Editor’s Note: In the current issue of National Review, we have an essay by Jay Nordlinger, which he expands in Impromptus today.
The Smithsonian Institution has a new museum, ensconced on the National Mall. It is the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum opened in September. It was authorized by Congress 13 years before, in 2003.
I have never liked segregation, in history or elsewhere. And if black Americans aren’t part of the general American story, no one is. This new museum gives official, federal sanction to historiographic segregation. It is the Smithsonian’s own February.
Well, if we must have such a museum — better make it good.
The Smithsonian has long had a National Museum of American History. You might have thought that this would have been enough, where American history was concerned.
I mentioned February. What did I mean? Well, Black History Month, which has always gotten my goat. It gets Morgan Freeman’s, too.
In 2005, he gave a controversial interview to Mike Wallace.
Wallace: “Black History Month, you find …”
Freeman: “You’re going to relegate my history to a month?”
Wallace: “Come on.”
Freeman: “What do you do with yours? Which month is White History Month? Come on, tell me.”
Wallace: “I’m Jewish.”
Freeman: “Okay. Which month is Jewish History Month?”
Wallace: “There isn’t one.”
Freeman: “Why not? Do you want one?”
Wallace: “No, no.”
Freeman: “I don’t either. I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.”
Yes, black history is American history. American history is a lot more than Betsy Ross, Audie Murphy, and a select number of other whities. And yet, black history — black-American history — is also a rich field. Is it rich enough, or distinctive enough, to warrant a separate museum? A separate museum in America’s Backyard (as the National Mall is called)?
That is a thorny question.
Thinking about the museum — the impending museum — I had some worries. I was worried about the furtherance — indeed, the enshrining — of identity politics, a national curse. I was also worried about the furtherance and enshrining of the grievance culture, another curse. Americans are constantly flicking the scabs off wounds. “Let’s flick the scab off that wound,” President Nixon would say, when he wanted to reopen a grievance, for some political purpose.
There is a difference between clarity about wrongs, past and present, and scab-flicking. Happy is he who adopts the former and avoids the latter.
Here was another worry: If you have a separate museum for black Americans, what about other racial or ethnic groups? Or religious groups? A Mormon museum would be interesting, wouldn’t it? You can envision a proliferation of museums. “Everybody wants to get into the act,” Jimmy Durante used to say.
By the way, the Smithsonian has a National Museum of the American Indian. That’s another story, and another series of notes (perhaps).
This is ancient history, but I remember being opposed to, or at least skeptical of, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened in 1993. It is hard by the National Mall. I doubt that anyone considers it separate from the Mall and the Smithsonian.
I wondered, What is it doing on American soil? Let them have it in Europe, not here! Why should a Holocaust museum be mingled with the National Air and Space Museum and all that?
Anyway, that is long over …
I am aware that I had an unusual upbringing, for a white kid. I was steeped in black history and black culture. Many years ago, a literary agent suggested that I write a memoir called “Growing Up Black.”
In my school system, we heard at least as much about the Edmund Pettus Bridge as we did about the Mayflower. I’m pretty sure we heard more about John Lewis than about John Winthrop. I’m not sure that Audie Murphy’s name came up.
I have told the following joke, which is not entirely a joke: Every year from the seventh grade through grad school, I was assigned either Black Boy or Native Son. (These are books by Richard Wright.) I was never assigned Hamlet.
I’m not complaining — necessarily. I liked all this, and regarded it as important. I’m not sure I would trade my education (though I would certainly — definitely — augment and enrich it).
At my university, there was a dorm that had a lounge for black students only. (At least it was this way in practice.) We’re talking about the Angela Davis Lounge. Which was worse? A segregated lounge or one named after Gus Hall’s running mate? In this period, Davis was the vice-presidential nominee of the Communist party. Twice.
Had black Americans struggled, bled, and died so that we could celebrate this darling of the Soviet bloc?
E pluribus unum — “Out of many, one” — are three of the most vital words in the American creed. I wish that more of us took them to heart. I wish the integrationist instinct were stronger and the tribal instinct weaker. I also remember, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”
A great many people prize their racial or ethnic identity. The older I get, the more I realize, or accept, that this is so. And it is probably especially true of people whose forebears were persecuted.
So, here we are.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened on September 24, 2016. That name is a mouthful, by the way, and the acronym is awkward: “NMAAHC.” A lot of people just say “the Blacksonian.”
