A couple of years ago, I visited the newly opened National Museum of the American Indian in downtown Washington, D.C. It was incredible — built with an inspiring level of detail that reflected the spiritual beliefs and community traditions specific to hundreds of indigenous “first nations” in authentic displays, interactive exhibits, and multimedia presentations.
My brother and I even made a traditional cedar bracelet to remember the experience. At the end, we sampled the variety of tastes among the different Indian nations at the museum’s spacious restaurant.
Therefore, I have no doubt that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is unparalleled in its representation of the centuries-long, often stony road African Americans have trod in the United States.
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The architecture itself is exquisite, reflecting the sensibilities of a designer from the African continent. The curating team is top notch: well-trained and passionate about Black history.
I expect that our significant contributions to entertainment and athletics will of course be shown, but equal if not greater attention will be paid to our advances in technology, education, politics, the sciences, human rights, and every other important area of society.
It just seems a little bittersweet because aside from the celebrity concerts and gala events that marked the museum’s long-awaited opening weekend, African Americans continue to simmer with rage built up from the latest police shootings in the days leading up to this historic occasion. Perhaps the uneasy contradiction accurately sums up the extremes of African American life: world-class talent and blood on the sidewalk.
In the age of camera phones, dash cams, and body cams, it has become a sick sort of normal to watch Black men, women, and children being blown away in real time. Tyre King, Terrence Crutcher, and Keith Lamont Scott are real human beings, yet this kind of death inevitably reduces them to hashtags and justice campaigns – a Change.org petition I received after Crutcher and Scott were killed puts the total at 788 police-involved killings.
A march here, a prayer vigil there, and every so often, a fiery rebellion explodes. The Justice Department files a case, a grand jury is convened, only to dash the hopes of activists with a long report full of recommendations that have no power to change a thing, a determination of insufficient cause for trial, or in the rare case of a jury trial, an acquittal.
Then there are the explanations and debates justifying this loss of life. How many more times do we have to decide whether an allegedly stolen pack of cigarillos, a marijuana roach (in a country where the substance is becoming decriminalized and legalized), a BB gun, a legally registered gun, loose cigarettes, bootleg CDs, or an “aggressive” facial expression or tone of voice is reason enough for a law enforcement officer to take your life? How many more times do we have to compare some unarmed guy on the side of the road to cold-blooded mass murderers who are taken in to custody alive?
How much can our collective hearts take? How many times can we subconsciously place ourselves or our loved ones in the shoes of the slain, wondering if we will one day become the victim of a bad traffic stop, mistaken identity, or some officer’s fear of dying, which mysteriously seems to be most activated in the presence of a Black person? Wondering what we can do to prevent it?
The paranoid mentality of surviving basic public interactions, the hypervigilance of not making a simple mistake, the need to regulate one’s natural human emotions in the presence of an armed and possibly disrespectful police officer – none of these ways of thinking and acting are healthy for us, physically or mentally. It is not something most Americans have to endure. Yet it deserves an entire floor in the new African-American museum, because this form of terrorism has been affecting us since our ancestors first set foot in Britain’s North American colonies.
It feels almost sacrilegious to celebrate in the midst of ongoing tragedy, but that, too, defines us as a people. How else did our ancestors survive being forcibly removed from their families and communities and then exposed to bondage, segregation and racial aggression, and a lengthy campaign of psychological warfare designed to make us ashamed and self-hating?
In his speech during the museum’s opening ceremony, President Barack Obama touched on the contradiction between this grand accomplishment and the ongoing police murders. He declared it to be “the place to understand how protest and love of country don’t merely coexist, but inform each other…. How we can wear an ‘I Can’t Breathe’ T-shirt and still grieve for fallen police officers…. This museum provides context for the debates of our times. It illuminates them and gives us some sense of how they evolved.”
Obama also painted a realistic portrait of what a museum – even a thoughtful and profound one – won’t do: “A museum alone will not alleviate poverty in every inner city, or every rural hamlet. It won’t eliminate gun violence from all our neighborhoods or immediately ensure that justice is always colorblind. It won’t wipe away every instance of discrimination in a job interview or sentencing hearing, or folks trying to rent an apartment.”
This brings me back to the other “minority museum on the Mall” – the other catchall ethnic group that has been through hell ever since the Spaniards and British began to explore the Western hemisphere. As a recent Washington Post article points out, “It’s easy to forget that for a long time, in many quarters, the word ‘museum’ has been a bit suspect. To say that something ‘belongs in a museum’ is another way of saying that it belongs to a forgotten or dead past or has become irrelevant.”
Throughout both my mother’s and my generation, the “cowboys and Indians” story has been extremely popular in American movies and television. It even seeps in to the annual Washington vs. Dallas football rivalry that takes over our hometown from August to February. The Native American Indian plays a big role in the Thanksgiving mythology that is used to explain how a continent full of so-called “red men” became predominately European or “white” – at least until 2050, according to statistical predictions.
In spite of the Native American Indian nations’ prevalence in American popular culture over the decades, I was 20 years old the first time I actually met any American Indians, and I had to go to where they were – a Navajo reservation in Utah, as part of a university community service project. It was more than sad to see people who had once lived freely all over the southwestern region of what is now America confined to barren stretches of desert, with not even a stream or stand of trees to help them sustain their livelihoods.
I will definitely make a trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture the next time I am visiting my family. Probably I will round up a few younger folks and carry them along with me. But I won’t see it as a symbol of our arrival or acceptance in to American society. Rather, I will get all preachy with them and say, “America has been trying to wipe us out and control us since they brought our ancestors here. Let these exhibits remind you to keep fighting for our dignity and even our lives.”