Issue #29

'e' is for 'everything'

"I am the dream and the hope of the slave." - Maya Angelou

Our Black History

The waiting list to get into the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is long, but permeable. Go on a weekday and you will likely find a guard with a spare ticket and an impish grin who will let you into the majestic building, which reminds me of the most dignified, regal confection. 

I walked in and I was eager to go up first -- to rise. So, I went to the top floor and took in the panorama of the monuments before making my way down to the lower floors. The unbelievable and almost unbearable history of slavery -- of a time when humans reduced their fellow humans to commodity status --  is chronicled in the cramped quarters of the lowest floor. The industry of slavery went so far as to shackle babies, tear mothers from their children and treat people with such harshness and indignity that their average life expectancy was seven years. Seven. The Obama presidency lasted longer than the average life expectancy of a slave. 

Each floor of the museum's lower half flows gradually into the next. You can see the hints of a past or future period of history around every corner. It is a powerful metaphor for how close we are to our past even as we have come so far. The museum's design powerfully reminds you that history must be known lest we be doomed to repeat it.

The floors above the concourse level are energetic and expansive. An escalator ride is required to get from one of the upper floors to another, which I took to be a metaphor for the gigantic leaps African Americans have taken. The recognition of the past, embrace of the present and hope for the future are all there in this museum. When I wasn't moved to tears by the stories of personal sacrifice I was laughing at the comedy scenes of "The Jeffersons", bobbing my head to Diana Ross and marveling at the divine power of words woven together expertly by Maya Angelou, Benjamin Banneker, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas and Ida B. Wells. 

I was also keenly aware of how diverse the collection of people who have fought for equal rights has been. The museum's historic gallery on the lower floors carries David Rubenstein's name, the CEO, co-founder and co-chairman of The Carlyle Group. Rubenstein is a noted philanthropist who has donated eye-popping amounts of money to preserve the nation's history and culture. Across the hall is the theater which bears Oprah Winfrey's name. Oprah needs no introduction. 

On the top floor of the museum sits a statue made in Ekiti, Nigeria -- my father's hometown. The statue wears a crown, which was the design inspiration for the museum's architecture. The sight of that statue left me elated and empowered in my blackness and my womanhood more so than at any other moment in my life. Describing the museum to my father, I said that I had never felt more wholly free to be myself and so truly American, African and Caribbean at the same time. In that feeling and in my freedom, I was indeed the dream and the hope of the slave. 

We don't know the future, but we can know the past. My experience exploring that past yesterday left me confident that, whatever is ahead, we can face it, persevere and thrive -- all of us. I pity those who would rest on the wrong side of our incredible potential and the power of our shared history. 

Have a beautiful Black History Month. 

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