From Darkness to Light, a Museum for All Americans

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Editor’s Note: This article by Ellen Shapiro celebrates both Black History Month and the anniversary of the founding of the NAACP on February 12, 1909.


I arrived at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture fresh from the Women’s March the day before, and fresh from reading a long, slightly cynical review of it in The New York Review of Books. “The idea is to move the visitor from the story of black captivity, told underground in dark, tunneling rooms,” wrote Edward Ball, a university professor and author of a book about his family history as slave-owners, “and to rise away from it, floor by floor, past stations of gradual entitlement, up through history, climbing a mountain into the light and space of the top floors, where blackness is celebrated as America’s gloried cultural capital… Although a less generous reading might be that the Negro is awfully good as an entertainer.”

Hmm. Somehow, that review made me even more determined to see and experience this hard-won museum for myself. And thanks to my press pass, I didn’t have to wait months for a timed entry pass. All Smithsonian museums are free, but this museum is so popular that passes for June 2017 will be available on March 1.

It will be worth the wait. Other people have waited much longer. It took a decade of monumental efforts to get this place funded and built — including the efforts of Presidents and members of Congress, especially Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who fought for it for 15 years — not to mention the corporations and celebrities who donated millions of dollars and the ordinary (and extraordinary) citizens who lovingly donated their sugar bowls and shawls, record album covers and family photographs.

Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photography

The building itself is extraordinary. It was designed by Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroupJJR, a collaboration of four architecture firms selected via a 2009 juried competition. Ghanian-British architect David Adjaye was responsible for the exterior. The three-tiered ziggurat shape of the building, he has said, was inspired by a traditional Yoruba ritual crown or ‘corona.’ And the bronze-colored lattice that sheathes the entire structure was inspired by New Orleans’ 19th-century ironwork balconies made by enslaved craftsmen.

Starting at the beginning of the African-American story—the 15th century—deep in a pit four levels below street level, visitors are introduced to life, and art, in the villages along the coasts of what are now Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and the other West African countries from which more than 12,000,000 slaves were captured and brought to the Americas. The crowds are thick as visitors strain to see a model of a slave ship with the captives lined up like silverware in a drawer; the shackles that bound a young boy; and posters advertising the attributes (strong, young, hard worker, ready to breed) of human beings for sale. The exhibits were designed by Ralph Applebaum Associates, designers of the nearby United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, and other museums around the world.

African Culture

You jostle your way through narrow passages, seeing and reading about the perceived economic need for slavery— the world needs cotton and sugar! — and about its aftermath, the fight for liberty, the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Men of Color Poster

Up a ramp, the next level takes you from the end of Reconstruction through the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. You step inside a 19th-century log house built and lived in by freed slaves in Maryland, wondering what it might have been like to live in a place like that. I tried to imagine the artifacts that would have been inside, a straw sleeping palette, a cooking pot or two, the rough garments of all the people crowded inside, which made the barren, claustrophobic environment even more poignant.


All the ugly reminders of Jim Crow — the anti-black laws in effect from 1877 to the mid-1960s — are here. Especially powerful for me were the “Whites Only” signs from motels, restaurants, bathrooms, and swimming pools. In the summer of 1966 I worked at a public swimming pool in Inglewood, California. The signs were a little different. Instead of “whites only,” they read: “Inglewood Residents 10c. Non-Residents 50c.” The non-residents were the black kids who lived on the other side of Crenshaw Blvd. When some of us protested, the big recreation boss came in and told us lifeguards and pool attendants to shut up and do our jobs — and that the taxpayers of Inglewood “don’t want their children swimming with Negroes.”


A 20-foot tall 1930–1940s prison tower from the Louisiana State Penitentiary reminds you of what happened to blacks who didn’t obey those laws. And then there is a segregated railroad car; a dress made by Rosa Parks; and the Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth’s lunch counter (n
ow with interactive video menus), where the 1969 sit-in catapulted the Civil Rights movement into our national consciousness.

