Souvenirs From the New Smithsonian

A week before I went, I had no idea how or when I was ever going to make it inside the new Smithsonian. But as a result of a generous family and dare I say it, destiny, I made it inside the building on its opening weekend.

Friends and I at the museum’s dedication ceremony on the National Mall.

There wasn’t time (or money for that matter) for me to stand in the long line outside one of the gift shops for commemorative books, t-shirts, or snow globes. The souvenirs I brought home, however, are invaluable and cost me nothing and they are as follows:

There is no “greatest generation.”

From Frederick Douglas to Barack Obama, all generations are integral pieces to where we are today. Each generation accepts a torch and marches forward.

There is no point in the most influential periods in American History where black people are not represented.

The museum’s basement is covered with relics and reminders of slavery and the middle passage. The next floor up is the Reconstruction Era and the Civil Rights movement. The next floor features black thinkers and black leaders like Mary McLeod Bethune, and Black entrepreneurs and athletes. The very top floor is a celebration of our genius, style, and art. I realize, that this generation, my generation, is the walking top floor. We have a responsibility to keep the race moving forward.

Because it was open late the day we visited, it was just past midnight by the time we left the museum. I took this photo as guards were yelling for us to get off the grounds.

The building itself.

While roaming through the museum’s hallways I was not only astonished by its contents, but the building itself is a masterpiece. Modeled after a West African crown, the interior of the building is just as astonishing as its exterior — featuring long beautiful granite walls, and a breathtaking winding staircase. That building is so much more than a Smithsonian. In fact, it looks nothing like any of the other Smithsonians. There’s not an ounce of white brick or limestone, the entrance isn’t decorated with tall intimidating white pillars.

The building’s conspicuous architecture and the location (the National Mall) is a reminder of the impossibility it is to deny that we too, are America.

Martin Luther King Jr. did not have a huge presence.

MLK, as important and legendary as he is, is a often a tokenized figure in history. To many people outside of our race, he (and Rosa Parks) is the end all and be all of Black history. I remember a few months after they had broken ground on the building, I was visiting D.C. on a service trip with a small group of students from my university. As we walked by the construction site, I began to passionately express how excited I was for the new Smithsonian. As I rambled on about how great it was, a student on the trip with us said, “I don’t know how they’re going to fill up an entire museum with MLK stuff.” I was shocked and appalled obviously. To have grown up with two black educators and learn that MLK is what our history had been reduced to for him was troubling.

He made it seem as though there was no more room for anyone else in the story of Black people in this country.

It bothered me that he felt so carelessly comfortable reducing our story down to one era, one man. So while I appreciate everything MLK has done for this country, I am so glad the museum featured other civil rights leaders we often don’t learn about in school or even black history month.

We are more than our oppression.

There are infinite layers of narratives that prove our worth to this country and this world. Those narratives are universal, under-told, and intersectional.

To know about slavery and the civil rights movement, Jim Crow Laws and Black codes but to not know about black innovation, Olympic contributions, or political impact is not true knowledge of our history.

The most powerful overarching premise of the history of African Americans in this country is what we have been able to become, represent, and accomplish in spite of our oppression.

We are a very young nation.

Once touring Paris and London, I came to the realization that most countries have streets older than this country. 240 years is not a long life span for a nation. And for a good majority of that lifespan, we were enslaved. Slavery, in the relative course of history, was yesterday. In one of the museum’s large atriums there is a James Baldwin quote on the wall that reads:

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

Learning our worth

Perhaps one of the most powerful sites in the museum for me was seeing black children on the shoulders of their fathers, sitting in strollers, and walking through the exhibit hallways hand-in-hand with their mothers. It gave me hope that our history will never be lost, forgotten about or untold.

A woman once told me that she couldn’t support the #BlackLivesMatter movement because, referring to black-on-black crime, she claimed we didn’t value our own lives. She wanted me to nod my head and agree. All I could think of is a broken education system that could have allowed that to happen.

You can’t learn value until you are taught value.

To babies, diamonds are small insignificant solid materials — until they are in school and learn geography and learn about the span of centuries it took to create them. The amount of pressure needed to make them.

Later in life, they walk past decadent jewelry stores in malls with diamond displays and large price tags. So yes, I teared up when I saw kids gawking at the portrait of Barack Obama and the black mother telling the story of Emmett Till to her as he looked at his casket. They were learning about our value, witnessing the pressure it took for the world to see that value and that little boy standing wide-eyed at Emmett’s casket had the chance to see the price.

“A museum alone will not alleviate poverty in every inner city or every rural hamlet. It won’t eliminate gun violence from all our neighborhoods, or immediately ensure that justice is always colorblind… But what this museum does show us is that in even the face of oppression, even in the face of unimaginable difficulty, America has moved forward. And so this museum provides context for the debates of our times. It illuminates them and gives us some sense of how they evolved, and perhaps keeps them in proportion.” -President Obama, Dedication Day