Over fall break, I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture with my family. It exceeded all expectations. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t eight floors of seemingly endless exhibits!
The first three floors were underground and focused on telling the history of African Americans. The rest explored culture through food, art and everything in between. There was no rock unturned! My family and I took on the impossible task of trying to cover the entire museum in one day. Whenever I thought I found myself at the end of a section, it would just rabbit hole into deeper parts of the museum, but I'm not complaining! If they are going to try and put all of African American history into a building, I’m glad it’s that vast. By the end of the history portion of the museum we were all ready for lunch and a nap. It was more walking and reading then one person should ever attempt in one day. It’s more of a weekend trip so you can fully appreciate ever individual story.
One of my favorite exhibits was an interactive stack of digital photos. When you clicked on an image, you got details and information found about the picture. They set it up so anyone could submit photos to be featured. I loved this because not only is it living history, that will continue to grow but it gives us an opportunity to participate and tell our personal stories, showing that we are all apart of the narrative.
I decided to follow in my parents' footsteps this semester and take Pan African Studies. That class and walking through the museum made me realize that not only is the history of my people vast and complex, but the books that are presented to us in grade school skimmed over our stories. They brushed past our contributions and the important parts we played in some of the biggest events in history. Sure, we talk about Harriett Tubman and Nat Turner, but why don’t kids get to learn about Mansa Musa, ruler of Mali, an African empire that made him one of the richest guys to ever live? Or Carter G. Woodson, the father of Black history? Why don't we talk about Christopher Columbus having Africans on his crew? When he stumbled onto the Americas, he even reported that “dark skinned” people that had been trading with the natives for hundreds of years!
Some days, I feel cheated that I didn’t learn these stories sooner, but I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to learn them now. I used to feel like I owed it to all the unsung heroes to commit their names to memory and know their stories by heart. But I no longer fear that their voices are silent because with this Smithsonian and more African museums in the works, they are immortalized where they were once overlooked.
In elementary school I grew up thinking my history consisted of slavery and oppression but I couldn't have been more wrong! The recurring theme of resilience in African American history, inspires me daily. How could it not? We rise despite the continuous, unwavering efforts to hold us down but we are more than just the stuff that happens to us. We didn't just survive-- we thrived. We created communities, turned pain into art and created a culture that influences almost every aspect of today. Stories that are excluded from the text books are finally told, heard and appreciated. African American kids can explore the 85,000 square feet dedicated to people who look like them.
So, what really happens when stories lost in time are found? History finally sees them. It acknowledges their struggles, sacrifices and accomplishments. And man it is good to be seen!
Lead Image Credit: Unsplash