The “Blacksonian”: A Way Out Of No Way

Washington, D.C.—Some of my friends thought I was crazy for going down to D.C. for the weekend just to see a museum.

That’s exactly what I did this past weekend, when I went to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

If I’d had my way, I would have been among the jubilant crowd that celebrated during the opening weekend of what many people on social media, including me, have affectionately deemed “The Blacksonian”.

And after watching a live stream of the moving dedication ceremony, I was more determined than ever to see it with my own eyes.

Prior to calling New Haven home, I lived in Alexandria, Va., which is just outside of Washington, D.C. For about three years, I spent my Saturday mornings as an ambassador for Black Girls RUN!, running around the National Mall with a group of black women who were breaking down barriers just by being who they were—black American women, running long distances, just for fun.

Our runs often took us past what was then the future site of the NMAAHC. And I wanted to see what had become of that very large hole in the ground we used to run around.

But the free, timed day passes have been harder to get than Beyoncé Formation tour tickets. Like many people, I jumped into the online queue to get two timed passes the first time they were offered, fingers crossed that I could get a weekend in October. I felt like I’d hit the lottery when I successfully made it out of the cue.

I woke up bright and early Saturday morning and arrived at the museum a good 45 minutes before my pass allowed me in; I used the time to just people watch. I watched the black men hawking tote-bags bearing the likenesses of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, reminding everyone to get their bags because there are only a few months left in office.

I struck up a conversation with a black man selling bean pies. I watched as museum staff stood outside and gently told people that all the day passes were long gone and that people had started lining up to get them at 6 a.m. A man with a headset mic, who was not staff, was trying to help people with extra passes connect with people who needed them.

I helped a little girl and her mother take a picture in front of the museum’s sign near the corner of Constitution Avenue and 14th Street. I marveled at all the beautiful hairstyles women were wearing and how so many seemed to have dressed up for their first time on hallowed ground. I know I had chosen my own ensemble carefully, my Coreen Simpson Black Cameo affixed to my jacket.

I spoke. People looked me in the eyes, smiled and spoke back.

It all reminded me of the collective sense of goodwill I felt on the National Mall during President Obama’s first inauguration. And of how I felt this summer when I made my first trip to Martha’s Vineyard. We were all there for the same reason: to celebrate ourselves and the habits of a people who have always made a way out of no way.

That phrase would stick with me throughout my five hours in the museum. In fact, “Making A Way Out of No Way” was written above an exhibit that I can’t recall now, but remember thinking if black folks had a motto, that would be it. And the museum’s eight floors and more than 36,000 artifacts are a testament to that.

Nearly every inch of it is used to tell a story. On the way to the Sweet Home Café you will see an exhibit about the creation of the museum and the 101 years of history behind it. Inside the huge café not only does the food, culled from every region in the country, tell a story, but so do the walls. Even the gift shop has historical footnotes and factoids throughout.

I didn’t brave the 40-plus minutes in line it was announced it would take just to view the museum from the bottom up. Instead, I started out on the fourth floor, where there are interactive exhibits that cover everything from the tradition of stepping to what it was like to be a black traveler during segregation.

I was at the museum with one of my sorority sisters, and we both had a good chuckle about being bad at stepping. We also had more serious discussions about how there are two branches of her family, one in Alabama and another in Tennessee because of an ancestor who had managed to escape from slavery but surprisingly went deeper south. We talked about how my mother’s father, my grandfather, was made to flee the community he and my grandmother had lived in all their lives on the North Carolina/Virginia border because of the threat of lynching.

Everywhere I turned, I saw mostly black people, young and old, riveted by our history and all the things that we have contributed to our country and its culture, but also what we had created for ourselves in a place that seems to have always needed us but never wanted us. It also was a forceful reminder of all the ways that we, as a people, have striven and continue to strive to make America live up to her promises.

America loves to tell the history of her immigrants, and it is a great story of trial and triumph to be sure. But America tends to get a bit tongue-tied when speaking of the people who were enslaved here and their descendants. This museum helps untie that tongue by saying to the world that black people are not America’s problem, or its shame.

Because if you can come up from slavery, if you can come up from Jim Crow Segregation, if you can come up from all the markers in history where nothing less than your complete destruction was part of the plan, you have put a fine point on what people all over the world have been led to believe is possible in these United States.

