Students journey to the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Upon entering the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., visitors descend three stories below ground to begin a deeply moving journey.
According to ARHS Principal Mark Jackson, as soon as one enters the first history gallery, the gravity is palpable. “You walk in and you’re enveloped by a deep sense of seriousness of the issues regarding the complete African American experience,” said Mr. Jackson.
“This is, in some ways, the quintessential American story,” said Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the museum, in an interview for The New Yorker. “Instead of simply saying, ‘This is our story, period,’ we want to say, ‘This is everybody’s story.’”
People of Color United, more commonly known as POCU, visited the NMAAHC in early May on a trip their Washington, D.C.. As soon as Dean of Students Mary Custard, co-advisor to the club with physical education teacher Elizabeth Haygood, heard the museum was going to be built, she decided it was something POCU should see. The group was joined by Principal Jackson and Assistant Principal Miki Gromacki, who flew to D.C. for the museum visit.
POCU has existed as a club at the high school for many decades and is open to all students. “It’s an urban legend that we don’t have white members. We have members of many races and from different places,” said Ms. Custard. POCU’s goal is to provide a place for students of color to feel comfortable and safe outside of the classroom while promoting community service, social justice, and respect and appreciation for different cultures at the high school.
Many members said that the club offers a chance to be part of a group that has people similar to themselves but that also offers new perspectives of the world. “I’ve gained a lot of friends and gotten close to a whole other view of the world that I didn’t know much about,” said senior Ali Abdel-Maksoud.
The club also provides students with opportunities to engage in community activities and develop leadership skills, both in and out of school. “POCU does things for the community that not many people know about,” said junior Amina Torres, co-president of POCU, citing the annual MLK breakfast the club contributes to as an example. These activities allow students to learn and apply leadership skills which they can use in settings other than the club.
“I’ve seen these students blossoming into different roles outside of POCU,” said Custard.
This school year, POCU has gone on many trips. They headed to Amherst Cinema to screen I Am Not Your Negro, a film about James Baldwin and race in modern America, and attended a talk about the psychology of racism, by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
“Ms. Custard and Ms. Haygood have worked hard and have been successful in creating a space for students of color in a predominantly white school,” said Principal Jackson, who described the school as a benefiting from the schoolwide work POCU does around issues of race.
“We discuss things that are happening in the world, especially things that affect black people,” said senior Sidilene Da Veiga. “The field trips we take aren’t just about having fun for ourselves, but learning about our backgrounds and history.”
The Washington, D.C. trip in particular also presented an opportunity for the club members to bond with each other. “As an older member I got to know a lot of the younger members, and I think they have a great future ahead of them,” said Nick Rivera, co-president of POCU. Junior Lourdes Jean-Louise agreed. “It’s a new kind of friendship that erupted,” she said.
The itinerary of this latest trip included a tour of the Capitol Building led by Congressman Jim McGovern, the United States Holocaust Museum, other Smithsonian museums, iconic D.C. sites such as the Lincoln Memorial, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Only seven months after its opening, POCU visited the NMAAHC on Monday, May 1. According to a New Yorker article, the NMAAHC is the latest addition to the Smithsonian Institution and has been in the works since 2003. Bunch, who previously worked for the National Museum of American History and the Chicago Historical Society, was hired in 2005 and began the process of developing the museum with no money, staff, location, or artifacts. To solve the problem of lack of historical artifacts, Bunch created Saving African American Treasures. Antiques Roadshow style, this program traveled around the country, finding and verifying over 35,000 artifacts that ordinary people brought forward.
Now, a long way from its humble beginnings, the museum sits on the National Mall, open to the public.
Even before entering, visitors are influenced by the physical presence of the museum. “I was struck by the architecture,” said Torres. According to a New Yorker article, the three-tiered filigree steel exterior is meant to resemble crowns of the Yoruba of West Africa.
“I didn’t want the white marble building that traditionally was the Mall,” said Bunch. “What I wanted to say was, there’s always been a dark presence in America that people undervalue, neglect, overlook. I also wanted a building that spoke of resiliency and uplift.”
The museum takes visitors through a chronological history of the African American experience in the U.S. beginning with slavery, through the Civil Rights movement, and continues to present day with exhibits on topics such as modern police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. “It’s a lot of the ugly parts of American history put on display,” said Mr. Jackson.
Artifacts like a slave auction block, shackles of slaves for adults as well as infants, Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, Nat Turner’s Bible, President Lincoln’s inkwell, Emmett Till’s coffin, segregated drinking fountains, and an entire slave cabin brought from South Carolina help to tell the appalling story of injustice against African Americans.
“I was mad from the beginning,” said Da Veiga. “I was shocked, I was hurt, I was offended.”
Describing the feeling of seeing the robes of a KKK member, Abdel-Maksoud said, “I was shook.” For Jean-Louise, the Emmett Till exhibit was especially stirring. “It moved me to tears,” she said.
In addition to chronological storytelling, the museum has galleries dedicated to achievements and influence of society of African Americans from literature to music to athletics. A pair of Jesse Owens’ spikes, Althea Gibson’s tennis racket, and Marian Anderson’s outfit from her performance at the Lincoln Memorial are just some of the artifacts on display there.
Though many members said they knew much of the broader information prior to the visit, the museum allowed them to learn details they had never learned before. “The statistics of slaves by country were unbelievable. I’d never fully understood the magnitude,” said Torres.
“There are stories told there that textbooks would never get to,” said Mark Jackson. “They aren’t just telling the dominant storyline.” However, the story of African Americans in the U.S. is virtually limitless. “There’s a lot in that museum, but I still think there’s more things to put in,” said Da Veiga.
“What I argue is: This is not a black museum,” said Bunch. “This is a museum that uses one culture to understand what it means to be an American.” This is reflected in the museum’s location; visitors have panoramic views of the nation’s capital which, according to The New York Times, is “a symbolic reminder… that the museum is a lens on the broader American experience.”
The museum has opened in a time when incidents of police brutality, hate crimes, disproportionate incarceration and discrimination against African Americans increasingly gain national attention and open the eyes of the nation to the realities of the institutionalized racism still prevalent in society. “Looking at these [exhibits], I felt like a lot of it was still happening today,” said Torres. “Institutional racism is still happening today.” For members of POCU, the visit to the museum reaffirmed for them that while some things have changed, systematic oppression of people of color is still ubiquitous.
The NMAAHC lays bare the history of this oppression, a history that is can be difficult to confront. “To anyone who wants to go,” Da Veiga said, “be physically and mentally ready.”