Saturday, September 24, 2016

National Museum of African American History and Culture Opening: Sept 24, 2016

This country was built on the backs of black men and women, forced into slavery.  Our country wouldn’t be what it is today if we didn’t have the free and arduous labor black men, women and children provided on the plantations.  How our early economy faired paved the way for America to sustain independence.  But black lives weren’t only used for economic reasons – they were enslaved for social reasons, too.  Black slaves dressed their masters in fine clothes while they lived in rags. They cooked and served five course meals while they ate cornmeal, lard and molasses.  They often couldn’t even have the left overs without getting whipped, or worse.  But not whipped with a belt, a hard chord of leather with fragments of sharp glass stabbed into the end instead.  Slave women nursed and raised master’s children while their own children were ripped from their arms as babies only to be sold to the highest bidder.  Even working to expand their own intellect through something like learning to read was punishable, sometimes by death.  

Many people don’t know much about the lives of slaves. Most schools don’t want to talk about things that could be disturbing children or parents. But it's not just in schools we shy away from talking about uncomfortable things.  Society, by and large, doesn’t want to face this stuff either.  Things that make us feel sad, or scared, or ashamed. 

credit: Phil Freelon of
The first National Museum of African American history and culture opened today.  Honoring people who dedicated their lives, literally, to the building and evolution of our country's future, by giving of their bodies, their minds and their blood. For over 400 years, American society not only denied black people their rights, we also denied them their place of profound importance as builders, creators, teachers and leaders of our evolving American existence and culture.   Our president, who is black himself, opened the doors to an institution built to stand against that denial.  Built to honor the black people of yesterday and today.  To say I'm sorry and I respect you.  Your history, your culture and your spirit.  We stand, all of us - black, white, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Islamic, Christian, young, gay and struggling, together.  But we are not just together, we are all uniquely magnificent and equally strong.  We need to do what we did today.  Stand together at the opening of those doors, and say, I see you.  You are valued.  You are beautiful.  You are strong.

We need to remind each other of our strength to be able to grow stronger together.   For centuries, we denied an entire people living with us, space in society to show their strength. Their insight.  The purposes they chose for themselves.  This is a huge part of our history as a nation. A history that we  have been reluctant to face fully, because of our shame and our fear.  But this museum provides a space to face it.  To talk about it.  To learn and to think.  Conversation by conversation. Museum by museum. Day by day.  Let’s dig up these roots we have connected to abuse, pain, fear and loss and rebuild.

I’m ready to stand in front of the slave cabin, the auction block and the slave shackles the Museum has in its collection.  But, I’m also ready to stand next to Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet.  Facing fear and celebrating strength. Beauty. Resilience. 

This museum isn’t just for African Americans, but for all Americans.  This is all of our history.  We all have work to do and we all have gifts to contribute.  Towards a future we all share.