Visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C.
If you have not yet visited the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, I highly encourage you to do so. I’ve been to museums around the world and have never been so moved as I was by the main experiential exhibit “Slavery & Freedom” they created. It stirred powerful feelings and self-reflections on our nation’s history, as well as on my own privilege.
When planning your visit, keep in mind that the museum is extremely popular and you must secure your tickets ahead of time. As with the other Smithsonian museums, it is located on the National Mall and there is paid street parking available. It’s advisable to where comfortable clothes, particularly comfortable shoes, for those who are able to stand and walk through the exhibits. I also recommend planning to grab a meal at the museum restaurant, Sweet Home Cafe, for some tasty soul food.
Experiencing the Powerful Slavery & Freedom Exhibit
Visitors begin their visit to the Slavery & Freedom exhibit by going down an elevator and being taken into a narrow dimly lit passageway moving through their journey from an overview of European Colonial slave trade moving through a slave ship to slave blocks and then gradually up the exhibit to experience the Civil War and Reconstruction.
From there, visitors move through the Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom exhibit featuring Jim Crow through the 1960s Civil Rights movement. The somber experience allows visitors to walk through segregated train cars as well as to sit at the counters where SNCC held their diner sit-ins to integrate lunch counters. One of the most moving aspects of the experience is the opportunity to view the original casket in which Emmett Till was buried. The Changing America exhibit continues on to show the post-1960s Civil Right era world we’ve cultivated and how the journey for equity has continued into modern times.
Celebrating the Arts and Black Culture
In the upper floors of the museum, there’s a wonderfully celebratory variety of cultural displays featuring the visual arts, music, theater and movies, and sports. One of the most fun interactive exhibits in the upper floors is a room in the Musical Crossroads exhibit allowing visitors to play music that spans across various genres and decades to hear the connections between musical styles.
Reflecting on Privilege
After visiting the main exhibit, I sat down to lunch in the museum cafe with one of my friends from college, Dr. Marcella, a D.C. area pediatrician – whose great, great grandmother was a slave, whose grandmother was a sharecropper in the Jim Crow South, and whose mother was in school at the time of desegregation. As I sat there, it struck me that the primary museum exhibit encompassed the life of each of these four generations of women, including Marcella.
One of the first conversations I had with Marchella in college 22 years ago was about our heritages, my guess is that it started with my frustration at the question: “Where are you from? No, where are you really from, like what country?” She pointed out to me what a privilege it was to be able to answer that question – something I had never stopped and reflected on. Putting aside my annoyance at the typically racist undertones of the question, she and I discussed the fact that I was lucky to be able to know not only the country where my parents emigrated from but also specifics, such as what state, what village my family is from. I’m privileged to not only know which language they speak, but also that it was spoken to me and I understand it. I’m privileged to have had my mom be able to make the South Indian food that my family has eaten for generations. I’m privileged that I grew up watching Bollywood movies and learning Indian dances and that our community was able to safely share in cultural celebrations to continue the legacy of our family’s traditions. We are the fortunate privileged recipients of this gift of celebrating our culture and keeping our culture by the hard fought gains of the Civil Rights movement.
These are all things that were forcefully taken away from my friend’s family because slaves were not allowed to keep their names, languages, religions, customs, food or music. Families were torn apart as people were treated as human capital stock traded between slave owners. It makes me sad to this day to think about this conversation, because I was so blind to the privilege I have even in the midst of subtle racism that’s directed towards me. I could actually answer that question (which is why now when I’m asked I give as long and detailed answer as I possibly can – throws the racists off and is a conversation starter for genuinely interested people.)
As I walked through the main exhibit and sat at lunch with Marcella, I couldn’t help but reflect back to that conversation and all that was stripped away from her not-so-distant relatives just a few generations earlier. For days after I returned home from the exhibit, I wanted to cry and was so angry that these things are treated like they happened so long ago, when in fact there are people alive today who went through these things AND that the struggle continues.
I encourage everyone to go to this museum and to reflect on what privileges you might be blind to – start a conversation with yourself first, by building your knowledge and asking yourself hard questions.
Can’t Visit in Person just yet? Want to Continue the Conversation?
Take a look at the below resources to explore the museum virtually and begin a dialogue now.