February in the United States, also known as Black History Month. As stated by actor Morgan Freeman when speaking with Mike Wallace of 60 minutes in a 2005 interview, “You’re going to relegate my history to a month?…What do you do with Yours?….Which Month is White History Month?…I don’t want a Black history month…Black history is American history..”. Some, may find it rather odd that the month ‘we’ do get, happens to be the shortest of all Twelve (28 days instead of 31 ?). In 1926, the second week of February was designated “Negro History week“. It wasn’t until 1976 (when I was 5 years old) ‘we’ got an entire month. Regardless of some differing opinions of the declaration of 1 month for Black History, I decided to to write something rather special for BrownPassport.
Washington, DC, about 220 miles from New York City. For some, this is a far away journey. For me, having grown up 2 hours north in South Jersey* and never letting any distance get in the way of my exploration, I consider it a couple of neighborhoods away from my current home base in Brooklyn. I decided to get in my silver fox (2004 VW Jetta) and make the trip to explore the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, a true breakthrough in the growth of this nation.
Of course I waited too long to get timed entry pass, as the museum is at capacity over two months in advance. The Museum is FREE, however you need to reserve your timed entry online in advance, OR hope to ‘catch the lottery’ by obtaining a daily timed entry pass online at 6:30am (limited same day availability). The latter was my plan so I made arrangements via the Miles away blog that I contribute to hosted by Cheap-O-Air, to gain special (last minute) access. Here is a direct link to the story I did for Cheap-O-Air https://www.cheapoair.com/miles-away/experiencing-black-history-and-culture-in-washington-dc-at-nmaahc/
I got in touch with the director of communications at the NMAAHC*, LaFleur Paysour. She is wonderful and welcomed me with open arms. Fleur made arrangements for me to interview the Deputy director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). We initially planned on my visit in the morning only, and I was planning to add to this post (today’s stamp) by also walking over to the Holocaust museum and perhaps even the Native American museum. I do not know what I was thinking but for sure to say that was an ambitious plan is an understatement. People travel from far and wide with months of planning prior, and for good reason.
The interview with Kinshasha Holman Conwill (Deputy director for the NMAAHC*) was postponed due to a very tight schedule. Lucky me, since this now meant my day at the museum would not end at noon. I began by shooting some b-roll footage inside the museum, which meant I wasn’t truly able to experience it fully as I would like, however it did cause me to not get caught up in my own thoughts, and instead I paid more attention to the demographic of other visitors, the reactions of other visitors, and overhearing some of their conversations. To say it was mind blowing is yet another understatement.
At one point early on, Fleur and I were moving back into the exhibit after storing some of my gear in an office upstairs, when we witnessed what looked to be a group of military cadets, listening to Langston Hughes poem being recited by what seems to be a leader of this group tour. though I did not hear much of what was being recited as wehn I got close enough it was towards the end, I believe it was “Theme for English B” being recited. The following is merely excerpt of this poem, to read the poem in it’s entirety click here:
As I learn from you,I guess you learn from me—although you’re older—and white—and somewhat more free.-LANGSTON HUGHES (excerpt from “theme for English B”)
As it turns out, this group were not military but police academy cadets, in a program aimed at having a better understanding in our future police departments of the issues american has had with race. Therefore learning from history (event recent) that there is a better way we can do this, as to not have occur some of the past atrocities often allowed, and or caused by many police. Through experiencing the museum, the hope is that more officers will have a truly better understanding of the residual pain from centuries past to even recent injustice treatment towards those of African American descent. Being more sensitive to this, can only be a great tool in pursuing more peaceful encounters, and less confrontations.