The museum is an in your face reminder that if America is to ever be truly a great nation, black people must be—demand to be—part of its salvation. We are the rhythm in its redemption song. There will be no saving her without saving us.

The museum left me exhausted physically, but spiritually refreshed. I can’t wait to go back.

Post a Comment

Commenting has closed for this entry

Comments

posted by: Noteworthy on October 20, 2016  1:20pm

Too bad, that a black man’s 25 year history on the U.S. Supreme Court is not even mentioned, not a footnote, not a scrap of paper. Nothing. Yes, Clarence Thomas.

posted by: Dwightstreeter on October 20, 2016  2:09pm

@ Noteworthy:
And what exactly has Thomas contributed?
See Thurgood Marshall’s history for what constitutes contributions.
The museum looks beautiful. More importantly, we all need to know the entire, painful truth about slavery. Let’s have our own Truth and Reconciliation one day.

posted by: robn on October 21, 2016  5:17am

Clarence Thomas = Not a role model

A couple of weeks after Justice Scalia died, Justice Thomas asked his first question in over a decade. ....really?

posted by: Renewhavener on October 21, 2016  7:56am

@MarkeshiaRicks, Thank you for sharing your experiences.  I think the museum is a very valuable project and am glad to see it built.

posted by: Noteworthy on October 21, 2016  8:19am

Are you suggesting the Black Experience is only one sided - it’s not a multi-faceted one? It is no small thing that a black man sits on the highest court in the land. That his view of the Constitution is more conservative makes it what, less black? That he differs from Justice Marshall makes his contribution diminutive? Whether you like it or not, Justice Thomas is a role model for all people of color but especially to those who are black and conservative. Being black doesn’t mean you have to only be a liberal and a democrat.

posted by: robn on October 21, 2016  11:04am

NW

I’m not talking about ideology. I’m talking about talking…more specifically being inquisitive and asking a few questions every once and a while; not once a decade. We don’t pay Supreme Court Justices to take ten year naps.

posted by: EducateourchildrenNH on October 21, 2016  11:25am

@noteworthy,

The only noteworthy item about Clarence Thomas is that he is black. Unfortunately for him, he was not the first to sit on the Supreme Court, and since he is alive his story is still being written, so I understand the decision not to include him in the museum at this time. What I do find interesting, but not very surprising, is that white men like you always find or make up negatives on very positive black stories. Worse yet, your not just content in writing this nations and the world’s HIStory in your likeness, but now to change our story. Your comments concluding that “bring black doesn’t mean you have to only be a liberal and a democrat”  are paternalistic and condescending, as well as a little ignorant. You, a white man, has the nerve and audacity to define what being a black man should be?

posted by: iamhe on October 21, 2016  12:17pm

I admit I am a white guy, and although I have compassion for what black folks have had put upon them, in our country for hundreds of years, I know I can not imagine the scale the scope, the pain and suffering they have had put upon them, back then, and even today…..

Last Night my wife and myself went to see the film “Birth of a Nation” I highly recommend this film… because it shows America in the midst of its 2nd government caused holocaust.

1st it was the Indians, 2nd it was the blacks….. and make no mistake there have been other holocausts after the slavery holocaust, caused by our American Government.

Why? and How could this be? America? YES AMERICA….. What caused this?, is it still going on? YES IT IS STILL GOING ON..

In My Opinion, this is why it happened and why it is still going on and why we are still an uncivilized society, not only in America, but all across humanity.

Our population does not know enough about or how to spot an antisocial personality disordered person, We listen to them, we celebrate them, we promote them, we let them run for elected office, we elect them to Government office, we give them government jobs… and thus our government our social system becomes more sociopathic.

we need laws, tests, and procedures to keep them from running for office, and immediately dismiss them from office, and any government job where they exhibit antisocial psycho/social pathology. Zero Tolerance…....

we can get this done…... and keep sickos out of our government, and off the pulpit, and out of our schools…. and off of broadcast networks and media…

this kind of sickness requires laws to restrict the freedoms and rights of antisocial personality disordered people.

only then will democracy be able to lead us into a more civilized world…

please understand, we can do this with out becoming sociopaths our self, with out creating yet another holocaust.

posted by: Noteworthy on October 21, 2016  12:24pm

There’s a rationale behind Justice Thomas not asking questions - he finds them useless and most of the time, pointless. He says he is influenced by the argument and by looking into the law - all of the work of the Supreme Court is done behind the scenes not in public.  He’s also not as flamboyant as Justice Scalia. When alive, there was little reason for him to say anything given his stated views.

