Quiet as it’s kept, Washington, D.C.–this nation’s capital–is located in the southern part of the United States. This fact, seemingly innocuous in 2019, has all kinds of implications, not the least of which is the fact that there is a strong connection between the place and the institution that kept millions of African and African diasporic people enslaved for hundreds of years. And when slavery ended it was one of the places where the white citizens who had benefited from those centuries of enslavement–or those who were duped into believing that they benefited–worked themselves into a frenzy, trying to re-enslave the ones who had already built this country for them.
Needing the continued supply of free labor to rebuild their devastated city following the Civil War, those who had resources re-enslaved as many African American men, women, and children as they could. Other whites who did not have resources prior to and during the war, took the opportunity to build wealth for themselves on the backs of those recently freed. This post-slavery era thus, marked a time of slavery by another name; that is, convict leasing when African American men, mostly, were kidnapped, arrested, and imprisoned for the smallest of offenses and sold to individuals, companies, and the state to be used as laborers to build and/or rebuild white wealth yet again.
When I was doing research on my latest book project I rewatched the wonderful film about Paramahansa Yogananda, Awake: The Life of Yogananda (2015) in which I learned about how when Yogananda was traveling around the US providing life-transforming teachings freely to Americans, he learned that Black people were not allowed to attend his teachings. In the film, his words of inclusion are contrasted with visual depictions of the KKK marching boldly down the streets of DC wielding figurine representations of lynched African Americans.
Despite my knowledge of this history as well as its contemporary challenges, I love DC. I love the walkability of the city. I love the delectable food trucks that adorn so many corners. And I love, love, love the museums.
When the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture opened a couple of years ago, I was excited to visit. The museum is significant for several reasons: for one, it is the brainchild of Lonnie G. Bunch III who now serves as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
Mr. Bunche has subsequently written a book about his journey, A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump (2019) and is currently on tour.
I was not able to go when the museum opened, simply because I do not like crowds. And I do not like scheduling things that don’t necessarily have to be scheduled. So, I waited for approximately three years to visit.
While I did not have particularly elaborate notions of what I would find when I visited, I had been led to believe that the original daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass—the one that so many copies that we find online, and in our texts, have come from, was housed in the museum. In the end I can’t be sure if I did, in fact, see it because the docent that I asked about the daguerreotype was not able to or unwilling to give me a clear answer.
But, I am a curious sort!
Maybe I ask too many questions and then have the audacity to expect answers.
Because of what I teach–African and African diasporic cultural production that is framed by history–my visit to the museum felt like a kind of pilgrimage. Indeed, I learned A LOT during my sojourn, much of it overwhelming because of the pain and suffering involved. But also a lot of the displays revealed the sheer innovation, genius, and fortitude of black people!
For example, there was the wonderful and heartbreaking story of Henry Boyd who, in the 1930s, after saving enough money to purchase the free of his enslaved brother and sister in Kentucky, established his own furniture store in Ohio. “He specialized in the manufacture of bedsteads, including a patented design that he advertised as quick and easy to assemble, sturdy, and vermin-proof. To meet the growing demand, Boyd introduced steam-powered machinery that enabled his factory to produce over 1,000 bedsteads a year by the mid-1840s.”
His success, however, drew the ire of jealous whites who forced the man to close his business after they repeatedly burned down his store. He nonetheless remained a dedicated carpenter until his death in 1886.
Stories like this make me think about what a freaking incredibly talented and gifted artisan he must have been. How smart he must have been to patent a design in the 1830s that garners companies like Ikea billions of dollars a year. And instead of white people either accepting that they didn’t have what it took to do what he did or that they were too lazy to really do anything innovative, they preferred to destroy what Mr. Boyd had built with his own sweat, blood, and tears!
Understatement: it was a little upsetting.
In Lloyd Garrison’s Preface to Frederick Douglass’ narrative of his life the white abolitionist, to illustrate the effects of slavery on a person’s soul, tells the story of a white man who had been enslaved in Africa and when he was found several months later by his countrymen, was devoid of speech and terribly debased.
For all of Garrison’s paternalism I have always appreciated him for his inclusion of that story. Because it is evidence from a white person that, contrary to enslavers’ warped logic–that slavery was a civilizing force for those held in abject bondage–the institution, at its core, robbed those who were subjected to it of their humanity.
I have for years in my classes, used the image of an elderly black man, his back to the camera to show flesh ripped apart by the whips of someone who deemed himself “master”, to illustrate the barbarity of slavery.
