My visit to the African American History Museum was filled with many different emotions. As a young history student in my earlier days, I had privilege of learning a significant amount about the Civil Rights Movement but the familiarity of the names, faces and details did not make this time round any less shocking and saddening. As I walked through the various displays, I was struck by the familiarity of the vocabulary that was used during the abolition of slavery and present day protests all over the world. I felt a deep sadness at the fact that so many people had fought and died for so many issues that we are still debating about today.
Apart from the sadness and frustration, I also experienced a few moments of excitement. I couldn’t get over the large numbers of African Americans who were at the museum. It showed a sense of ownership over their history, a deep reflectiveness about the past and a willingness to learn more about those who came before. This is not something that I had seen a lot of in South Africa. Often museums were full of white tourists, because museums can be truly distanced from many South Africans. The lack of exposure and access to these sacred spaces shut many South Africans out from being able to connect with our history intimately, as opposed to the conventional academic or political settings whereby most of this reflection occurs. I believe that this only alienates us from the connectedness to that history and those figures, and more so, it results in the tendency of young people not knowing a lot of freedom fighters apart from those who have been placed in the forefront by the media.
I also appreciated that there was a great tribute to African Americans who had made great contributions in their respective fields, ranging from music to philanthropy, sports, politics to literature. I think that this is incredibly important because often, museums can fall into the danger of painting one-dimensional stories of people and the past. In our lamentations for the past injustices, it becomes easy to leave that space thinking of the people represented as victims to be pitied or glorified and no more. But having that space to celebrate those who contributed to history shifts that narrative and leads us on the journey to humanize those who were previously not. Having an entire space with many of these moguls also ensured that this celebration was authentic and not a mere tokenisation of a select few but a holistic picture that the African American people are more that resisters, disrupters who are always reacting, but they are also knowledge-creators, leaders, stars… ordinary human beings.
I was genuinely pleased to see so many families who had brought their children with. My moments of deep contemplation would be interrupted by a high-pitched questions and remarks about this and that. The investment into children to know about their own history from a young age is so beautiful to witness. Hopefully, we can get to a point where seeing many families with the young children becomes the norm and not something that only a select few do. I don’t believe that history is a luxury to be enjoyed by some but rather an essential part of our identity-formation, reflection and growth as individuals and as a society.