A weathered slave cabin, dating back to the Point of Pines Plantation in South Carolina, sits solemnly in a room. Slaves lived within its walls for much of the 19th century. An iron neck chain resides here, too — so tiny it could only have been adorned by a child.
The museum unapologetically discusses the horrors of America’s past, rightfully criticizing the country’s icons in their complicity. For example, a life size sculpture of Thomas Jefferson stands next to a list of the slaves he owned. Receipts for the sales of people, once considered property, line the walls. Harriet Tubman’s beloved hymn break is on display. There’s a tattered pocket version of the Emancipation Proclamation, carried by white soldiers to deliver the news of slavery’s end to African American fighters.
But it’s not just about the past’s horrors; this isn’t victimization, but empowerment. African American contributions and rich cultural icons fill the floors, noting their success. Chuck Berry‘s famed red cadillac is permanently installed, as is the Tuskegee airplane used to train African American pilots during WWII. A black fashion collection incorporates approximately 1,000 pieces. These cultural achievements speak to the perseverance of a group that was continually oppressed but managed to succeed despite the odds.
The five floor museum, plus below-ground concourses, traces the history of African Americans centuries back to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Three history exhibits highlight their experience: Slavery and Freedom; The Segregation Era; A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond. Rich cultural exhibits are in abundance – ranging from Musical Crossroads to Taking The Stage (an exhibit on African American theater.)
Despite congressional reservations about attendance, the museum is anticipating such large crowds that entry passes will be distributed for its opening days. To visit opening weekend, passes must be obtained in advance by calling ETIX Customer Support Center at 1-919-653-0443. Admission is free, as it is for all Smithsonian institutions. Excessive lines are expected.
The dedication ceremony will commence at 10 a.m. on Sept. 24th. The non-ticketed outdoor ceremony will be held at The National Mall. President Obama will cut the ribbon, and the bronze doors will finally swing open to the public at 1 p.m.
Visiting NMAAHC is the ultimate experience of America — one of tragedy, one of valor and one of perseverance. The museum’s website explains its goal: ‘to explore what it means to be an American and share how American values like resiliency, optimism, and spirituality are reflected in African American history.’ At a time of increasingly high racial tensions and police executions of unarmed black men, maybe the nation needs a reminder of the sins of its past — and how to be better in the future.
Inside, a soiled and authentic Ku Klux Klan hood hangs, surrounded by photographs of violent lynchings. Photos of black men dangling from trees stand as the ultimate reminder of America’s brutal atrocities. This memorial will guarantee that the lives and deaths of these African Americans, murdered by hate, will never be forgotten. But it’s also a motivator for progress; a step towards reconciliation.
This is America.
By Kate McMahon