The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., is a visual journey that evokes countless emotions in visitors, including me. From the heart-wrenching pain and turmoil of the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the celebration of African Americans’ cultural contributions to American society and ultimately the world, it was an experience in Fall 2016 that I am forever grateful to have had as a young African American man.
The architectural team of Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup designed the visually stunning building located on the U.S. Mall a short distance from the Washington Monument. Its lattice-cut, multi-tiered bronze exterior evokes the image of a large ship and is breathtaking.
Fabulous art and décor by African American artists greet visitors as their tour begins in the well-lit Heritage Hall. I and other visitors were directed to the museum’s darkened “basement” level, and from there I began my four-hour journey through time.
The museum’s aesthetics made me feel like I was experiencing travel aboard a ship. The first level explores “Slavery and Freedom” and covers slave trade between 1400-1877. Its darkness emphasizes the agony of the Middle Passage, when hundreds of slaves lived and died deep in a ship’s cargo hold.
From there, I moved upward to the next concourse, “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation,” ranging from the years 1876 – 1968. One of the most emotional parts of this concourse to me is the Emmett Till memorial. Being born in Mississippi and having this horrific incident occur in a state I call home, this exhibit resonates with me highly. Another portion of this concourse that was quite emotional for me was The Jim Crow Era section, which featured photography and memorabilia from such a gruesome time in America.
The years from 1968 to today are featured in “A Changing America,” which presented various memorabilia from the era most of us in society call our childhood. The Oprah Effect was highlighted in this concourse, featuring Oprah’s signature couch from her self-titled talk show. Growing up watching Oprah Winfrey’s show with my family, this section offered a very nostalgic element to me.
After the pensive and introspective experiences of the concourses, a celebration of our culture awaited me and my fellow travelers on the museum’s upper three floors, which feature community and cultural galleries, along with a “Learn More!” exhibit with interactive displays. One of my favorite parts of the upper floors was the cultural galleries, featuring examples of cultural influence we have made to society, such as gestures of dismissal.
Throughout the tour, I experienced a wide range of emotions, from sadness, resentment, disgust and anger, to pride, joy, happiness and hope. The history I experienced at the museum is history every citizen of this country should be made aware of, especially today. When I saw in one of the interactive areas a young, white boy wearing a “Make America Great Again” Donald Trump election cap, I knew that while our story has reached many, it still has such a long way to travel.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in September 2016 and has received more than 1 million visitors. While tickets are free, it is important to plan ahead and reserve visitors’ passes online at nmaahc.si.edu. On March 1 at 9 a.m. eastern time, June 2017 passes will be released and individuals can reserve up to six passes. Complete information and a virtual reality tour are online at nmaahc.si.edu