President Obama presided over the opening ceremony, which featured a remarkable woman: Ruth Bonner, 99 years old. She is the daughter of a man born a slave. On this opening day, she rang a bell.
The building is distinctive on the Mall: an inverted pyramid, in bronze. The corona is meant to evoke the Yoruban culture of West Africa.
I paid a visit on a bright February day. (A February visit to a February museum?) The museum is a stone’s throw from the Washington Monument and an even shorter throw from the National Museum of American History. As I looked at the two museums, I thought of a word: apartheid. In Afrikaans, it means “apartness.” I also thought of a phrase out of the American past: “separate but equal.”
Approaching the African-American museum, I saw a face through a window. It was the first thing I saw. And it was Barack Obama, on a big poster. The poster turned out to be in the gift shop.
Fair enough: first black president.
The museum is spiffy, having that new-car smell. It will get dingy, like all things material, but for now it is pristine.
Parts of the museum bear the names of donors. For instance, there is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Concourse Atrium. And the Oprah Winfrey Theater. And the David M. Rubenstein History Galleries.
On this day, the majority of the visitors are black, and the majority of those are students. To get to the history galleries, you have to take a large elevator downstairs. A group of students gets on. A young man — possibly nervous in anticipation of what we’re going to see — jokes, “I ain’t pickin’ no cotton.” His friends laugh.
Once downstairs, we enter a dark room, where there is a piece of timber and an iron ballast. They are from the São José, a slave ship.
Elsewhere, there are shackles. A woman says to a boy not more than three, “Do you know what those are? They’re called ‘shackles.’ They were put on people’s wrists and ankles, to control them.”
Is the boy too young for that lesson? I tend to think so, but maybe I’m wrong.
The museum points out the paradox of the American Founding: a republic devoted to liberty, which held slaves. On a wall is a quotation from Frederick Douglass, to wit, “Liberty must either cut the throat of slavery or slavery would cut the throat of liberty.”
Yup — one or the other.
There are many interpretations of history — American and other history — and you can’t enshrine them all on the National Mall. Unless you perform an impressive balancing act, you can’t enshrine both Forrest McDonald (the late conservative) and Howard Zinn (the late leftist). So, who gets enshrined?
And what artifacts do you include? This museum has almost 37,000 of them. Nat Turner’s Bible, anyone could understand. But the handcuffs used on Professor Henry Louis Gates when he was arrested in 2009? Really?
(President Obama helped make this arrest a cause célèbre. At some point, he held, at the White House, a “beer summit.”)
The more recent the history becomes, the more tendentious, or disputable, the museum gets. I suppose this is natural.
As I tour the museum, it seems I see those raised fists from 1968 a lot — those raised, defiant fists at the Mexico City Olympics. Frankly, I am a tiny bit sick of those fists, after seeing them for a lifetime.
I gaze at the wonderful face of Rosa Parks — and read about her heroics in the 1950s, down in Alabama.
But I knew a different Rosa Parks too — I mean, I knew her through the media. She was living in Detroit, and I was living in Ann Arbor. When she was an old lady — 81 — she had the hell beaten out of her by a thug. Right in her own home. After she had given him money, too.
That, I believe, is a big problem. Bull Connor? He dead.
If I had a role in the African-American museum, I would suggest a mention of this crime committed against Mrs. Parks, decades after Montgomery.
Anita Hill is here, in the museum. Testifying against Clarence Thomas, making allegations of sexual misconduct against him. There is no mention of Thomas — except that.
Believe it or not, that is not the most disgraceful part of the museum. Most disgraceful, I think, is the museum’s treatment of the Black Panthers. They are utterly whitewashed, pardon the expression. If you listen to the museum, the Panthers were a bunch of particularly bold civil-rights activists who also provided social welfare — hot school lunches and the like.
The Panthers “quickly came into conflict with the police and the FBI,” says the museum. Funny how that happens when you kidnap, rape, and murder.
We learn about Viola Liuzzo, a civil-rights activist from Michigan — a white woman — who went to Alabama and was murdered by the Klan.
I know you can’t include everything — a museum can’t include everything — but I can’t help thinking of Betty Van Patter, raped and murdered by the Black Panthers, for whom she was working as a bookkeeper. A picture of Viola Liuzzo is very near laudatory material about the Panthers. That’s why I think of Betty Van Patter, I think.