I’m always reminded of Toni Morrison’s brilliant description of the character Sethe’s scarred back that reminds her friend, Paul D, of a Cherry choke tree in the novel, Beloved.
Imagine my surprise when I learned during my visit to the Smithsonian, that that black man has a name: Private Gordon!!
I also learned that I was not the only one drawn to the horror and disgust that his scars inspired. The description that accompanies his photo reads: “During the Civil War, Private Gordon’s scarred back became a symbol of the human cost of slavery. The images, “documenting Gordon’s U.S. Army medical examination were widely sold and circulated to support the Union effort and assist self-liberated slaves.”
The placard that follows this horrific image, however, makes the heart soar! It shows the same man, Private Gordon, now clear and sure of his dignity and self-worth, proudly sporting his U.S. Army uniform and ready to fight for his freedom. According the placard, “After being brutally beaten by an overseer, Gordon escaped slavery in 1863 and enlisted in the U.S. Army in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.”
Stories like these must be told. So, we are no longer left simply with the image of a grown man devoid of agency. Rather, we must also get the image of a man of will who, despite the brutality he suffered for most of his life, took his destiny into his own hands and rose above it.
The museum is full of such stories, some of which are housed on a floor under the heading, “Making a Way Out of No Way.”
One of the big draws of the museum, understandably, is the Emmett Till exhibit which features one of the coffins of the young man who was murdered by racist white men in Mississippi in 1955; an event that many believe sparked the Civil Rights Movement. In addition to the coffin there are photos of him with his mother, Mamie Till, before he left Chicago that summer. There are also photos of her at her son’s funeral. In addition, the exhibit features video interviews with some people who knew the young Till, including, I believe, his cousin, who is shown saying that he witnessed the 14-year old whistle at a white woman in the store they had gone to. That may be true. But this is also true:
In 2017, author Timothy Tyson released details of a 2008 interview with Carolyn Bryant, during which she disclosed that she had fabricated the most sensational part of her testimony. Tyson said during the interview, Bryant retracted her testimony that Till had grabbed her around her waist and uttered obscenities, saying “that part’s not true”. The jury did not hear Bryant testify. The judge ruled it inadmissible, but the court spectators heard. The defense wanted Bryant’s testimony as evidence for a possible appeal in the case of a conviction. In the 2008 interview, the 72-year-old Bryant said she could not remember the rest of the events that occurred between her and Till in the grocery store. She also said: “nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him”. Tyson said that Roy Bryant had been verbally abusive toward Carolyn, and “it was clear she was frightened of her husband”. Bryant described Milam as “domineering and brutal and not a kind man”. An editorial in The New York Times said regarding Bryant’s admission that portions of her testimony were false: “This admission is a reminder of how black lives were sacrificed to white lies in places like Mississippi. It also raises anew the question of why no one was brought to justice in the most notorious racially motivated murder of the 20th century, despite an extensive investigation by the F.B.I.”
The New York Times quoted Wheeler Parker, a cousin of Till’s, who said, “I was hoping that one day she [Bryant] would admit it, so it matters to me that she did, and it gives me some satisfaction. It’s important to people understanding how the word of a white person against a black person was law, and a lot of black people lost their lives because of it. It really speaks to history, it shows what black people went through in those days.”
In a report to Congress in March 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice stated that it was reopening the investigation into Till’s death due to unspecified new information.
What is also true is that, as my brilliant son reminded when I talked with him about what I had learned, there is NOTHING that child could’ve done to warrant the barbarism that he witnessed and endured alone and without sanctuary that summer night.
I spent three days in the museum, first taking the guided tour of the bottom floor that traces the origins of those who were enslaved from their African homes and continuing with stories of the hell of slavery, the Civil War, emancipation/slave revolts, and beyond. Several exhibits, I visited multiple times.
But, after spending three days arriving shortly after the museum opened and leaving only when I was kicked out at 5pm when it closed, I was mentally and spiritually exhausted.
Fortunately, at the top floor of the museum and in the very back, I found the respite of visual art that I craved. Leaving the building that early evening, having hit the gift shop to grab some souvenirs for my loved ones, I had a plan for my final day in DC.
I am happy to have finally been able to visit the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. I was gratified to see so many people from diverse racial and ethnic heritages visiting.
**Unlike when the museum first opened you no longer need to reserve a timed pass during the week (you still need them on the weekend).
The museum was a long time in coming and I commend those who had and sustained the vision to bring this huge contribution to humanity to fruition; many whose names we will never know.
We should also recognize on whose shoulders these innovators stand, including those who started the Black Museum Movement and Charles H. Wright who started the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History as a traveling exhibition!!