On the 1st of July 2017, the team visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington DC.The museum only opened about 8 months ago, so this was the first SAWIP team that had the opportunity to visit the museum.
Some 37 000 artifacts, including a set of slave shackles, a Tuskegee Airmen biplane and a fedora that belonged to Michael Jackson, are on display in the 400,000-square-foot museum, which strives to tell the complex, harrowing and irrepressible story of black America.
The museum’s collection is laid out chronologically, from the Middle Passage to the Obama presidency. Visitors are directed to descend 70 feet below ground, via a spiral ramp or elevator, to begin with the sections on African-American history. The bottom floor, which documents slavery, features artifacts like an auction block and works like a statue of Thomas Jefferson standing in front of a wall of bricks listing the names of slaves he owned.
The next floor, covering segregation, has stirring exhibits like a chapel that holds the windowed coffin that once held the body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for supposedly flirting with a white woman. The floor just below ground level takes the visitor from 1968 to today through objects like banners from President Obama’s 2008 campaign and posters from the Black Lives Matter movement.
Above ground level are the “Community” galleries, which tell the stories of African-Americans in the military and in sports through items like the Olympic medals of Carl Lewis and statues of Serena and Venus Williams. The “Culture” galleries, which focus on African-Americans’ contributions to the arts, music, film and television, have particularly fun memorabilia like Chuck Berry’s cherry-red Cadillac and Oprah Winfrey’s couch from the set of her television show.
This was an incredible opportunity for the team as tickets are still rare and highly coveted. It reminded the team that the painful history of slavery and oppression in SA is not unique and reaffirmed that there is a great need for global solidarity among those of us on the continent as well as the diaspora. It also emphasized that societies are constructed and are therefore subject to change.
The top floors of the museum highlighted the various ways in which African-Americans have made history in popular culture, sport and political life. These served as a reminder of the contributions of enslaved and marginalized peoples both in the US and SA and encouraged the team to continually agitate for change.