Guard Tower

The next level gets you to more recent history—and even deeper into institutionalized racism and the efforts to dismantle it — from the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr. to the campaign and victories of Barack Obama. There are sections on Black Power leaders in the 1960s and ’70s, on the introduction of university Black Studies departments, and on the rise of the black middle class (I noted that according to a cover of TIME magazine, owning a German Shepherd dog like ours was one of the hallmarks of “making it.”)

Segregationj Ban

Change came, slowly and not at all surely. At the top of the ramp, leading back to the main floor, the journey culminates with a slide show of today’s black political leaders, actors, athletes, and news events like protests after police shootings — and a huge aerial shot of Mall during the inauguration of President Obama. That’s when I started to cry. On the day of my visit, women were still walking around D.C. in their pink hats, still gathering on the Mall to protest; still stunned that Donald Trump had been inaugurated two days before. What a bittersweet moment.

The End

In this museum, the story seems to have an end: the Obama presidency. Now what? I wondered. We’ve covered 400 years of history. But the story is not over. There is much more to come. How will the curators and designers deal with that? How will the exhibitions change and evolve? (A topic for another story.)

Luckily, there is a reflecting pool with a fountain, a place to meditate and get refreshed before tackling the upper floors, which celebrate African-American cultural contributions in recent history and today. There, In the sports section, I pondered life-size sculptures of the Williams sisters and stood for a while contemplating sculptures of the athletes who raised their fists at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. Embarrassments to some Americans, heroes to many others.

On the fourth floor, I learned more about the contributions of African Americans to painting, sculpture and printmaking. And then got to soak in the sights and sounds of the Musical Crossroads and Cultural expressions exhibitions. There’s a lot of good stuff to see in theater and television, too, like Oprah’s talk-show set with her TV couch — well, she gave $13 million to help found the museum — but the music galleries, which cover classical, sacred, rock ’n’ roll, hip-hop and more, are truly dance-worthy. Among the artifacts is Chuck Berry’s 1973 red Cadillac, a gift that the museum director, Lonnie Bunch, worked hard to get.


After all that, it was time for an early supper at “Sweet Home Café,” with its stations featuring regional American dishes, from gumbo to fried chicken with grits and greens. There, I watched white people go up to African-Americans and ask if they could sit and eat with them. The white people smiled and struck up happy conversations, as if to say, “It wasn’t my fault! I wouldn’t have enslaved you! I wouldn’t have sent you to segregated schools! You could have had MY seat on the bus and the lunch counter!” Maybe it was the their first such conversation with a black person. If it took a museum 100 years in the making to get that kind of dialogue going, however stilted, so be it.

The most surprising thing to me was how many visitors of all races seemed to be new to the story of the slave trade and the Civil War and Emancipation and northern migrations and segregation and the Civil Rights movement. When I was in high school, the only unit about Africa in the full-year “World History” class was about the Boer Trek and the Dutch colonization of South Africa. I’d assumed, after attending UCLA when Angela Davis was teaching and the Black Panthers spoke on campus — and after being awakened by classes in African history, art, and literature — that American high school curricula had changed. Not so, apparently.

The next day, my Lyft driver was an African-American man, maybe 25 years old, and my ride-share was a young African-American woman. Somehow, we got into the conversation. “Where did my ancestors come from?” asked the young man. At first I thought he was joking. But he did not seem to know the name of any West African country, or that his ancestors may have come from there. He wanted to know how I knew that slavery had really happened. I told him that he could see actual artifacts and records of the sale of human beings in the museum. As a driver who’s taken many visitors there, he did know how long it took to get tickets. I suggested that he read The Underground Railroad. After we talked for a while, he said, “This is the first time I ever had a conversation like this with a Caucasian woman!” Was he pulling my leg the whole time? He must have, but I’m still not sure.

We Americans have a lot of work to do.