“The only noteworthy item about Clarence Thomas is that he is black.” Wow. And you have to be dead to be noted in a museum? Says whom?

I didn’t write this nation’s nor the world’s history except as my life has been lived - certainly not in the crucible of its most formative years. So couch your criticism in the correct context unless your intent is to denigrate all white men which is exactly what you are doing. I’m not interested in changing “your history.” I’m more interested in it being inclusive of all your history from a commenting on a story perspective. Aside from that, I don’t care enough about the issue to invest any time to register an opinion elsewhere not that it would make much of a difference anyway.

As for this gem: “You, a white man, has the nerve and audacity to define what being a black man should be?” - is patently racist. If you’re going to write it, put your name on it so you can own it in all its glory. Frankly, I’m quite sick of the whole identity movement that says you have to be black to have a valid opinion. And by the way, I’m not “defining” what a black man should be. As individuals, we all choose to define ourselves. In this country, a black man can accomplish anything any other man can, he can be what any other man wants to be. We all choose much of our destiny.

posted by: EducateourchildrenNH on October 21, 2016  1:22pm

@noteworthy,

Audacious! You tell me to include my name in my comments, yet you don’t include yours! Typical superior attitude, “do what I say, not what I do.”

Clean it up as much as you want, and pull the race card (again, another play out of the superior white guy playbook), but the fact that you are telling black folks what they should or should not include in a museum that focuses on the BLACK experience is truly amazing. You really don’t see the contradiction in that thought process?

If you want to “be more inclusive of all your history” then you should be on these pages advocating for that inclusive in mainstream history platforms, instead of trying to change ours “in your image” or thought processes. There are many reasons why Thomas was not included in the current museum displays. Who are you to question the museum’s validity based on YOUR idea of what should be included? And don’t try to argue that your were not doing so, we all know that the statement related to Thomas was a backhanded way to do so. Otherwise, you would have reveled in the awesomeness of the museum rather than focus on one negative and rather insignificant point that is really only made by folks who are anti-black everything.

posted by: Babz Rawls Ivy on October 21, 2016  1:23pm

I cannot wait to make my pilgrimage there! I was filled with a great sense of pride to send my money to become a charter member. It was my commitment to do my part in supporting this long anticipated museum.

Thank you for sharing this! You have fanned the flames of excitement to get there with all deliberate speed!

posted by: EducateourchildrenNH on October 21, 2016  1:27pm

And let’s be honest. 90% of blacks don’t see Thomas as representive of them. He is anti any remedy to institutional racism, doesn’t want other blacks to benefit from the assistance that he received (affirmative action), and married a white woman. He hates the fact that he is black, and to prove it he avoids all things black. My guess is that he probably didn’t want to be included in the museum, probably turned down their requests for articfacts. Sad really.

posted by: robn on October 21, 2016  4:43pm

NW,

Having a public discussion is THE point. That’s why they call it a “hearing”.

posted by: Noteworthy on October 22, 2016  9:17am

Educate:

I’m not the one race baiting or race hating. You are. That’s why you should reveal your identity so if we ever meet, I’ll know you automatically hate me because I’m white. Second, don’t ascribe intentions to me that require you to make heroic leaps in logic and reality. Third, your beef with history books should be addressed to the NHPS, to book publishers and educators. I’m not any of those nor is it my fight. Your comment about being anti-black doesn’t merit addressing.

As for the museum itself, on my next trip to DC - I’m going to visit as our family has toured every other museum and memorial there. This is the latest addition to our rich historical and cultural menu in the Capitol.

posted by: EducateourchildrenNH on October 23, 2016  12:25pm

Noteworthy,

Your first comment was the deginerate the museum, right out the gate. Then you pulled the racism card when you wrote “‘As for this gem: ‘You, a white man, has the nerve and audacity to define what being a black man should be?”’ - is patently racist.”

That was YOU pulling the race card.

Sorry, if you really want to clean it up, admit that you made a mistake with that first comment.