The Smithsonian’s African American museum a monument to respectability politics

The museum tells the story of black Americans from slavery to the present day yet in the age of Black Lives Matter, is the whole project a sham?

In many ways, the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is a soaring success. Somewhere between a decade and a century in the making (the project formally began 11 years ago, but was first dreamed up in 1915), the museum will achieve many of its goals when Barack Obama inaugurates it on 24 September.

British architect David Adjayes stunning building puts blackness front and center on the National Mall, a location museum director Lonnie Bunch calls Americas front lawn. Its a gleaming temple of modernity, creating for the African American experience what Rem Koolhaass Seattle Central Library and Renzo Pianos Whitney Museum do for institutions mostly used by white audiences: a space of unapologetically modern art, architecture, science and civic engagement. The exhibits inside, which organize some 3,000 artifacts, utilize the best curation and design youll find in any museum in the world.

And yet, the project also represents a philosophical and political failure for the time we are in. The Smithsonian is saying that the African American experience is the American experience which is true. But to have the black experience in need of such validation, to require a building of such grandeur with a tony address, is quite at odds with the current political moment. Although the museum is a celebration of blackness, it is also a project of US nationalism, meant to sell the image that African Americans have a claim to the American project when, in terms of life and wealth, we have no such claim. The museum is a project of respectability politics.

A wooden sculpture by Nigerian artist Olowe Of Ise wears a crown on which the museums design is based. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images
To me, the Black Lives Matter movement has if not entirely rejected certainly questioned such politics. The official narrative is that a black president, on his way out the door, can open this museum that will usher in a better future for African Americans. The less convenient truth is that US nationalism has continued to fail black America
which is why football players are refusing to sing the national anthem. And the likelihood of a museum changing the course of anything other than symbolism is pretty weak, especially as we have the biggest black symbol of them all which has done little for us: the American presidency.

But before I become a total Debbie Downer, lets talk about what the museum does exceedingly well.

A shackled crib

The museum is loosely organized into three sections history, community and culture. If you view it as I did from the bottom to the top youll see them in this order. First, you dig into history by taking an elevator down, which ticks dates down slowly from 2015, past 1776, until you get to the beginning of the 15th century when you are deposited into a scene depicting the Atlantic world of the slave trade, in a time before there is even a real concept of Africa as a place.

Slavery is foundational to the modern world, curator Nancy Berklew says in the exhibit, stressing it is a shared history that everyone can learn from, white or black. Everyone in the US is a descendant of a national economy where sugar, cotton, banking, insurance and shipping indeed, the entire US culture were built by the labor of enslaved people. And the NMAAHC stresses that they were people, with names such as Equiano, Harriet Jacobs and Solomon Northrop.

An art piece by abstract sculptor and artist Richard Hunt hangs in the lobby. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Linguistically, the museum employs a technique also utilized at the Museum of the City of Londons exhibit London, Sugar and Slavery: signs refer to an enslaved person or people who were enslaved. This is different from referring simply to slaves, which makes humans sound like they were farmed objects like cattle or wheat. Slaves reduces humans to their bondage and implies they werent full people who loved, who prayed, who came from diverse parts of the African continent and had very different lives in other parts the nascent United States.

After wandering through dark halls with low ceilings, you are deposited into the museums largest hall with high, sweeping gray walls. There, you are confronted with statues of Thomas Jefferson and enslaved people, beneath Jeffersons ironic words from the opening of the Declaration of Independence, All men are created equal.

Steven Thrasher (@thrasherxy) September 14, 2016

.@Nettaaaaaaaa in front of massive Declaration of Independence you confront when leaving slavery exhibits #NMAAHC

Jeffersons quote is next to one by James Baldwin (which appears over a cabin for enslaved people that has been diligently excavated and restored) and Ida B Wells (which appears across from a Tuskegee airmans plane). This hall is vast and home to the museums largest acquisitions: a statue depicting King Cotton; a segregated railroad car; and a replica of a guard tower at Angola prison on the site of a slavery plantation where legal slavery exists (thanks to the 13th amendment).

One side of the hall displays legal documents that altered slavery, from the Missouri Compromise to the 15th amendment. On the other are more descriptions of slavery intended, as curator Michelle Wilkinson explained, to always show you there was a real person who was enslaved. One of the most effective exhibits here is a babys cradle, carved out of wood, which has shackles over it. The cradle shows the cruelty of slavery, but also that enslaved people would carve, build, sing, draw, do whatever they could to show affection towards and share humanity with one other. I saw a black woman break down when she saw it and have to walk away.

The history section moves forward through the present, including black queer people (Florynce Kennedy and Bayard Rustin get shout outs) and a very good examination of the black feminist and black power movements of the 1960s. I was disappointed that when I visited, the open coffin that displayed the remains of Emmett Till the 14-year-old black teenager tortured and murdered for flirting with a white woman was not yet on display. His mother Mamies decision to make the world see what they did to my baby was paramount to igniting the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and I think it will be powerful to see near the display of a sign for Trayvon Martin, whose death helped trigger the Black Lives Matter movement.


