If you have not already, please make a pilgrimage to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Walking into this massive Smithsonian structure, bronze-colored and branching boldly into the sky above is a must for the melanated, and a double must for our sisters and brothers of other colors. I visited in early December while in our nation’s capital for the White House holiday party, and though I cherished every second of meeting President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, I was almost as blown away by entering this institution 100 years in the making.
It starts with the science behind its design: Visitors take two elevators down to begin their explorations with the slave trade, our horrific entrance to the Americas. Your mind will reel as you encounter facts, including how slavery was indeed everywhere in the 1400s, though it was not necessarly race-based. Powerful quotations from enslaved people will pierce your consciousness, such as this cutting address to his captors from freed slave Olaudah Equiano, circa 1789: “We are torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain.”
This setup is slightly misleading, particularly for those who lament the sheer number of slavecentric movies and television shows. I overheard a little girl, who was White, announce through an iPhone that she was at the “African Slavery Museum.”
As you continue up the labyrinthine structure to the top floors, you (as I’m sure that confused kid did) will note how the story sharply evolves from enslavement to empowerment. Yes, you will tear up at the foot of Emmett Till’s casket. My mom broke down at the sight of the interactive lunch counter boycott exhibit. The specter of segregation struck too close to home for a woman who grew up sitting in the colored sections of movie theaters in Mississippi.
Yet despite the ugliness, the cruelty and inhumanity echoing in those halls, the other thread running from floor to floor and exhibit to exhibit is hope. Your heart will swell with pride at our chefs, scientists, singers, athletes, activists, artists, innovators and politicians. The contributions of our founder, John H. Johnson himself, are immortalized within those walls. This museum is designed to demonstrate that resilience is a part of our people’s DNA. Much like our storied and enviable epidermis, Black “don’t crack.”
It doesn’t matter who inhabits the Oval Office. That indivdual’s supporters can feel as emboldened and unfettered as they want. Let them act out their idiocy in public or lose their jobs gloating on social media. We’ve endured much worse, and we never gave up or lost ourselves.
From bus boycotts to Black Lives Matter, we just need to know what to do and to whom to do it. That is why this February issue, like the museum, focuses on our history. You can’t talk about Blacks “destroying their own communities” without addressing White people’s wanton destruction of our Black Wall Streets. Mainstream whitesplainers can’t mock our brown-skinned women for allegedly adopting the hairstyles of “the oppressor” without an examination of the power of mainstream beauty ideals. Never dare to talk to me, a proud South Side Chicagoan, about “Chiraq” without noting the dearth in jobs for young people or the ugly redlining and failed housing policies that are as lethal as any bullet.
But just as much as we highlight our past and provide context, including through a new series called “In Our Cities,” on p. 42, we must focus on the Black future. Our cover story, poignantly illustrated by the amazing Kadir Nelson, addresses solutions for us by us, such as investing more effectively in our own neighborhoods, shoring up our school systems, defending ourselves against police injustice and protecting our most precious resource, our children.
We, as a people, have suffered in ways that could easily have ended in extermination, but we have always soldiered on, passing on progress to generations to come. That will not change. And from where I sit, they’ll need to make that museum a lot higher to hold all our impending accomplishments.
Onward and upward,
Black History, Black Future
From bus boycotts to Black Lives Matter, we just need to know what to do and to whom to do it.