Henry Louis Gates Jr. says the new African American history museum proves Jefferson was wrong

Historians in the News
tags: National Museum of African American History, NMAAHC, Henry Louis Gates Jr

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the director of the Hutchins Center at Harvard and a co-executive producer of the forthcoming PBS series “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise.”

...Some $540 million later, the first black president will open the museum’s doors, admirably directed by another historian, Lonnie G. Bunch III. When he does, the long battle to prove Jefferson, Hegel and so many others wrong will have been won. We can only imagine the triumph that the pioneers of black history would feel had they lived to see this occasion.

More than a museum, the building on the National Mall is a refutation of two and a half centuries of the misuse of history to reinforce a social order in which black people were enslaved, then systematically repressed and denied their rights when freed. It also repudiates the long and dismal tradition of objectifying black people in museums. We cannot forget the parading of Saartjie Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus, at European freak shows in the 19th century, or the stuffed remains of an African man known only as the “Negro of Banyoles,” on display for almost for a century in the Darder Museum of Natural History in Spain.

Other ironies, more present to us, abound: Remember the misguided rush eight years ago to declare the birth of a “post-racial” America in the aftermath of President Obama’s first election? Now, at the end of his second term, that seems ages ago, given a recent poll showing that six out of 10 Americans think that race relations are worsening.

In contrast to the “post-racial” notion that history can or even should be waved away, the opening of the museum does something more vital. It reinscribes race at a symbolically central place in American culture, on the National Mall, where we celebrate our collective public histories, ensuring that a mountain of evidence about black contributions to America will be on permanent display. It does this on the same mall shared by those symbols of the founding fathers’ hypocritical slaveholding past, the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial, which the new museum, brilliantly designed by David Adjaye, complements and also deconstructs.

“History,” James Baldwin wrote, “is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

Read entire article at NYT

comments powered by Disqus