One morning, when I was 14, I stood on a stage at my school's Black Awareness month assembly and recited the words to Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise." I was terrified. I was an awkward brown girl at a mostly white school with a fear of public speaking; I have no idea what convinced me to not only sign up to perform something at this assembly, but also to choose such an empowering poem when, at that stage in my life, I could barely speak to my teachers without my voice quivering. But up there, under those bright lights looking out into a sea of blurry faces, I took a deep breath and let the first words of the poem tremor out of me. And then, somehow, with each line, I felt my voice getting louder, stronger. Every syllable flowed through my body like silk. Like the poem, I felt my head and spirits rise. So by the time I got to the final verse, just before the crowd erupted into applause, I felt Angelou's words in the deepest depths of my belly: "Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave." It's been years since I remembered the soaring pride I felt in that moment to not just be a descendant of those who came before me, but the dream. So when I walked through the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American Culture and History in Washington, D.C., for the first time last week and saw that exact line from Angelou's poem inscribed on a wall, I immediately broke into tears. The museum officially opens its doors today, September 23, and it's been a long time coming. Black people in this country have fought to erect a shrine to our history for over a century. In fact, way back in 1929, President Hoover approved a proposal for a National Memorial Building for African American achievements in arts and sciences — but Congress did not. It took dozens of additional proposals in the decades thereafter for Congress to officially pass an act to erect a federally owned museum. That happened in 2003. Ground wasn't broken until nine years later, with a little help from President Obama, and it took an additional four years of construction and millions of dollars in donations for the NMAAHC to finally arrive.
Right smack next to our country's iconic Washington monument, there it is: A dedication to the contributions Black people have made to this nation for 400 years.
So before I arrived at the media preview, I knew it was going to be an inspiring day. But I had no idea just how emotional it would be. Walking up to the glass building, gorgeously enveloped by bronze lattice, it's impossible not to realized the significance of the museum's location. Right smack next to our country's iconic Washington monument, there it is: A dedication to the contributions Black people have made to this nation for 400 years. As a kid, my grandmother used to take my younger sister and me to Baltimore's Blacks in Wax Museum. She always felt it was important that we knew our history and understood who we were, even at a young age; it was at those exhibits that I got my earliest education on everything from the Underground Railroad to the life of Billie Holiday. Still, that museum and the dozens of other fantastic and important institutions around the country honoring Black history were small-scale compared to the likes of the National Museum of American History or the United States Holocaust Museum. So as I walked the huge (huge as in it took me five hours and aching feet to make it through the entire thing — and I still didn't get to spend as much time with everything as I wanted), sparkling new building, I kept thinking, Finally. A place that acknowledges that our history isn't just Black history; it's American history. I smiled thinking about how proud my grandmother would have been to see this day.
No matter how you navigate the NMAAHC's five sprawling, winding floors, you'll be blown away. But seeing as the first three floors are dedicated to history while the upper floors focus more on culture, I started from the bottom and worked my way up. This layout is designed to take you from the beginnings of slavery to modern day. I wept when I saw the sack given to a little girl by her mother as a memento when they were sold to different slave masters (the story was embroidered on the cloth by a great-granddaughter, years later). I cried again when I saw Michelle Obama's inauguration dress.
Once you make your way through the history portion, stunning exhibits dedicated to Black culture wait upstairs. There, you can soak up the importance of everything from The Oprah Winfrey Show to historically Black sororities and fraternities. (Shoutout to my Alpha Kappa Alpha sorors!) You'll find interactive expositions on television, film, theater, sports, music, and fashion; to know that Carl Lewis' Olympic medals and Diana Ross' costume from Lady Sings The Blues are now enshrined to be admired and appreciated by millions of people of all races for generations to come feels like a relief. Seeing these items with my very own eyes, I realized what a shame it would have been for these cultural touchstones to have been lost or buried in storage where no one could see them. I was struck by these remarkable physical relics — Harriet Tubman's shawl and Nat Turner's Bible also live within these walls — but throughout the day, what brought goosebumps to my arms was the simple existence of this museum. I was in awe of the fact that it is really here, after years of our accomplishments being shunned, devalued, or ignored completely. At a time where racism looms over the presidential election and police brutality against Black people dominate the headlines, the museum feels like both a physical and metaphorical beacon of hope. I left the NMAAHC feeling grateful to the Smithsonian and the hundreds of people and activists who worked tirelessly for decades to make this museum a reality. I was grateful for the experience, for a place for reflection and celebration, but also, for the reminder that I am, in fact, the dream and hope of the slave — and so is this museum.