It’s here! It may have taken 13 years to create, but the Smithsonian finally completed the National Museum of African American History & Culture, opening it on September 24, 2016. Yet despite its having been open for two and a half years already, the museum is still so popular that though tickets are free, you have to get on its website at 6:30 the day you want to visit in order to get up to 6 passes in order to enter. On weekdays, you can sometimes make a walk-in visit after 1 p.m. If you are really organized, you’ll get on the website on the first Wednesday of the month three months before your planned trip to order tickets, but I had to order mine the morning of my visit.
Last time I was in Washington, D.C., it was one week before the opening of the newest Smithsonian, so I didn’t get to tour the museum then. Thus, the first tourist visit I made upon arriving in this city this trip was to the African American History Museum, and my high anticipation was not disappointed. I downloaded the official app, NMAAHC, in advance, but I hardly actually used it because the museum was already so well organized and presented that the app was an unnecessary addition.
The museum recommends starting at the top floor and working your way down, but after doing so, my friends and I concluded that it would have been better to start at the bottom and work our way up. The museum consists of four levels above ground and three concourse levels below ground. Those three levels cover the history of Africans in America from the 1400s to the present day. This exhibit covers the history in a powerful, interactive manner. We were faced with images of the Middle Passage, the ship ride in which kidnapped Africans were packed tighter than sardines into ships and brought to the New World to be worked to death.
We saw implements used in slavery and celebrated the achievements of those who stood up to this barbarism. I enjoyed getting to see the beautiful white shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria, along with Tubman’s cherished hymnal.
The civil rights section of the history exhibit was especially powerful to me, as it included more interactive elements than the earlier part, letting us walk through a train to see the segregated sections and vicariously participate in civil rights protests through a digital program where we got to select how we would behave in given situations, such as bus boycotts, cafeteria sit-ins, or school desegregation. Shirley Samson pointed out that this was an effective exhibit because it made you place yourself in the shoes of the people involved in the Civil Rights movement. It was also effective because it was family friendly and not traumatic for children but could be used to educate them about how African Americans used nonviolence to achieve greater rights. The exhibit focused more on the longterm goals, both accomplished and still yet to be met. Somehow, however, we missed going through the recreation of Emmett Till’s funeral, which I am certain was powerful.
The upper levels of the museum focus on the achievements of African Americans and the contributions the community has made to the greater American society. I felt that this section would be understood better if you had all the historical background from the lower sections. In addition, it would have been nice to conclude our visit on a high note of joy instead of the lower note of this country’s evil racial past. The upper sections covers so many aspects of the culture that I won’t even try to address all of them. Instead, let me tell you about a few special exhibits.
I enjoyed the section on African American achievements in sports, which highlighted such details as the Negro Baseball League, the accomplishments of Joe Louis against white boxers, the success of Jesse Owens in the face of Nazi white supremacy in the 1932 Berlin Olympics, Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in baseball, Michael Jordan’s success as the best basketball player in history, and the Williams sisters’ achievements as the greats in tennis. My one disappointment was that my mom’s hero, the New York/ San Francisco Giant great Willie Mays did not make an appearance.
I found powerful a section on African Americans in the military throughout the history of the country. It contained photos and artifacts from each major U.S. military conflict, highlighting how many African Americans served and were killed in each. I was disappointed, however, that while it mentioned the Boston Massacre (1770) to complete the chronology, it did not include any mention of the fact that Crispus Attucks, the first of the five men killed in this event, was of mixed African American and Native American heritage, giving more connection to the topic of the museum.
In addition to the catalog of wars, I was moved by a section with photos of the African Americans who earned the Medal of Honor. The image here is just one of the two walls covered with photos.
The museum also contains an extensive section on African American contributions to American influence on entertainment in the U.S. It had sections on movies, television, music, dance, and art. I appreciated the display on Ntozake Shange’s powerful play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf. I loved getting to see the original dresses from the play and just the fact that this play that made such an impact on me years ago was highlighted.
As Alex Bacigalupi said, “I liked a lot [about the museum]. The history section obviously was great, but to me the section where I was the more in awe, and I had the most, ‘Oh my God, look at this stuff!’ was on the top floor. . . . I knew most of the history because I had a good education. It was nice to see it represented. It was very well done and very well thought out.” However, Bacigalupi had a much stronger connection to the culture section.
Bacigalupi especially enjoyed getting to relive the television shows of his childhood, such as The Jeffersons, Good Times, Sanford & Sons, 227, and Amen. In addition, one of the highlights for him was getting to see Chuck Berry’s car. Unfortunately, so many people were crowding in to get photos with it that we never succeeded in getting one with him in it! Bacigalupi particularly appreciated the attention given to the rap group Public Enemy, which was displayed prominently both upstairs in the music section and downstairs in the Civil Rights section.
Shirley Samson and I were both impressed to learn how many African American women were involved in the women’s suffrage movement, as well as the influence of African languages on English.
One of the thrills of the trip for me was getting to meet a member of one of the African American fraternities highlighted in a display on Greek societies. At the display, I came upon Oluwatomisin Enitan, a member of the Alpha Iota chapter of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, the oldest predominantly African American fraternity still in existence founded west of the Appalachians, having been founded January 5, 1911. The fraternity champions academic achievement and community service, being a supporter of the United Negro Fund and Habitat for Humanity. Enitan, who joined this fraternity at Morgan State University, exemplifies the positive aspects of this fraternity, being scheduled to enter medical school at SUNY Upstate Syracuse in the fall.
The next time you plan to be in Washington, D.C., I highly recommend that you put the National Museum of African American History & Culture high on your list of places to visit. I was highly impressed by the detail and extensiveness of the exhibits, with the scholarship that went into the creation of this impressive museum. However, despite great research, the museum is highly accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. A newly arrived international student from China will find as much to appreciate as a scholar of African American history, and people of all ages can appreciate it too. On a final note, I went crazy in the gift shop, finding some unique souvenirs to give to family and friends of various ages, including t- shirts, mugs, bags, sno- globes, and 25 pencils decorated with the Emancipation Proclamation that I will give to the children in my church and otherwise in my life. These are unique and will offer me the opportunity to discuss this document important to our country’s history with the children. While it seems that I’ve written a lot in this review, I barely touched upon the many fascinating details of this museum. If you go, plan to stay a full day if possible. It is well worth the time and trip!