A Black Museum in the Age of Black Lives Matter

The opening of the first national museum dedicated to the African-American past is the perfect time to reflect on the American future, in the Bay Area and beyond.

WASHINGTON — It’s a Sunday in September, and I’m watching the slant of morning sunlight fall across the National Mall in Washington, D.C. There is a moment when I first glance up, and the bronze metallic shine of the Mall’s latest addition — the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture — flashes like a golden fire, its warm light glinting against a cloudless, blue sky.

The museum’s shimmer is haunting, lingering, made even more so by the museum’s exceptional design: futuristic, spaceship-like, and reminiscent of a vast brown structure that has landed on a cold, barren world. There’s something about the Afrofuturistic exterior that speaks to the museum’s deep interior function as one of the largest repositories of black history in the country. Opening on Sept. 24, it will be the Smithsonian’s 19th museum, and it comes to the world with a specific, yet deeply complex mission: to record the origins and history of the modern African-American experience.

The museum’s design team was led by British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, who set out to leave an unforgettable mark on the landscape of the National Mall. The museum’s dark skin is as political as its content: wrapped in bronze-colored plates with a patterned metal latticework that references the intricate ironwork craft developed by African slaves in places like New Orleans. Its three-tiered facade is inspired by a Yoruban crown. The overall museum structure itself sits like an unexpectedly dark presence in a sea of white limestone, marble and granite buildings and monuments. The building’s otherness is striking, and the symbolism of its color and its shape cannot be denied. Everything about it says, “Look at me. I am here. I matter, too.”

Of course, its placement is important as well. The 400,000-square-foot museum looms large and magnificent atop five acres of the Mall, not far from the Washington Monument, on the corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, and just three blocks south of the White House. It is the last museum that will ever be constructed on the National Mall, and perhaps, the hardest fought for.

It took 100 years for the museum to become a reality. When the doors of the museum open to the public this weekend, it will be a realization of a dream first seeded in 1915 by black Civil War veterans who asked for a memorial to honor their service. What followed was several decades of efforts by presidents and members of Congress to create a national recognition site for the contributions of African-Americans to the larger American story. The fight was thwarted by political opposition at every turn, and it wasn’t until 2003 that Congress finally designated funding for the project.

But one museum cannot be a measure of a nation’s progress. This is the hard contradiction of this current moment of national recognition. Even as the first African-American presidency comes to an end, even as we celebrate the grand opening of a national monument that lifts the cultural, historical and political contributions of black people, the question of race in the United States is decidedly unresolved.

What is the meaning of a museum underscoring the history and value of black life in the age of Black Lives Matter? What can we learn from the past to help illuminate the present? At a time when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has spurred a national movement among athletes to protest the mistreatment of African-Americans, four years after Trayvon Martin’s death, two years after Michael Brown and Tamir Rice’s deaths, a year after Freddie Gray’s death, and mere days after a 13-year-old boy named Tyre King was shot and killed by police in Columbus, Ohio — what is the national response to the reality of black suffering, 100 years ago and today?

Capturing the full reach of the black American experience, nearly 600 years of struggle and triumph, is not an easy task, and the new museum will only be able to showcase a very small portion of a large, complicated story. To date, there are more than 36,000 items in the museum’s collection, and more than 3,000 artifacts on display in 12 general exhibits. Most of the items are family mementos and heirlooms donated from the public after being found in attics, basements and closets.

Some objects represent a horrific past: a pair of slave shackles, a stone auction block, a bull whip, a bill of sale for a 16-year-old slave girl named Polly, and pieces of stained glass from the bombed 16th Street Baptist Church where four little black girls were murdered. The American contradiction is seen in the statue of Thomas Jefferson, situated in front of a wall of bricks, each bearing the name of a slave who built Monticello, Jefferson’s main plantation.

Some objects represent the never-ending struggle for freedom that is a core part of the African-American experience: a shawl and hymn book belonging to abolitionist Harriet Tubman and a bible belonging to slave revolt leader Nat Turner.

In this museum, we see a story that belongs to the entire nation and a story that can allow the past to speak to the present in powerful and significant ways. Its founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, explained as much in a video produced by the Smithsonian, saying that it is important “to be able to say at the end of the presidency of Barack Obama, to say that this museum will be a safe space to have those conversations, to help you understand what has gone on before, not simply to look back in nostalgia, but to use that as a useful tool to understand the world we’re living in today.”

Acknowledging history’s power is something that Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, a retired professor of history at Sacramento State University, has spent her entire career doing.

The new museum “is groundbreaking, unprecedented,” Moore says. “Our history has always been important, but it is so timely now, at this juncture of our history as Americans, as African-Americans, as world citizens, to have an understanding and solid grounding in our history.”

Tens of thousands of people are expected to attend the grand opening events this week, including the Obamas. Across the country, local events will also commemorate the opening. For those in California, there are a range of celebrations across the state, including one at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, where staff will be live-streaming the festivities happening on the National Mall.

Bringing side-lined histories to the forefront seems to be a big part of the museum’s mission, from content to design.

Shani Jamila, a Brooklyn-based artist, says, “The museum is a game changer. The institution is an extraordinary building, a piece of art, and something we as a community can be proud of.”

As black history spills into the 21st century, the museum will need to continue to reflect this unfinished story of the making of black American life. To understand the legacy of black Americans in Bay Area is to meet a swift-moving current, especially at a time where gentrification is reshaping the landscapes of cities from San Francisco to New Orleans to Washington, D.C., pushing African-Americans out of communities that fermented so many of the cultural revolutions that marked the last one hundred years since the start of the Great Migration. The story of black migration to California and the growth of the Fillmore, the Black Panther Party’s founding in Oakland in 1966, and the story of California’s First Pullman Porters’ Union, also founded in Oakland, are all histories that museums like NMAAHC will need to work to preserve as the Bay Area changes. In 50 years, what will be remembered of the high-profile 2009 Oakland shooting death of Oscar Grant, a case that planted some of the earliest seeds of Black Lives Matter?

American history is being told in the context of a breathing, living world full of contention and contradiction. History is being made inside the walls of museums and outside of them. The next wall of pictures and the next floor of exhibits are places where freedom’s story has yet to be written.

“The more we know about our history, all of our history, the more we see how our struggle for justice and equality and human decency is grounded in the past,” Moore explains. “We aren’t the first people to engage in this struggle, and we stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Desiree Evans is SF Weekly’s national race and justice correspondent.

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