I went to DC a few weeks ago and visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is an excellent pair of museums, I strongly recommend anyone visiting DC make it a priority. It’s still free and still a hot ticket but easier to get in to than before. If you’re going in summer reserve tickets three months in advance for your best experience. But you can also get same-day tickets and walkups, particularly outside of peak season.
The museum is clearly designed as two separate sections. Downstairs is history, upstairs is culture. The bottom half of the museum is a fantastic history of African Americans from the earliest days of slavery, through slave uprisings, emancipation, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights era. It’s ambitious. It will leave you exhausted at the end with no energy for the other half of the museum, the cultural museum. Which is also fantastic, a celebration of African American cultures. Food, textiles, sports, music, TV. I mean, they have the goddamn P-Funk mothership! It’s a lot of fun. Definitely also worth a visit, but plan a break for lunch or something in the middle.
I approached this museum from the background of having visited a lot of German museums about Nazi history. I was wondering how the Smithsonian would deal with America’s enormous crime against humanity. Thoroughly and honestly, but very differently from the German museums. The Nazi memorials tend to a direct documentation of how the genocide and other crimes were conducted. They are focussed on a recent history in living memory, and one that is meticulously documented in precise bureaucratic detail. By contrast formal American slavery is 150+ years old and there’s precious few direct records of, say, individual slaveholders and their daily abuses. The historical distance demands a different telling. Also the Smithsonian has made a decision to tell as uplifting a history as possible; in every room details of African American resistance, strength, and heroism are highlighted. I think that’s admirable but it doesn’t leave a lot of room for documenting the horrible abuses. Those are documented, but only as one facet of the whole museum.
So I was a little conflicted. Honestly I think America needs a fully uncomfortable museum about slavery where the abuses are the focus. How American people and government worked to subjugate other Americans, to keep them and their children in slavery. Far too many people still think that slavery wasn’t really that bad, or wasn’t really Americans’ faults, or that slavery is over so what’s the big deal now? The German museums exist to ensure that no German can be at all confused about what happened in the Nazi regime and could never consider even slightly lionizing that era. Plenty of Americans still celebrate Confederate "heroes" and do not admit to the horrible abuses of slavery, not just in its time but the echoes of it today. I fear in softening the message the Smithsonian does not do enough to communicate how horrible American slavery was. There are a couple of museums that are more focussed on the mechanisms of abuse which I need to visit; the Whitney Plantation near New Orleans and the Lynching Memorial in Montgomery.
One other thing I can’t let go… Nazi memorials in Germany are in no way museums of Jewish culture. They are museums of German history. The Smithsonian has chosen to put museums of both Culture and History together in one place. I think they’ve done an excellent job of it. The separation of floors makes for a separation of concerns. And I like the uplifting message in the history section, the story of how African Americans shall overcome. So the combination works, but it still makes me uneasy.