Carrying History With Us
History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again — Maya Angelou
A week and a half ago I was fortunate enough to visit Washington, D.C. with my best friend. One of the museums we visited was the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which only opened around a year ago. The museum was incredibly busy — busier than any of the other museums we visited that weekend. You had to queue to get into the exhibitions and you even had to queue (according to museum staff, sometimes for hours) to get into the museum shop (we didn’t have enough time to get in). Its success probably lies in the fact that it provides a radically different narrative of American history than what is presented in most textbooks — it’s emphatically not all about White people making America. It’s about African American contributions to American history and society. Fittingly, as you leave the history section of the museum is the quotation “I, too, am America” from Langston Hughes’ poem. The majority of the people visiting the museum were African American, and immediately we felt like we stood out. A part of me felt like this museum wasn’t for me and that I didn’t deserve to be there. But as I delved into the content of the history portion of the museum, these ideas quickly left my mind — I was there to learn and grow like everybody else.
The most difficult part of the history section of the museum to walk through was the exhibits on the beginning of the slave trade and the experiences of the people taken from Africa, particularly their voyage on slave ships. One area of the museum tried to evoke a sense of what it was like to be on a ship; the area was dark and small and contained ballast bars (which were designed to balance the weight of the bodies on the ship) from a slave ship that was wrecked on its journey, killing most of the 500 slaves onboard. In this space, numerous first-person narratives of what it was like to be on a ship were displayed. I can’t recall ever having such a visceral reaction to an exhibit. I felt claustrophobic and sick to my stomach. I felt even more uneasy as I read that England was responsible for 40% of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, thus making it the dominant trader, in its beginnings. I felt guilty that my country perpetrated such despicable acts. This underlying queasiness did not leave until we left the museum. My best friend cried.
As I grew up in the UK and studied primarily European history at university, my knowledge about African American history and the civil rights movement is not at the same level as most Americans. For example, I had not heard about Emmett Till until I visited the museum. Emmett Till’s casket now lies in a special exhibit within the museum. I could not experience the exhibit first-hand because there was a substantial queue to get in and I wanted to make my way through the rest of the history section of the museum before it closed. But the long line made me curious and I’ve taken the time to read about Emmett Till and the exhibit since returning to Chicago. While I now understand the importance of Till’s murder in the history of the civil rights movement, I think that Till is still incredibly relevant to what is going on now in the US. Till’s murderers were acquitted, just like George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013, and just like White police officers are continually acquitted of any wrongdoing in cases where they shoot and kill African Americans.
Visiting the museum made me reflect on something that happened while I was still in the UK in 2006. Tony Blair expressed “deep sorrow” about the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The speech was to begin the marking of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807. Tony Blair was criticized by some for not going far enough in his remarks as he did not make a full apology. 17-year-old me was confused about the whole issue. I remember asking: why is it necessary for someone who had no direct involvement with the slave trade to apologize for it? Tony Blair wasn’t alive when it was happening. To me, that meant that the pseudo-apology was just being made for political reasons and not coming from any kind of sincere place. Over the past eleven years, my stance on this has definitely changed, particularly so after moving to the US. I now think that open dialogue, including apologies, is necessary. Even further, I believe that the US owes reparations to African Americans. An article written by Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2014 was important in my change of opinion. In the article, Coates writes, “we cannot escape our history” and that if America continues to ignore the idea of reparations the country is “ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future”. He argues that the continuing income disparity between African American families and White families and continuing segregation are justification enough that the US has not come to terms with or made amends for its past, because African Americans are still living with the consequences of slavery. The reality is that African Americans live under individual and institutional forces that degrade them and deny them equal access and opportunity. 2017 America has not heeded Maya Angelou’s words. We have not faced history with courage and we are still living with the consequences of slavery: massive inequality, oppression, and racism.