It’s easy to forget how privileged I was, finding and exploiting opportunities that were woven subliminally, as well as visibly, into the fabric of my life. As a white woman, my career and equality accomplishments were not without frustration and rabid bouts of sexism. However, what I did was easy when I compare them to the accomplishments and deeply racist struggles of African Americans. I was awakened to the stories of people whose fabric of life had few, if any, threads of opportunity, where they had to spin the thread themselves to create lives so different and unfathomable from ours. A visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture did just that. I was deliciously overwhelmed by the persistence, density and strength that radiates throughout this museum.
The four gallery floors of culture, community and history inform, engage and break through stereotypes using stories, not just artifacts. For the first time, I saw African American life not from the interpretation of white historians, but through the unfiltered perspective of black people themselves, of how they lived their lives, did their art and kept their dignity and respect. This is most simply and intimately reflected in a back corner of the ‘Art’ collection in the Culture Gallery where 54 small charcoal portraits of African American men and women by artist Winfield Lovell are hung. It is through this small collection of drawings that I began to comprehend their full diversity and character.
It is the architecture, the building itself, that, for me, drives the spirit and strength of the people’s stories told in the galleries. It starts with the building’s presence on the mall. It is different, standing in opposition to the monolithic sandstone and granite edifices of the Archives, American Museum of History, National Gallery of Art, Washington Memorial and
the red brick Victorian Smithsonian buildings that populate the mall. Criticism for ‘not fitting in’ along with judgments about the complexity and density of the galleries abound. For me, these critics are blinded to its message that speak so clearly.
Once inside the building, light, space and open air pervade. As I walked the halls and rode the escalators, the exterior lattice-work at times felt like an iron cage with bars keeping me from seeing outside; then at times it felt like fine lace — decorating the air, dancing and sprinkling the outside sunlight onto my face, while openings in the lattice provided clear views onto an outside world in which this building is so staunchly and defiantly grounded.
It is an exciting and humbling experience, this new museum.