(By the way, it was this latter murder that precipitated David Horowitz’s break with the Left.)
Angela Davis is here, on a video, screaming in her style.
Jesse Jackson is pictured, carrying a banner that says “Jobs, Not Bombs.” The kind of slogan — moronic — that millions swoon at.
There is a shrine to Obama, and, you know? I say, again, fair enough …
You also have material about the shooting of Michael Brown, and surrounding events in Ferguson, Mo., in the summer of 2014. Highly tendentious, of course.
There are sections of the museum that are less tendentious, less disputable, and pure fun. Take Chuck Berry’s 1973 Cadillac Eldorado — convertible — in candy-apple red. Sweet. Also the set of the Oprah show. Nice.
In the section on fashion, George C. Wolfe, a playwright and director, is quoted: “God created black people and black people created style.” This is a permissible boast, I think. But I can hear Italians, from the Renaissance onward, saying, “Wha’ …?”
The classical-music section omits William Grant Still, which I find odd. He is probably the most famous black-American classical composer (unless we count Scott Joplin as classical, for his opera Treemonisha among other things). It does include George Walker, who happens to be 94 and living in New Jersey. I got an e-mail from him a couple of years ago, in response to something I had written.
We see a baton used by James DePreist (who was the nephew of Marian Anderson). We also see Leontyne Price, the immortal soprano. And I happen to know something: Today, February 10, 2017, is her 90th birthday.
Some little kids are sitting on a bench, having a rest. They are black. Their teacher, or guide, is white: a nice white lady. “What has been your favorite thing about the museum so far?” she asks. One boy says, “Army!” Another boy agrees, “Army!” The lady says, “Oh, you mean learning about the African-American men and women who have served in the armed forces?” The boys look a little confused, and say again, “Army!”
I love it. You can’t stop boys from being boys, no matter what.
In huge letters on a wall, there is a statement from James Baldwin: “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it. … History is literally present in all that we do.”
That sentiment is very popular, and I don’t believe it. I also agree with Thomas Sowell that the phrase “legacy of slavery” is one of the most specious and harmful in America today. It covers a multitude of sins, present ones — for which distant slavery may be a mere scapegoat.
I think I have greater sympathy with Henry Ford — “History is bunk” — than I do with Baldwin.
There is also a bannered quote from bell hooks, the lower-cased writer and activist — something to the effect that people “resist” by “naming their history.” Oh, come off it.
What is “your history”? Is it what generations before you did, or went through? Or is it last Tuesday, or last year? What you have done? I find that many people would rather deal with “history” than with themselves.
Human, I suppose.
I should not be too breezy. “Growing Up Black” may be a cute title, but the truth is, I didn’t: did not grow up black. And it can be difficult, if not impossible, to slip into other people’s skin.
Let me tell you a story: Not long ago, I was teaching Sunday School, teaching the Bible (as one does). My sole pupil that morning was a marvelous little girl whose parents came from South Asia. With a look of concern on her face, she said, “Does dark mean bad?” For a second, I was stuck for words. Then I muttered something about how people have long feared the night and waited for the break of day. My pupil was mollified, but not 100 percent satisfied. I could tell.
All day long, I could say that “dark” is merely metaphorical. But if I had dark skin — would I be so metaphor-friendly?
I once heard a young black woman — light-skinned — talk about another woman: “She’s black, black as sin.” You should have heard her draw out the “s” in “sin.” Ssssin.
“Black as sin.” “Black-hearted.” “To blacken my name.” I would never think there was anything racial about those words and phrases. But what if my skin were black? Huh? Would I be blithe ’n’ breezy ’n’ understanding?
I don’t know.
Okay, this will be arrogant (which is par for the course, when the writer is me): I don’t need or want an African-American museum, and I don’t need or want a Holocaust museum. To take just the latter type of institution: I read my Raul Hilberg, eons ago, and my Lucy Dawidowicz, and my Martin Gilbert, plus a billion Holocaust memoirs, etc. I had enough of it by the time I was 25 or so.
But: Do other people need these museums? Not everything is for everyone.
Whether we wished for its birth or not, the Blacksonian has been born and it is here to stay, plonked prominently on the National Mall. It is, in many respects, a wonderful museum. It is fascinating, because black-American history and culture are fascinating. I hope the museum will do some good.
I also hope that America will not die from Balkanization, which is encouraged, in ways subtle and gross, day after day.
A word from the National Review Store: To get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.