Magazine | March 6, 2017, Issue

Permanent February

The National Museum of African American History and Culture
Some personal thoughts on the ‘Blacksonian’

When I first heard about it, I said, “Oh, great: segregation on the Mall. A permanent February.” As you might guess, I wasn’t very happy about it. What was I talking about? The coming National Museum of African American History and Culture, to be part of the Smithsonian Institution, ensconced on the National Mall.

There was already a National Museum of American History. And if black Americans aren’t part and parcel of this history, who is? Betsy Ross, Audie Murphy, and a few select others?

As for “February,” I was talking about Black History Month, which has always gotten my goat. It gets Morgan Freeman’s, too. In a controversial interview with Mike Wallace in 2005, the actor called Black History Month “ridiculous.” He also said, “Black history is American history.”

It is also a rich field, black-American history. Rich enough and distinctive enough to justify a separate museum? A separate museum in America’s Backyard (as the Mall is called)?

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 concern: 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.

(The Smithsonian has a National Museum of the American Indian, but that is another story. Another essay, perhaps.)

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 joked that, every year from the seventh grade through grad school, I was assigned either Black Boy or Native Son. (Books by Richard Wright.) I was never assigned Hamlet.

I am not complaining, necessarily: I liked all this, and regarded it as important.

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. I’m not sure which was worse: a segregated lounge or one named after Gus Hall’s running mate. In this period, she 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. This may be especially true of people whose forebears were persecuted. So, here we are.

Having been established by Congress in 2003, 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.”

The Blacksonian is spiffy, having that new-car smell. It will get dingy, like all material things, but for now it is pristine. The atmosphere on this day is almost festive. 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. In anticipation of what we will see — and possibly nervous — a young man jokes to his friends, “I ain’t pickin’ no cotton.”

Once downstairs, we enter a dark room, where there is a piece of timber and an iron ballast. These are from the São José, a slave ship. In another room, 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 the 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.” 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?

Also, 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? (President Obama helped make this arrest a cause célèbre.) Really?

The more recent the history becomes, the more tendentious, or disputable, the museum gets. I suppose this is natural. I consider the museum’s treatment of the Black Panthers a disgrace. They are utterly whitewashed, pardon the expression. They are portrayed as extra-bold civil-rights activists and social-welfare providers. 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 see a prominent picture of Anita Hill. She is testifying against Clarence Thomas, accusing him of sexual harassment. That is all we know of Justice Thomas, from the Blacksonian. (Conservatives are making this a cause célèbre, or trying to.)

Yet there are sections of the museum that are less tendentious, less disputable, and pure fun. Chuck Berry’s 1973 convertible Cadillac, in candy-apple red? Sweet. In a 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, “Huh? Seriously?”

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.

A group of 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.

Yet I should not be too breezy. And I recognize that it can be hard, if not impossible, to slip into other people’s skin. Let me give you a lesson from Sunday school, a few weeks ago.

I was teaching the Bible, as one does, and my sole pupil that morning was a little girl whose parents came from India. 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?

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, and I hope it 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.

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