African American Museum

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I finally got a chance to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Thankfully, that mouthful has a shorter name: The Smithsonian Institution web site just calls it the African American Museum. Tickets are still hard to get, but my mom managed to get advance tickets online, but you have to get those three months ahead of time.

Oh, and there's no photo gallery this time, because I forgot my camera. Sorry.

The Museum as a Museum

I don't think the museum is very well designed. I don't think it's ugly, it's more of a functional problem. Aesthetically it does nothing for me. I don't really like it or dislike it. Up close the panels making up the trapezoidal shapes on the outside are nice, but the overall design does nothing for me. I do appreciate that it is different, like the American Indian Museum. We have enough stone blocks fronted with columns in this city.

What bothers me is the functionality of the design. I first noticed it walking up to the museum. The walkways from Constitution Avenue to the museum crisscross. But everyone knows that people will want to walk straight to the door, as an infinite number of worn paths across green lawns prove. So they have to rope off the grassy areas around the museum to keep people from doing that. When you get inside you have two choices: go to the top and come back down, or go to the bottom and come back up. I don't like the forced narrative it tries to impose. I don't think it works well in a museum setting, especially one as content rich as this one. It took me three hours to get through one floor out of six. Everyone I've talked to has said this is a multiple visit museum, but you can't come back and pick up where you left off. You have to back to the beginning, work your way through the maze of what you saw before, and then you can pick up where you left off.

The displays are also problematic. Most of them are glass panes in front of tilted panels with text on them. But the panes have support beams, so unless you are right in front of the text you are reading, there is a beam blocking your view. And since the museum is so popular and crowded, it's hard to be right in front of the text you are reading. Some of them aren't well explained. A pistol I saw had a description about how blacks wore their civil war uniforms after war, but said nothing about the pistol.

But as I said, this is a content rich museum, and the content is important. Despite all the problems I have listed here, I have absolutely no problem going back again. Multiple times.

A Three Hour Tour, A Three Hour Tour

As I said, it took me three hours just to get through the first floor of history. I go to museums with my mom quite a bit. She is old and slow. I'm usually waiting around for her to finish, but she wandered away from me quickly, and I eventually found her up on the top floor. Note to other visitors: cell phone reception on the first two floors is really bad, because they are underground.

I took so long because I just don't know this stuff. And this is basic, important American history. But thirty years ago Virginia public schools seem to have glossed over a fair bit of history. I can't figure out how I missed so much of the history of slavery and the Civil War growing up in the state with the most history teaching Civil War statues per capita in the country. Hmm.


The first floor deals with slavery, from it's beginnings in America and Europe, to it's American (mostly) end in the Civil War. Since I spent most of my time there, that's what I will have to focus on. I plan to go back, and will hopefully add more to this article when I do.

The first thing that stuck me was that Africa was not as under-developed as I thought. There were large cities, nations, and trade empires on the continent when the Atlantic slave trade began. Yet somehow I have this vision from upbringing in America of Africa as a bunch of half-naked black people living in mud huts. Many of these groups participated in the slave trade, and yet many more tried (with varying degrees of success) to resist the slave trade. And the Africans at the time were clearly not less intelligent either. Not all of the South was based on cotton. South Carolina in particular had large rice industry. But the Africans of the time knew how to cultivate rice better than the South Carolinian whites. That was one of the traits that was often looked for by slave purchasers in South Carolina: expertise with rice crops.

The thing that stuck me most was the heavy metal shackles sized for children.

The economics of the whole thing really struck me as well. The Southern economy was based on some very labor intensive industries. Even the advent of the cotton gin merely shifted the labor from de-seeding the cotton to getting more cotton to de-seed. Even where the slaves weren't as needed for labor intensive crops, clearing the land for agriculture and habitation was a huge task. Market forces for cheaper labor drove the expansion of slavery throughout the South. These are the same market forces that conservatives want to unleash upon our economy, and the same market forces that have kept wages stagnant during a large and prolonged bull market.

Slavery is also the origin of much of the wealth inequality we see today. It set up a very rich class of white slave owners. Under them were the poor white non-slave owners, who were still very aware of the benefits of their position relative to the slaves. At the bottom were the slaves. Low social mobility means that much of the wealth inequality that existed back then has carried through to the modern day.

Having grown up in Charlottesville, the home of Thomas Jefferson and the university he built, I was fascinated to learn that Jefferson was confronted in his time about owning slaves. The contradiction, of course, has to do with his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the phrase "All me are created equal." There was an educated black man who was a contemporary of Jefferson's (whose name I unfortunately did not copy down) who wrote Jefferson a letter challenging him on that very point. Jefferson replied and dismissed his arguments, basically saying that African blacks were inferior to European whites, and not really "men" in the sense that he meant.

I also found it interesting how white slave owners feared slave communities. They realized that black communities could be a powerful force to aid slave rebellions, run away slaves, and emancipation movements. They actively worked to destroy the communities that were formed among slaves. They didn't break apart slave families due to indifference, they did it to actively sever bonds that could help foster community. I also learned about the communities of run-away slave called maroons, that existed in wilderness areas. When slave rebellions did happen, or when the rate of run away slaves became a problem, restrictions on slaves, slave communities, and free blacks were all restricted, usually by law. Laws were made about when slaves could be in public, when they could be alone, when they could move around.

This reminds me so much of today. We jail black fathers and mothers, we segregate their communities, we give them poorly funded and maintained schools. All of this destroys their community. And then when it is shown that African Americans are doing worse in today's economy, we decry the problems with black culture. The black culture that we have destroyed. And when Muslims (who are clearly more associated with dark skin in this country) blow up some buildings, we restrict movement form Muslim majority countries. I see this again and again when I study African American history. It started with reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X, and I kept thinking, "This shit hasn't really changed." I'm not sure it's even history repeating itself. I'm beginning to think that we just delude ourselves into thinking that things have changed, and then slowly realize that they never really did.