A Museum — and a Nation’s Moral Compass

  • The National Museum of African American History and Culture on Oct. 6, 2016 in Washington D.C. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

For the Valley News
Saturday, January 13, 2018

We parked underground and walked streets lined with sober government buildings to the museum. We arrived a few minutes before the doors were to open and joined a line that doubled and tripled in just a few minutes; waiting gave me time to look up through the snowflakes at the intricate panels of bronze grating that thrust upward and outward from the building proper, beetling over the plaza below. Later I learned that the panels had been inspired by the work of blacksmiths in Charleston, S.C., a major entry port for the American slave trade.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture first opened its doors in September 2016 and today is still so popular that tickets are distributed by lottery and must be arranged in advance. The doors opened to us a few minutes past 10, and we passed through a security check, then boarded an elevator large enough for a gospel choir and slowly descended. More than half of the museum is underground, a symbolism impossible to ignore. It traces a 400-year history of African-American experience that begins in Africa with a slave trade that uprooted millions of Africans and dispersed them into bondage in Europe and the New World.

Everyone knows something of this history, but the scale of the participation and shared guilt by the French, English, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Danish and Americans is astounding.

The exhibition circles and rises via ramps and stairs a total of eight levels, tracing African-American experience from slavery to the present with sections devoted to the Emancipation, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow Era, the Great Migration and the Civil Rights Movement. It culminates on the top floor with a celebration of black accomplishments in the arts, particularly music, medicine, fashion, entertainment and — most notably — sports, where the theme “struggle for acceptance” is painfully and triumphantly clear.

We spent five hours inside the museum, bottom to top, including lunch at a cafeteria that served ethnic food; but five hours was too short to see everything required to change a nation’s moral compass.

Being white, I was acutely aware that this is a museum designed for the people whose story it tells and that I was a privileged visitor given the opportunity to step outside myself and experience two perspectives at once as I moved from exhibit to exhibit. Later, in reflection, I understood how the museum would help anyone confused or troubled by the words “Black Lives Matter” see the stunning clarity of three simple words.

I left the museum with refreshed admiration for those who at enormous personal risk were willing to stand up and resist moral injustice and to demand the freedom promised in our Constitution. In our culture we celebrate the idea of personal sacrifice when it involves going to war against other nations, but in what we call peacetime our tolerance for the freedom of others is easily frayed.

No one can emerge from the museum believing that equality has spread evenly throughout our culture, but it should be very clear that the significant progress that has been made came at great cost, from the rebellions of Nat Turner and John Brown to the Civil War, from the brave witnesses who opposed the terror of the KKK to those who marched and boycotted and walked through the doors of newly integrated schools.

The heroes of this history are those who refused to obey laws that violated basic human rights, African-American pioneers who paid for progress with blood and suffering.

As I sit at the comfort of my desk in Vermont, I understand that we are today a nation divided in so many ways, some trivial and personal, but others fundamental and moral; and the people I know ask a perpetual question: “What are we to do?”

These are people distressed by a new environmental policy that ignores science and opens protected lands to exploitation, people distressed by a reactionary and inhumane immigration policy made up on the spot, and people worried by staggering economic inequality. Henry David Thoreau may have provided the answer in his 1849 essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience: “It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.”

Out of context, these words sound mild and even conciliatory, especially in contrast to the bodily resistance so brilliantly depicted at the National Museum. Some think of Thoreau’s famous night in jail as a lark, but Thoreau was an adamant opponent of slavery who publicly argued that John Brown was a hero who deserved mercy; and he and his family hid runaway slaves in their Concord home at a time when the state of Massachusetts vigorously enforced the Fugitive Slave Act. In his essay (which also argues against the Mexican War) Thoreau urges people simply to disobey immoral laws and to give them no support through their taxes.

Hindsight makes experts of us all. No one today argues that slavery was ever moral, but in Thoreau’s time the state of Massachusetts, the federal government and even some churches defended the institution of slavery. I believe that one day our nation will look back on today’s immigration and environmental policies with horror and on our present complacency about economic injustice with dread, but right now for those who wonder what to do with laws we do not believe in, the answer is already with us. Look to the cities and states unwilling to enforce some immigration laws, and look to the states ignoring the federal stance on climate change and passing their own laws to protect the environment. The answer to the question is resistance, and resistance comes with consequences. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is primarily a history of a people, but it is also a model for using resistance to move a nation’s moral compass.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford. He can be reached at jon.stableford@gmail.com.