How a Museum Reckons With Black Pain

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tags: National Museum of African American History, NMAAHC



Vann R. Newkirk II is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics and policy.

I should not be here.

By the cold universal logic of statistics, none of us should; each of the near-7-billion lives on Earth is a mathematical fluke. But as an American black person, albeit as a free person with a fairly full complement of civil rights, I’ve always been aware of the especially immense unlikelihood of my own existence. For four centuries, most people who look like me and the vast majority of the people who gave rise to my own flesh and blood have been killed, crushed, or disenfranchised under the torture rack of white supremacy and racial injustice. As police violence, voting rights, and Donald Trump’s promises of Big Racism dominate our political conversations, and as protests and riots roil the streets of my birthplace of Charlotte, I’m reminded that I may be thanking my lucky stars a bit too soon.

Black history is usually portrayed as the opposite of unlikely. Even the most well-meaning and well-sourced books and films that make up most of America’s black history canon tend toward a view of an inevitable journey to progress that is all swelling strings and sepia photographs: a series of still images from slavery to marches on Washington to freezing inaugural processions down the National Mall. The problem with that approach is that it’s hard to reconcile the musculature and endurance of the racism that black people still endure with the idea that freedom is their destiny.

A trip through the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will be unveiled this weekend to the public in a suitable pageant of pomp and circumstance, should disabuse visitors of that notion. The British architect David Adjaye and museum director Lonnie Bunch, along with a small army of curators and contributors, attempted a monumental task. The history exhibit of the Smithsonian’s new memorial of blackness is triumphant and crushing at once, both a celebration of how far black people have come in an ongoing struggle for equality, and a reminder of the near impossibility of that struggle. The structure of the exhibit is described by the Washington Post art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott:

History has been mostly relegated to a large, subterranean chamber, where small galleries are connected by ramps leading up from the lowest level, devoted to the origins of the Atlantic slave trade, the Colonial era, the antebellum South, the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. ...




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