Updated: May 24
The Museum for African American History and Culture has six floors, and most people start their visit, as I did, by taking an elevator down three floors that brings you to the beginning of the African American experience of living in America. You then walk from the ground floor to the third floor through multiple exhibits from the Atlantic slave trade, through the horrors of slavery, the Jim Crow era, to the civil rights movements.
The top three floors about the ground floor are exhibits of African American contributions in the arts and letters, culture and sports. These exhibits erase any line that would separate contemporary American culture from the creativity of African Americans. At the same time, at least for me, these exhibits did not erase my memory of the violations of humanity exhibited on the lower three floors.
The Museum of African American History and Culture belongs on the National Mall like the Holocaust memorial belongs in the center of Berlin. They tell a truth about a nation’s crimes against humanity. The African American Museum also makes us consider its place among the other monuments. We remember that Washington and Jefferson bought and sold enslaved human beings. They participated in crimes against humanity.
That’s not the story most of us learned in school. We did learn that Thomas Jefferson wrote The Declaration of Independence. He also owned a slave labor farm (plantation) of around 200 enslaved people and on top of that raped a 14-year-old enslaved girl when he was 47. This clash of stories should not be ignored. Just the opposite. The clash of stories gives us a chance to work on the creation of a climate of justice.