from African-American cultures around this country (though sadly, none from Africa itself) also looks fantastic and reasonably priced. It also closes at 5:30pm, if not earlier, with the museum, which is unfortunate because it would have been a wonderful way to end the afternoon.

All in all, this was a captivating and alarming tour through one of the saddest chapters in the making of the nation I now get to appreciate. I simply wish we’d by 2016 be doing a better job of highlighting stories across sexual orientations and gender identities along the cisgender and heterosexual mainstream narrative in a Smithsonian-class museum. I owe my ability to exist to women like Miss Major and Marsha, as trans women of all colors do. Put her in a national African-American heritage museum, so that she doesn’t become another Benjamin Banneker, whose stories can never be best recalled or retold by white people like me.

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