It’s taken me a while to figure out how to approach writing about the two days my cousin and two friends spent at the Smithsonian’s newest Museum.
There’s no easy way to parse out my impressions and how it felt be so immersed in history that is, by and large, an abstract to me because I grew up as a third generation Canadian, in a loving family, more or less sheltered from the racial ugliness that permeates American life.
Have I been untouched by it? Not completely, but the impact has been muted. I was never diminished by what other people thought of me because of the colour of my skin. I don’t recall being denied service or housing. Perhaps it was because we were educated, although poor as dirt in the early years? I don’t know. My brothers and I still puzzle about that whenever we’re together, but our conclusion is that we haven’t been defined by the colour of our skin. Nor have our children and grandchildren.
I’ll never forget that in the later 80s, I was at a work meeting with members of the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC), discussing their request (demand) for grant money. It was my job to ask questions to make sure the application was complete with deliverables – they were pushing back about giving answers. Their leader, a short man with a goatee, slouch cap and body odour, got frustrated. He snapped that I was being obstructionist and unsympathetic. When I paid that jibe no mind, he got up and said, “You don’t know what it is to be black. You haven’t suffered”, then stomped out.
After touring the MAAH, I say the arrogant twit had no idea what suffering really meant.
So let’s begin slowly.
From the outside, the Museum’s architecture is unusual – not the classic soaring marble of ordinary museums. There’s a prickly brashness about its shape. Lots of angles, and the almost lyrical beauty of the dark brown iron work behind the sun-washed glass panels.
The entryway is benign.
There’s a wide hallway that’s not very brightly lit. One glass wall overlooks an old passenger rail car and a stone pillbox that looks like a guard station – but no one knows for sure because we’re too far away to read the signs.
We line up in groups of 40 or 50 and are guided to an elevator – one of those huge, glass-walled people-movers you usually see in European airports. There are lots of folks in wheelchairs – everyone gives them breathing space.
The elevator doors sigh shut and the car sinks down three levels to where the exhibits begin. Through the glass, I watch as tall numbers (they start of light then darken as we descend) count backwards – 2016, 1985, 1968, 1956, etc.
Despite the warmth of all the bodies in the elevator, a chill runs up my spine. We finally stop at the year 1400. The doors slide open.
The area we step into is cramped, the ceiling low, the lighting quite dim. It takes a few moments for our eyes to adjust. I’m conscious of keeping my arms at my sides, not wanting to take up too much room. A few glass cases hold depictions of early Africans in the western hemisphere, tools, etc.
But as we inevitably move deeper into the room (pushed actually, by the seething mass of people around us), the feeling of closeness and heat builds. Not claustrophobic, but unusual in a public place.
I’m thinking – what is this? Then I realize – the space is designed to replicate the hold of a slave ship. You can see the looks on people’s faces as realization dawns.
The group shuffles along, and a profound quiet falls. The cases before us hold artifacts. A sense of the awfulness we’re about to see takes hold.
People are milling around, trying to read all of the storyboards and catch the videos playing. There’s lots of murmuring and shaking of heads. The loudest sounds come from the narrators in the videos.
The story starts here.
It feels unrelenting and it’s unforgettable. It’s damned real and almost unbearably not abstract any more.