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Wednesday, December 19 , 2018, 6:33 am | Fair 42º


Jamie Stiehm: National Museum of African American History & Culture Lifts Us Up


Here we were wishing for something good, to rise above the campaign fray. And then it happened. We will never be the same.

Autumn descends and the new National Museum of African American History & Culture rises like the moon on the National Mall in Washington. President Barack Obama spoke at the Sept. 24 opening, witnessing the public moment for what it is — a great triumph of spirit and storytelling.

Presiding over a nation of police violence toward black men, however, is a hard irony for the first black president, mindful of the latest outrage in Charlotte, N.C. That’s the Southern city where Obama was re-nominated in 2012.

Contradictions abound. Progress rarely goes in a straight line. The striking bronze museum, a perfect counterpoint to the white man’s marble of the nearby Washington Monument, is testament to a people’s dispossession and resilience, starting from nothing.

Black people were not even named in the U.S. Census until 1870, just to keep them down. And shortly after, with the end of Reconstruction, came Jim Crow. The cuts and slights of segregation, within memory, are carried by a Southern railway car, buried below the other levels, as if to say, “what a relic.”

If I could take one thing home from it would be small: Rosa Parks’ mug shot. That’s personal, one soul who sat down on the bus and refused to be moved in Montgomery, Ala. The seamstress sparked a mighty river, the civil rights movement, back in 1955.

Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the new museum, actually started the collection from nothing, a black slate, persuading families to donate, piece by piece.

This may be why the Smithsonian Institution’s latest arrival feels personal, like visiting someone’s home, with the Sweet Home Café’s first-class New Orleans cuisine and traditional dishes like buttermilk fried chicken and candied yams dusted with cinnamon.

Another vibrant note is recreating a porch in Oak Bluffs, a Martha’s Vineyard island summer haven for a thriving community of leading African-American families. It takes you there.

“This building will sing for all of us,” Bunch promises.

He means living and dead, voices speaking out of silences.

Nat Turner’s Bible, which the slave rebellion leader may have held when he was captured in 1831, is on display.

A young woman West Pointer, Army Lt. Emily Perez, was the first African-American female officer to die in combat in Iraq in 2006. There she is, pictured smiling in uniform. There is her own sword, given by her family.

There are a thousand dots to connect, which catch you where you live, like a Tuskegee Airman’s footlocker. Like the U.S. Colored Troops, which President Abraham Lincoln raised in 1863 to help win the Civil War. Missing from the narrative is the foremost part the Friends played in abolition.

The African-American journey started in chains, crossing the Middle Passage in slave ships, and it’s not over. The luminescent museum speaks to that truth.

At the same time, it affirms the steps of struggle along the way. It documents dark corners of American history, like the Tulsa race riot of 1921 that decimated black neighborhoods.

Who knew? The late historian John Hope Franklin urged curators to tell that grim story of violence, handed down in his family. His son, John Franklin, is the director of partnerships and international programs.

Artifacts of real anguish, such as a bloodstained slave auction block, are presented along with buoyant symbols of conquering popular culture — amazingly, Chuck Berry’s cherry-red Cadillac. It’s all a bit much for the senses — and will become more so when Emmett Till’s casket defines the collection. Till was the boy from Chicago who was infamously lynched by a white Mississippi mob, when he was visiting relatives. This stirring event happened in 1955, when Parks was arrested.

In the galleries, you can visit the Bronx as the birthplace of hip-hop and black pioneers on the Indiana frontier.

“Specificity” was sought, curator Paul Gardullo told me.

The African Methodist Episcopal church, professional sports, the military, urban renewal and the Rosenwald schools (a philanthropy) in the rural South are all explored.

A Virginia planter, George Washington, owned slaves at Mount Vernon and freed many in his will. The African American museum, his new neighbor, is set to be the star place for a greatly enlivened and enlarged account of our own history.

In short, what we’ve been waiting for.

Jamie Stiehm writes about politics, culture and history as a weekly Creators Syndicate columnist and regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter: @jamiestiehm. The opinions expressed are her own.

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