Washington DC – “There will never be a Negro president in this country,” a young African American man is seen saying to James Baldwin, a renowned writer and civil rights activist in San Francisco in 1963. Baldwin assures the young man: “There will be a Negro president of this country, but it will not be the country that we are sitting in now.”
This spine-tingling clip, playing at an exhibition aptly called Making a Way Out of No Way, is part of the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture, which will be inaugurated on September 24 by Barack Obama, the United States’ first black president.
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The museum’s journey to opening day is 100 years in the making, but it is the fact that it was built without a pre-existing collection that is truly spectacular. The museum’s founding director, Lonnie Bunch, started working on it 11 years ago with only a staff of two in tow and little budget to speak of.
Even though only 3,000 artefacts will be available for viewing on Saturday, a total of 37,000 objects were collected for the museum, mostly through personal donations. Traversing the US in the style of Antiques Roadshow, Bunch and his staff searched people’s basements and attics for pieces that would soon fill 37,000 square metres of space, tracing the history of black America.
The artefacts are grouped in 12 inaugural exhibits organised into three sections: history, community and culture. Highlights include the dress Rosa Parks was sewing before she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus, abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s hymn book, a $600 bill of sale for a teenage girl called Polly, and the coffin of Emmett Till, a teenager whose brutal murder in Mississippi in 1955 mobilised the Civil Rights Movement.
Congress appropriated $250m for the building – the first green-efficient structure on the National Mall – while Bunch raised a similar amount from private sources, such as major corporations and foundations, churches and scout groups – and individuals who wrote checks from as small as one dollar, he said.
The museum straddles a line between looking back at the US’s dark history and a hopeful message that focuses on African American achievements.
Repeatedly, Bunch asserted that the African American experience is a quintessentially American one. But some numbers suggest otherwise: one in every 15 African American men is incarcerated in comparison with one in every 106 white men. African Americans rank second by race for the highest poverty rates.
“We felt it was crucial to craft a museum that would help America remember and confront its tortured racial past,” Bunch said. But it also had to find the joy, hope, resilience, spirituality that was endemic in this community. So in essence the goal was to find that tension between moments of tears and moments of great joy.”
Because the exhibitions are arranged chronologically, visitors are instructed to start at the basement level, where the mood is sombre, lighting is dim, and ceilings are low – a fitting setting for the haunting story of the Atlantic slave trade in 15th-century Africa and Europe.
Exhibits there include whips, wrought-iron shackles, a segregation-era train carriage, a guard tower from the infamous Angola Prison in Louisiana, slave shacks, and an auction block that tells the story of babies torn from their mothers as they are sold at auction.
“Going through [the first] section [here in the basement] give[s] you the feeling of what it’s like to have been a slave in the bowls of a ship,” said Ruthann Uithol, the museum’s registrar. “That’s why it’s so dark; to give that oppressive feeling that they would have experienced.”
Shying away from calling it a “black” museum, its administrators are instead positioning it in the larger narrative of American history, but seen through the lens of African Americans. They are, however, aware that its opening is timely, with the country struggling to come to terms with itself in regards to race with widespread protests erupting in response to a number of killings of unarmed African American men by law
“The inauguration of our newest museum occurs as race and cultural differences dominate the national discourse,” said David J Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. “[It’s] a time when social and political discord remind us that racism is not, unfortunately, a thing of the past.”
The museum, which sits on the last plot of land at the National Mall, is assertive in its presence, its bronze-coloured walls sharply contrasting the ubiquitous white marble and limestone of the monuments that pepper what is dubbed “America’s Front Yard”.
Its signature exterior “corona”, made out of cast-aluminum panels, draws from African and American heritage. Its three-tiered shape is inspired by the crown of a Yoruba sculpture from West Africa, and the pattern of the filigree metal cladding is a nod to the ironwork of enslaved craftspeople in Charleston and New Orleans.
“We wanted to honour that skill,” said British lead designer David Adjaye, who was born in Tanzania to Ghanaian parents. “[We wanted] to talk about the fact that slaves … built the fabric of America, and that imagery … of original American architecture from 200 years ago, should also be celebrated on the National Mall.”
The “corona” encloses the building to ensure solar gain and to mitigate sunlight, but also to shield the glass skin around it that allows visitors to see the National Mall. “[We] sought to make a building which had a dark presence on the mall … for the history and stories of the African American communities has always been in the back to the main narrative of America,” Adjaye added.
As visitors make their way to the upper levels, they go through a transformative time lapse, all the while encountering the segregation and the Civil Rights Movement periods. It is noticeably brighter and the mood is uplifting as you reach the last floor, where African American heritage and culture is celebrated.
With music blasting in the background, a candy-apple red Cadillac belonging to rock’n roll legend Chuck Berry takes centre-stage, with homages made to Sammy Davis Jr, Ray Charles and Michael Jackson. A replica of the P-Funk Mothership, one of the most iconic stage props in the history of funk music, also makes an appearance.
And while Obama is prominently featured in the museum, a glaring shortfall is the very little space assigned to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, who led the Civil Rights Movement, possibly because of family feuds over his estate.
However, from the same era, viewers will recognise iconic tributes such as a sculpture of athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising a black power fist at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Bringing in the modern era, Black Lives Matter, an activist movement, which has held a high profile in recent campaigns against violence towards African Americans, is also featured.
“We added a section on the Black Lives Matter movement, so people will be able to learn and see that history as it’s unfolding,” said Joanne Hyppolite, the “cultural expressions” curator.
“There is a photograph of Michael Brown’s father and the Reverend Al Sharpton doing [the] Hands Up Don’t shoot, which is a new gesture that’s come into the lexicon of African American communication to express protest and defiance. As history continues to unfold, we will continue to update those sections.”
Follow Dalia Hatuqa on Twitter: @daliahatuqa