After shooting the b-roll I needed, Fleur went into a meeting. Having been on the road from 03:30 to 9am, and only on 3 hours of sleep I was about to take a much needed rest at the cafe. I full on expected to be tortured with some standard ‘museum faire’ when to my surprise there were several themed stations of culinary delight. Southern BBQ station, Creole Station and at the desert station they even had pecan pie !!! I picked up some okra, coleslaw and of course the pecan pie, and finally sat down with a vat of coffee. all of a sudden it hit. I was suddenly unable to consume anything. My face felt a bit red, my lips began to shake, as the stream of tears came rolling down. Glaring at me was a man sitting at a lunch counter, wearing 1960s standard issue thick framed glasses. In this man I saw my father, my grandfather, my cousins, my uncles. This man at that moment allowed me to address some of the pain that still needs to be healed. Though it only scratched the surface of such pain, it came suddenly without warning. The stream of emotions happening all at once. I seemed to be lifted off the ground, the very crowded cafe became silent. There it dawned on me to look around and see the stories I have heard and shared mostly only among family, were now beginacknowledgedd by the public, in a mainstream forum. Stories not to be doubted, questioned, or only recognized as isolated events. Rather the potential impact on those visitors not of African American descent, now hopefully recognizing the true magnitude of all the residual pain passed down for generations, and how that has it’s lasting effect on African Americans today.
I had to collect myself in order to finish my meal. Slowly the cacophony of sound came back into the room, I was able to finish my meal, once again giving a head nod to the man at the counter (a photograph on the wall from a lunch counter in the 50’s) re-enter the exhibit. On my way back in, I stopped to take rest on a bench – remember I drove nearly 6 hours on only 3 hours of sleep in heavy fog and traffic. It was on this bench I met Eric and Cliff. Eric, a ‘white’ man originally from one of the Carolinas, now living in suburban Philadelphia, and Cliff, a ‘black’ man also living in Philadelphia (though from there), two friends having traveled down I-95 together with their wives to experience the museum. I could not help but ask if they would sit for an interview. Lucky for ‘us’, then did. (See interview here).
This interview once again brings home the importance of how this experience brings people together with a better understanding of one another. Some folks might wonder, why do we need this museum? why do we need to keep bashing into the past, it’s now like that anymore, ‘racism is over’ …’Obama was president’ etc. “Woah” (my words), yes we have come a LONG way, but quite frankly we should not and can not simply stop here. As one very close friend stated, (and this might be offensive to some of you..so insert disclaimer) ‘seems like ‘White’ American wanted a pass once Obama got elected….they wanted to brush over all the transgressions that were perpetrated beginning with slavery but not ending with the passing of the civil rights act… now that is all part of the past and we can move on, stop dwelling in the past blah blah. What some of these well meaning folks are not seeing, is the lack of true acknowledgment and validation recognizing just how grand a scale the pain really is. The wounds are still very fresh. The only way to truly begin to heal starts with true acknowledgment it exists. Without that the pain will only continue, the wounds remain open, and potentially the angry even grow stronger.
I will close this post with the words of United States congressman John Lewis, when speaking at the groundbreaking of the National Museum of African American History and Culture: “Make it plain, make it clear. That there is still a great deal of pain that needs to be healed. “
*South Jersey: Southern half of the State of New Jersey (USA)
*NMAAHC*: National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian, Washington, DC USA
*Note: I did not have any hand in producing the video (shown in this post) of the Washington DC police cadets. It was produced by the DC police department. It is included in this post as a reference
Side Note: None of my posts are lessons in history. I will include some references to articles pertaining to subject matter mentioned here, though I welcome you to do your own research, dig deeper learn more. These posts are an account of experiences, both mine and of those whom I meet. I encourage you You (the reader) to contribute to your own experience/s. I also invite you to contribute your experience/s and opinions in the comments section below each post*. Some of them (your experiences) may vary widely and opinions differ greatly. Many of the experiences and opinions expressed in these accounts are quite personal, and do not claim to be the same opinions or experiences of ALL. The commentary here is about observation and aimed at igniting conversation, not closing it. I am not here to tell anyone how to feel, or how to react to one’s own experience.