Thanks to the magic powers of Sheila Switzer, AAFSW Program Chair, who managed to secure forty VIP entries for our AAFSW members, we all gathered on Thursday, December 8, 2016 to enjoy a visit at the new addition to the Smithsonian, the outstanding National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Although most of us were separated in smaller groups, we were all equally amazed with the exterior beauty of the museum as well as the extraordinary presentation in the interior galleries of the museum. Some of us enjoyed some reflection time at the museum’s internal fountain. Others enjoyed an African American cuisine lunch at the Sweet Home Café, which features authentic flavors from four regions of the USA, in a dining room full of photographic mementoes of the African American story.
The NMAAHC building (as a “container”) embraces its content, which is the American story, told through the lens of African American history and culture. Lead designer David Adjaye and lead architect Philip Freelon designed this emblematic museum. From one perspective, the building’s architecture follows classical Greco-Roman form in its use of a base and shaft, topped by a capital or corona. The corona is inspired by the three-tiered crowns used in Yoruban art from West Africa. The building’s main entrance is a welcoming porch, which has architectural roots in Africa and throughout the African Diaspora, especially the American South and Caribbean. By wrapping the entire building in an ornamental bronze-colored metal lattice, Adjaye pays homage to the intricate ironwork that was crafted by enslaved African Americans in Louisiana, South Carolina, and elsewhere. The enveloping lattice also opens the building to exterior daylight, which is symbolic for a museum that seeks to stimulate open dialogues about race and to help promote reconciliation and healing. From the topmost corona, the view reaches ever upward, helping to remind visitors that the museum is an inspiration open to all as a place of meaning, memory, reflection, laughter, and hope.
Lonnie Bunch III, NMAAHC’s Founding Director, believes that the African American experience is the lens through which we understand what it is to be an American. The interior of the museum includes the lower part with the History Galleries that reflect the early times of slavery into the Civil War and freedom (1400-1877), the era of segregation and lynching when freedom was defended and defined through the Civil Rights’ Movement (1876-1968), and the changing America (1968 Martin Luther King’s Assassination, 1968 Civil Rights Act to the Obama Presidency and beyond). One of the upper levels of the museum included the Community Galleries where the African American military experience is portrayed as a double victory while sports are portrayed as the means of leveling the playing field for African Americans. The very top floor of the museum includes the culture galleries, which showcase the numerous extraordinary African American contributions to the visual arts, music, theater, movies, television, and other unique cultural expressions. NMAAHC pays tribute to the fact that African Americans have survived slavery, fought for their freedom in the Civil War, for the freedom of others in subsequent wars, and created lives of meaning for themselves, their families, and their country.
On a personal note, walking through the museum, Samuel von Pufendorf’s quote from 1673 came to mind: “More inhumanity has been done by man himself than any other of nature’s causes.” On November 28, 2016, Time magazine published its weekly issue with the cover of the most influential photos of all time. I went back many times and read over the article and the photo captions on pages 82-83, which refer to the 1955 barbarous lynching and tragic death of 14-year-old Emmett Till and the decision that his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, took when she talked to her son’s funeral director: “Open casket, please. Let the people see what I have seen.” As Time magazine notes, and as I realized later during our December 8 AAFSW visit to the NMAAHC while studying the Till memorial on level C2: “Due to a mother’s determination, men stood up who had never stood up before.” Similarly, another powerful exhibit in NMAAHC is the iconic statue of the three 200-meter 1968 Olympic sprinters on the podium, two of which, U.S. athletes Smith and Carlos, raised their black-gloved hands in the air during the medal ceremony to increase awareness on human rights issues. “Right can never be wrong,” said Australian silver medalist Norman, the third man on the podium.
Being an optimist and believing in the collective human goodness, while completing our AAFSW visit to NMAAHC starting from the lower levels and ending with the upper levels following the exhibit’s evolution, I actually “experienced” the progress that can be made when humans “listen” deeply enough so that they are truly changed by what they “hear.”
Dr. Joanna Athanasopoulos Owen