Last year, my multi-racial extended family and I spent the Thanksgiving holiday in Washington, D.C. We planned our trip around a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. This experience was profound.
Visitors enter on the ground floor and descend three levels. The bottom level, which covers the forcible removal of Africans and transport on slave ships to the colonies, has low ceilings and tight corridors and dim lighting to simulate the passage. The next level documents what life was like for enslaved people in the Americas. It’s less physically confined than the lower level but equally intense with many artifacts including a cabin from the years of slavery. The next level begins with the Civil War and ends with the Civil Rights movement. It includes a devastating and gutting memorial to fourteen-year-old Emmett Till.
At this point in the experience, you are back on the main entrance level, and you proceed up through three more above ground levels. How different these are than the lower levels! Light enters through the scrollwork covered windows. Everywhere is sound and color and exuberance. These three levels are a joyous celebration of the contributions African Americans have made in technology, sports, science, music, art, dance, literature, politics, and culture. It makes you want to sing and dance and cheer. It makes you grateful for the richness African Americans bring to our cultural experience.
All of us were deeply affected by the museum, and I was reminded that both kinds of African American stories—those of tragedy and those of celebration—are equally important. Not just for black and brown kids, for ALL kids. We often talk about books being mirrors of and windows to a wider world… Well, let’s do it!
TRAVEL TIP: I recommend the museum to everyone visiting D.C. If you can, I suggest dedicating two days to the museum, one for the lower three levels and another for the upper three. Tickets are hard to get so check the website for details.