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Visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History interact with an exhibit on segregation.

Voices / Viewpoint

The tough stuff in our country’s heritage

The National Museum of African American History and Culture offers a refreshing, inspiring, and consoling look at this difficult chapter in the American story

Nancy Braus is a bookseller and a longtime activist. For more information about the National Museum of African American History and Culture, visit nmaahc.si.edu. (“Admission is free, and the cafeteria is great!” she adds.)

Putney

I recently went with a friend to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

This museum opened in 2016, the same year a minority of American voters elected the most racist president of my lifetime (and Donald Trump has much competition for that dubious honor).

It has been difficult, even impossible, to get into this popular site, and it is one of the most-visited museums in the country. We went on a Friday afternoon, as it is now possible to get into the museum every weekday afternoon without a pass starting at 1 p.m.

Every inch of the museum was packed with a diverse and enthusiastic crowd of visitors.

After living in this era of so much racial and religious hatred — which in so many cases has led to violence — there was something refreshing, inspiring, and consoling about being in a place with so many people who care about the tough stuff in the heritage of this country.

* * *

The planning, research, collecting, and passion that went into creating this living masterpiece is apparent in every exhibit.

The seven-story museum begins its story on the bottom floor with the horrors of the slave trade. If you are a person who cares about human rights, it is impossible to look without crying at these amazing images of black people of all ages being tortured and often killed by the horrible conditions on the slave ships.

The numbers told a horror story. Many ships started sailing from the coast of Africa with hundreds more kidnapped humans in their cargo than arrived alive.

The next floor brings us to the reality of slavery in the United States with a real slave cabin. We see images of babies and children being stolen from their parents. Often, they would never see them again.

The era of Reconstruction, when white Southerners basically created the Jim Crow South, is documented. So is the Great Migration, when black families and workers moved north for better jobs and a life with less restriction, as well as a life free from the horrors of lynching.

As we move up, we get to a great interactive “lunch counter” with a menu, including such items as sit-ins, freedom rides, and bus boycotts to provide in-depth photos, posters, and stories of the civil rights movement.

A separate room contains Emmett Till’s actual coffin and the story of his life. This room had a very long line to get in, so we could not get in, but I have seen images of this memorial to a young boy who was lynched in 1955.

The photo images of the civil rights struggle are powerful and will stick with me for a long time.

As we only had four hours, we moved to the top floor, where the achievements of many accomplished African Americans — musicians, actors, comedians, athletes, artists, designers, and others — are recognized. Some really great, over-the-top items of clothing, guitars, and other amazing memorabilia were collected during the process of assembling this museum.

* * *

I find it shocking that this history is completely denied by a sizable minority of the U.S. population in large portions of this country.

Some continue to think that slaves were well taken care of, that they really were a part of the family, and that the Civil War was won by the wrong side. Mississippi continues to fly the Confederate flag as a part of its state flag.

If we actually taught history in a truthful manner, such beliefs might disappear eventually, but that is not happening in many parts of the country.

Many of us know a part of this history, but we should all know this story: Slaves built much of the riches of capitalism yet, even generations later, the benefit of that capital remains out of reach of most of their descendents.

It is essential that white people understand that tackling racism is essential if we are ever to live in a country with any kind of a real justice system.

Our country’s executive branch and the governments of many states share goals of suppressing the black vote, the black voice, and the black body. This is unacceptable.

Even for someone like me, someone who has read a great deal about this time and who lived through the Civil Rights struggles and paid attention to them from an early age, this museum strengthened my resolve.

I will continue doing whatever work I can to create a country where being black means you are at no greater risk of death, imprisonment, and poverty than the rest of the population.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #510 (Wednesday, May 15, 2019). This story appeared on page D1.

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