Dr. Margaret Smith teaches in the International Peace and Conflict Resolution program at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC. She is the author of "Reckoning with the Past: Teaching History in Northern Ireland." In addition she studies how our connections with the past affect us as people and how they interact with conflict, for good or ill.
The opening of Washington, DC’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture on Saturday, September 24, occurring as it did in the same week as police shootings of black men in Tulsa and Charlotte, captured perfectly the mixture of grief and dignified struggle that has defined the African American story.
The juxtaposition was obvious to all. We carried it inside us as we shared in the realization of a long-held dream to see the African American story honored in a central spot in our nation’s capital. President Obama underlined that the museum would not cure the racial ills of the United States. But, he said, the museum’s exhibits “can help us talk to each other, and more importantly listen to each other, and most importantly see each other.”
The new museum, with its distinctive architecture described by the New York Times as an “inverted ziggurat,” stands close to the familiar obelisk of the Washington Monument, within view of the site of Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech and of the statue of Abraham Lincoln that provided King his setting.
The day of the museum inauguration was a day when we thought a lot about dreams. Many who spoke that day referenced the poem of Langston Hughes
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Hughes spoke for African Americans in the twentieth century. In recent years a new swath of African American writers have eloquently confronted us with the continuing deferral of African Americans’ dignity in American society: Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow), Edward Baptist, (The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism), Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me), Bryan Stevenson (Just Mercy), Isabel Wilkerson (The Warmth of Other Suns). Black Lives Matter has gotten the word out about the kind of acts that have been rife ever since the ending of slavery but that have been treated with denial and callousness.
The opening of the museum was not so much an explosion as a jubilant acknowledgment that the African American story is and always was central to the American story. The ongoing struggles make that affirmation more meaningful, give it an edge, remind us that the battle for the world we aspire to is never won, is fought daily.
And somehow or other, I, and, I believe, many, many of us, felt drawn in last Saturday, knowing we were all part of this story. The story sends out a shaft of light that pierces our ongoing protections and defenses, that brings us alive, that teaches us what it means to love and engage.
Attending a concert of spirituals at Washington’s National Cathedral earlier in the week that was held in honor of the museum opening, I sat down beside a young black man and we introduced ourselves. “My name is Efram,” he said. “Pronounced like A-frame,” he added. I said my name was Margaret. The concert began, and I saw that Efram was looking up each of the songs on his iPhone so that he could follow the words. “Nobody knows the trouble I see,” “Take my hand, precious Lord,” “Swing low, sweet chariot, comin’ for to carry me home” – songs of resistance, of acknowledgement of deep emotions trampled, of separation of mothers and children, of exodus, of pleas for deliverance. When the audience was welcomed to join in, Efram shared his iPhone with me. It turned out that he had been born in Ethiopia. None of these songs was familiar to him, but he wanted to know them. Leaning in towards each other, we sang the three verses of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift every voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty,” reaching our heads higher for the crescendos as if we had been doing this together for all of time.