On Sunday I visited the newest addition to the National Mall — the National Museum of African American History and Culture — with a group of Mason students and my colleagues Rose Pascarell and Julian Williams.
I found the experience emotionally intense, painful at times and, at the same time, deeply inspiring. I also took pride in knowing that Mason students, faculty and alumni had played a role in the opening of the museum. I strongly recommend the visit to all of our students and to anyone visiting Washington, D.C.
The museum’s location, next to the Washington Monument, is spectacular. The architecture is striking and offers some new and dramatic perspectives of the Mall. Its adjacency to the monuments of founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (and the more modest memorial of George Mason) highlights the uncomfortable historical fact that the very same men we celebrate for their ardent defense of liberty and equality personally enslaved dozens of people during their lifetimes.
That contradiction is nowhere as visible as in the Thomas Jefferson display on the bottom floor of the museum, where a statue of the author of the Declaration of Independence is flanked by the names of the people he owned, right under the enlightened words that laid the foundation of the American republic. I was struck by the display of a draft of the Declaration and other correspondence that leaves little doubt that the tragic irony didn’t escape the authors.
The collection of objects from Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement is truly remarkable. This New York Times special offers a good sample. The Emmett Till casket is heart-wrenching. And the interactive “Woolworth’s lunch counter” was an effective way to internalize the personal risks assumed by the thousands of heroes who fought for civil rights in the United States.
The upper levels of the museum celebrate the countless contributions of African Americans to every aspect of American life, from the arts to the military. The displays tell the story of how excellence in music or in sports provided a rare avenue for many people to express themselves and bring attention to the injustices faced by African Americans.
One of those displays is a statue of the Mexico City Olympic Games Black Power protest by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos. They used their achievement to send a message to audiences around the world and paid dearly for it. (Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, by the way, was also part of the protest and was equally ostracized back home, as Smith and Carlos recognized during eulogies at his funeral in 2006).
Particularly moving for me was the display of Hazel Johnson-Brown‘s military uniform. She was the first black woman to reach the rank of Army General and later became a professor at George Mason University — and, as I have learned from my colleague Dr. Charlene Douglas, a role model to many younger academics who excelled at Mason and elsewhere.
I left the museum with a fuller appreciation of the central role African Americans have played in making the United States what it is today: socially, culturally, politically, economically, artistically. I left wondering about what I would have done if I had lived through slavery, Reconstruction or the Civil Rights Movement. Would I have had the courage to lead and take personal risks to drive change? I left wondering also how our generation will be judged by how we confront the injustices we face today.