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A photo posted by Steven Thrasher (@thrasherxy) on

The community section shows how service organizations, womens groups, the military, barber shops, beauty parlors and sports teams provided the means through which black Americans could make a claim to American citizenship. Theres a wonderful room dedicated to educator and philanthropist Mary McLeod Bethune, a member of Franklin D Roosevelts black cabinet and national leader in womens clubs whose name ought to be as known as Oprah Winfreys (whose name is on the museums auditorium).

There is also a fascinating and huge section dedicated to sports. I was particularly taken with the large sculpture of John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising a black power fist at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics (and also of Australian sprinter Peter Norman with them, who wore a patch in support of them that was enough to effectively end [his] career).

The statue is so central to the sports section, I realized how ridiculous it is when racists try to write off football player Colin Kaepernicks refusal to endorse the national anthem. When black athletes are supposed to sign on to symbols of nationalism, their participation can be used to signal that there is nothing racially wrong with the nation; but when they refuse to go along, their refusal highlights problems so powerfully, a momentary protest can be remembered for decades.

But the statue also made me think, paradoxically, that the museum it is housed in is also a project of US nationalism. What happens when black people endorse it? (This also made me question the usefulness of the museum itself.)

The display includes a klansmans hood. Photograph: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Black brilliance

The section on culture, on the museums top floor, showcases black excellence which leaves you, as the writer Clint Smith wrote, in awe of how black people have accomplished so much amid such an incessantly violent history. Black music is represented strongly, encapsulated most succinctly in a triptych containing Ray Charles blazer, Michael Jacksons fedora from the Victory tour, and Princes tambourine.

The visual culture section is as rich as the musical, showcasing artwork from Joshua Johnsons early 19th-century oil painting of a white man to very black works by Kara Walker, Barkley Hendricks and Elizabeth Catlett. I was especially touched by Mothership (Capsule) by Afrofuturist Jefferson Pinder, a recreation of a Mercury space capsule made out of wood from Obamas first inauguration platform (and accompanied by audio by Sun Ra and Stevie Wonder).

Steven Thrasher (@thrasherxy) September 14, 2016

#BlackGenius: Ray Charles’ blazer, Prince’s tambourine, Michael’s Victory Tour costume #NMAAHC

I left the museum feeling both elated and like it was a sham. On the one hand, I could picture black families coming here and reveling, rightfully, in our contribution to the United States. The museum will help black adults and children feel celebrated in a society that disregards us, and such respite is necessary. It was truly joyous being with adult black journalists from around the country as giddy as kids going to Disneyland.

And yet, the museum supports a fiction. What good to African Americans, I have to wonder, is a museum dedicated to us, when we are getting shot in the street daily? When were routinely being slaughtered by police? When we die on average years younger than our white counterparts? When we have 1/12th the wealth of white people, and twice as much unemployment?

I worry that the museum is playing into a central trap of respectability politics: that if we just present ourselves in right way on the National Mall! with a modernist building! black lives will be seen as worthy. This would be a tenuous fiction at the best of times, but especially while a black man has had the most high-profile seat at the table of respectability politics of them all: the American presidency, which has done little for altering disparities in black health or wealth.

The taking the stage section of the exhibition. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This museum might have meant more, say, during the Reagan 80s of my youth, when Martin Luther King Day was inaugurated. Then, the fiction that a veneer of respectability could help black people would held more weight; my father, who hated Reagan, would have loved this museum and seen it as a chess move to get white people to take black people seriously. But when Obama formally opens the museum next week, he will do so as the first black president who is also leaving office with black people still suffering disproportionately. Black people have been protesting in the streets, football players have been kneeling and even Beyonc has been wearing Panthers garb, because we have seen that symbols of progress mean little in protecting us.

That jig is up. If the Oval Office cant help our cause, can a museum?

Or is this too big a goal to lay at the feet of the NMAAHC? David Skorton, the Smithsonians secretary, said people appear to change, especially young people when theyre in a museum. But the older I get, the less interested I am in racism as representation, or in terms of how people appear to change; I increasingly understand racism in terms of power relations.

I was happy to see a great racial mix of creative people working at the museum as architects and curators. But as I walked around, I couldnt help but notice that as they scurried to get the museum ready for opening day, all the construction workers I saw were men, and most (not all) were white. At the same time, every single security worker I saw (male and female) was black, just like at most places. And in the cafeteria, every person serving food was black and brown, while the chefs and managers overseeing them were all white something that felt especially uncomfortable as the food stations, like the slavery exhibits, were divided into southern and northern regions. When white tourists go to the cafeteria, they will be as likely to be served food by a black face as they would have a half-century ago.

Is it asking too much to want a museum about African Americans to undo racial job patterns and upend power relations? Perhaps. But a museum like this is also bolstering a national American identity, so it has high ambitions which deserve to be scrutinized. It opens its doors when the Black Lives Matter movement has made football players, protesters and commentators like myself question everything about celebrating US nationalism. And so I am left with as many questions about the NMAAHC as I have about the Obama presidency or the American experiment.

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