We Made America Great

Washington D.C. – It’s 90 degrees at noon on the corner of Constitution and 14th street. I walked past a man selling ice-cold water bottles for $1 and stepped into the air-conditioned lobby of the newest Smithsonian Institution. I made it! The National Museum of African American History and Culture. I knew I was going to be overwhelmed with inspiration and knowledge.

The overall design of the museum is brilliant. The interior construction is intended as a progression; to mimic the current African American culture. The Museum opened its doors to the public on September 24, 2016. An Act of Congress established it in 2003. Which means, former president, George W. Bush, initially approved the project, but it was our 44th president, Barack Obama, who helped bring the vision to life.

After completing security checks, I visited the gift store before heading down to the lower level galleries. Once I finished browsing through literature, trinkets, and textiles, I headed to the crowded escalators. I waited in a line, which wrapped around the entrance of the Sweet Home Café. The 30-minute wait gave me the allotted time I needed time to admire the building a bit more. The interior features welcomed natural lighting, which streamed through the perimeters and the ceiling. It was like a breath of fresh air compared to the heaviness of what I was about to see. 

I was dropped off via elevator to the bottom level of the gallery along with about 50 other people. It was warm, crowded, and uncomfortable. Did I mention there was only one bathroom in that gallery? There were three long levels of history, miles of walking, and one accessible bathroom. If you missed your opportunity to go, you had to relieve yourself at the restroom in the lobby and start all over. Now that I’m back on familiar land, I can appreciate the symbolic simulation of the lower levels. It was as if we were all slaves.

 As my stranger friends and I navigated through the historical timeline, we didn’t know where we were going.  We just knew we had to keep walking straight. In some cases, I was shoulder to shoulder with other strangers who were trying to make Snapchat videos, take pictures, and read all of the horrific details of my ancestor’s past. Can you sense the irritation? Now image being even closer to those strangers with minimal clothes, no bathrooms, and on a boat headed to your worst nightmare. 

The museum did a great job of stimulating my senses. I heard stories, watched videos, read quotes and saw artifacts such as Nat Turner’s bible. The details of that period were astonishing.  The number of slaves that survived on slave ships was painted on the walls.

Once the history surrounding the capture of African Americans ended, space opened up and I got a chance to see the stories of those who survived. Advertisements for slaves that were to be sold were printed all over the next set of walls. The advertisements were especially eye opening because it was the first time I saw how the division of the black community was started. Close your eyes and imagine seeing the words “Dark, one eye, slave for life $2” as well as “light and loyal $50,” printed on the back of a newspaper.

As I weaved in and out of the time periods, my emotions were toyed with. I went from crying after seeing the Emmett Till exhibit, to raising my fist in the air for black power, and finally celebrating the success of Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey. Can’t forget about the crack epidemic and the civil rights movement. I even danced along to the Jackson 5 and rapped the lyrics of Kendrick Lamar. I saw the evolution of style, life changing photography, and modern art. The culture was and still is legendary. 

However, in light of recent racial events emerging all across the country, some may say otherwise. Some may conclude that African Americans are moving backward. Some may even want to make America great again or revert to the time when we were enslaved.

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Visiting this museum, not only changed my perspective, it encouraged me to empower others. Now is a better time than ever for African Americans to encourage themselves and recognize the power that we have within. In the words of Countee Cullen do you know who you are?


Hey Black Child

Do you know who you are

Who you really are

Do you know you can be

What you want to be

If you try to be

What you can be

Hey Black Child

Do you know where you are going

Where you’re really going

Do you know you can learn

What you want to learn

If you try to learn

What you can learn

Hey Black Child

Do you know you are strong

I mean really strong

Do you know you can do

What you want to do

If you try to do

What you can do

The details could not be made up even if I tried.

Hey Black Child

Be what you can be

Learn what you must learn

Do what you can do

And tomorrow your nation

Will be what you what it to be

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