DC Diaries – a walk through the Black Smithsonian

If ever you find yourself spending a few days in Washington DC I would highly recommend you take a day out (and I do mean the whole day!) to visit the wonder that is the National Museum of African American History and Culture (aka the Black Smithsonian). I recently did just that and came away from the experience feeling moved beyond anything I could have prepared myself for.

A couple of years ago I loosely followed the news that the Smithsonian Institution had opened a new museum dedicated to African American history and culture. Its objective would be to showcase and chart the history of black people in America from the 15th century to the present day. At the time of its opening in 2016, my biggest regret was that this museum had not been open when I first visited Washington DC in summer 2011. Nevertheless, I told myself that I would visit when I got the chance and I was lucky that this came about early this year when I spent a few days in Washington DC to visit a friend.

The exhibitions

The museum is a uniquely designed building by British-Ghanain architect David Adjaye, and provides a beautiful contrast to the more classical buildings that surround it. Three exhibitions arranged over several floors seamlessly join together to give us an insight into over 500 years of African American history. The lowest levels house the first exhibition, Slavery and Freedom, beginning from the late 15th century where we discover the earliest relationships between Africa and the west which included trading of goods and some missionary work. The exhibition then moves on to explore the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, slavery itself, and the socio-political climate in the Americas that allowed it to continue and grow until its abolition following the American civil war before moving on to the period known as Reconstruction.

The next exhibition is titled Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation 1876 – 1968. As its name suggests, this section covers many significant 20th century events such as the Harlem Renaissance, the world wars, Jim Crow and segregation in the South, and civil rights. Interspersed between the various artefacts spanning the time period covered in the exhibition are also the stories of historical figures and how they fit in the context of the part of the exhibition they are featured in. Some of these people’s work and achievements, such as Olaudah Equiano, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X, were already familiar to me. However, there were many others whom I knew next to nothing about such as Queen Nzingha, Don Miguel de Castro, Juan Garrido, and Ukawsaw Gronniosaw and theirs are stories that I look forward to learning more about.

Naturally, the final exhibition, A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond, follows on from the passage of the Civil Rights act through to the end of the 20th century and culminates with more recent events in the 21st century (it probably wouldn’t surprise anyone which significant event in African American history occupies the last stop!) Either way, it is my hope that the body of work covered will grow and adapt to continually reflect black American culture as it evolves.

It is difficult to unpack all the emotions one experiences as you wind through the exhibition space and in spite of having what I’d consider good general knowledge of many of the main events covered in the exhibition, I left in awe of how much material was curated and the powerful emotional reaction this evoked. Certain parts of the exhibition are difficult to process and I was moved close to tears during certain points such as the poignant stories of those who survived the middle passage, the atrocities of slavery, or the space reserved for Emmett Till.

Every now and then however, my mood was lifted by the more positive stories that showcased individual and collective efforts to survive in the midst of intense racism and discrimination. I was glad to be re-acquainted with the story of Harriet Jacobs whose narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, recounts her experience of unwanted sexual advances from her master and the plan she concocted in her desperate attempt to secure freedom for her and her children. I learned of early 20th century black entrepreneurs and their efforts to better serve the African American community from Madam CJ Walker’s hair care empire to black-owned banks. I even delved a little more into entire communities of African Americans purchasing land and creating their own self-governing towns such as Eatonville, Florida, a place that was already made familiar to me through the pages of Zora Neale Hurston novels.

Final thoughts

After almost five hours of walking through the exhibition I felt it was time for a well-deserved meal. The museum hosts the Sweet Home cafe, a canteen-style restaurant that serves southern-inspired soul food. As I sat down to eat my buttermilk chicken with a side of mac’n’cheese, potato salad, and cornbread, an elderly woman came and sat opposite me to spark up some conversation (I love how friendly Americans can be!). Upon hearing my accent, my new friend became really eager to hear my thoughts on the exhibition. I found out that she was part of a church delegation that had come to the museum as part of a trip to DC. This was her second time making the trip to the museum. We both agreed that we felt it was important to go through the exhibition more than once; There is far too much to consume and really process in one visit.

As our conversation progressed, I explained how amazed I was that it took so long for something like the Black Smithsonian to come to life. My friend replied that the design of the building, the huge number of artefacts, the curation of the history exhibitions, the Sweet Home cafe, and even the most cursory glance at the list of donors are all a testament to the real longing that existed for this space to exist and the feeling that its arrival was long overdue. In fact, this point is highlighted in another of the museum’s exhibitions called A Century in the Making.

With my appetite satiated, it was now time for me to run to the gift shop before closing time. As I exchanged goodbyes with my new friend, she asked me to make sure that I would tell all my friends in London to visit the Black Smithsonian if they ever came to America. I assured her that I would. “Good,” she told me, “because as much as this is the story of African Americans in America, it is also American history.” On that point, we certainly both agreed.