The American Story
As a new Smithsonian Museum is set to portray the furious flowering of black history and culture, MEANS helps to draw the curtain with this great piece by Lonnae O'Neal...
[Last] Saturday morning, multitudes gathered to celebrate the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall, the first African-American president of the United States dedicated the space, and a chorus of voices sang a jubilee.
In the centuries leading to that great gettin’-up morning, there have been fights for freedom, marches for dignity and hopes for children unborn. The descendants of those enslaved at the birth of this nation struggled to be seen and understood, producing a furious flowering of creativity that is the first language black people use to talk to God.
And all of that will be on display.
Twelve inaugural exhibitions move from slavery and segregation through music, fashion, sports, activism, art and more. From abolitionist “General” Harriet Tubman’s shawl to boxer Muhammad Ali’s headgear. There is a guard tower from Angola prison in Louisiana and a Cadillac from Chuck Berry. Nearby, the “Holy Mothership,” from Parliament Funkadelic, helps make Smithsonian’s funk the P-funk.
The museum traces its origins to efforts to memorialize black Civil War veterans more than a century ago. That modest goal has transformed into a $540 million, 400,000-square-foot building that spans five acres adjacent to the Washington Monument. It stands as a fully realized iteration of the American imperative: to form a more perfect union.
In 2003, after the museum was authorized by Congress, there were millions of dollars to raise and a building to construct on a site yet to be determined. It would house a collection that did not yet exist, in a nation that remains in a state of convulsive unpreparedness for racial dialogue and reckoning.
The country had yet to erect a national memorial etching the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr. in the permanence of stone. Had not yet elected Barack Obama president.
Yet, soon the museum will open its doors. “I can feel the weight of community expectations,” founding director Lonnie G. Bunch, 63, said, sitting inside the museum’s sports gallery a few weeks ago. A video history of blacks and baseball played on a continuous loop nearby and mixed with the whine of construction tools. “You feel the weight of thousands of people coming up to you saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’”
Those expectations sometimes wake him up after midnight, but he has always used history to settle down. “Right in my office is a picture of a woman who was born a slave and she is walking up a hill, carrying a hoe that’s taller than her. A basket that’s heavy.” And when the pressures and obligations of building this American museum have seemed like too much, “I look at her,” Bunch said. “And I think if she’s still walking tall, well, so can I.”
It’s the triumph of keep on keepin’ on, of looking back and pressing forward. America’s front porch has been opened anew, and it’s a fact especially understood by those who had to jostle mightily for their place on it...