Black History Is American History & It Deserves Its Own Museum

Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images.
When thinking about the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opening this weekend, the first thing that comes to mind is a painfully awkward interaction I had with a white classmate in college.

After a lecture about independent media as a vehicle for social change, one of my fellow students brusquely tapped my shoulder in the hallway. I regarded him with a quizzical nod and took a step back.

Despite the large size of our lecture hall, I recognized him instantly. After growing accustomed to his patronizing retorts after women or people of color spoke about inequality, I’d secretly nicknamed him Pat Buchanan, because he shared the man's paleoconservative convictions.

After a short, but pregnant, silence, I asked, “What’s up?” while wondering why he didn’t ask one of his frat brothers if he needed notes or lost his copy of the syllabus.

“Pat” wrung his hands nervously and looked me in the eye. He sneered, “I heard your talk about Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. Dubois, and the so-called Black Arts Movement today. Why don’t you just focus on real American history? The American history, not a hyphenated one. You choose to segregate yourselves and demand special favors. If you don’t like things the way they are here, maybe you should consider heading back to Africa if all you care about is Black history.”

After unsuccessfully attempting to refrain from rolling my eyes, I asked him if his ancestors were indigenous to this land. He stared at me blankly. I repeated, “Are your ancestors Native Americans? The first Americans, the 'real' Americans?” He exasperatedly informed me that his family came to the United States from Ukraine via Ellis Island in the late 1800s and demanded to know why I posed my question. In response, I informed him that my ancestors had been here for over a century before his and perhaps he should learn more about “real” American history himself.

Our conversation reminded me of a lesson I learned early on as a woman of color: If we don’t define ourselves, someone else will. Throughout my childhood, I was exposed to limiting media and cultural representations of African-Americans that reduced us to harmful or one-dimensional stories and stereotypes of who we are and what we can be. Although I was fortunate to have academic parents who actively educated me about Black history, I still felt the impact of the omission and dilution of these stories in school, on field trips, and in the media.

That’s why I’m celebrating the opening of the NMAAHC after 100 years of organizing and resistance. While we have a long way to go to reach equality, the construction of a national site that commemorates our struggles, memorializes our ancestors, and honors our triumphs is a step towards progress.

While watching Michelle Obama onstage at the museum’s opening, I thought of the germaneness of her testimony at the Democratic National Convention, when she said, “That is the story of this country, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, but who kept on striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”

In a political and cultural climate where African-Americans' historic contributions continue to be dismissed, distorted, and rebuffed, the NMAAHC stands among monuments to Presidents Lincoln, Jefferson, and Washington as an acknowledgment of Black America’s role in building this nation.

While I savored in the profoundness of our first Black president and first lady participating in the museum’s launch, I thought about the 400 years of history this new cultural institution will affirm today and for generations to come. It led me to contemplate my own connection to this history of tragedy and transcendence, and how it can inform storytelling and movement building moving forward.

During his opening remarks, President Obama said, “[The museum] provides context for the debates of our time,” while establishing that it is “a place to understand how protest and love of country don’t merely coexist but inform each other.”

The relevance of his comments struck me as I recalled the backlash to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem and, conversely, Rep. Robert Pittenger’s incendiary statement about the Charlotte uprising against police brutality. Pittenger said, “The grievance in their minds — the animus, the anger — they hate white people, because white people are successful and they’re not.”

The president’s reminder that this museum exists not only as a historical tribute, but also as a learning space that can help inform future movements speaks to the possible transformation it can inspire. It can also serve as a site of counter speech and resistance to ignorance spouted by folks like my classmate and Rep. Pittenger, who sadly represents one of my home states.

While some critics claim that the museum is reductive or even a so-called “sham,” it shouldn’t minimize the richness of the stories the museum brings to light. Like any other human endeavor, the museum may not be perfect, but it’s a cultural monument that recognizes the import of the Black experience in America. That’s a story worth telling.
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