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Contrera writes: "In a speech filled with reminders of America's dark and not-so-distant past, and hopes for a brighter future, President Obama helped to inaugurate the National Museum of African American History and Culture today in Washington."

The National Museum of African American History and Culture. (photo: Eric Long/Smithsonian Institution)
The National Museum of African American History and Culture. (photo: Eric Long/Smithsonian Institution)


The Grand Opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture 'Is a Dream Come True'

By Jessica Contrera, The Washington Post

24 September 16

 

n a speech filled with reminders of America’s dark and not-so-distant past, and hopes for a brighter future, President Obama helped to inaugurate the National Museum of African American History and Culture today in Washington.

The country’s first black chief executive stood before a crowd of more than 7,000 official guests — and thousands more gathered on the National Mall — and repeated the words of poet Langston Hughes: “I, too, am America.”

“African American history is not somehow separate than the American story. It is not the underside of the American story. It is central to the American story,” Obama said.

Behind him, the 400,000 square-foot museum stood as a testament to that notion. Serving as home to more than 36,000 artifacts, the museum exists to both memorialize and educate, sharing the “unvarnished truth” of America’s past and celebrating the triumphs of its present.

“It helps us better understand the lives, yes, of the president, but also the slave, the industrialist but also the porter, the keeper of the status quo but also the activist seeking to overthrow that status quo, the teacher or the cook alongside the statesmen,” Obama continued. “By knowing this other story we better understand ourselves and each other.”

This long-awaited moment is being heralded by a weekend of celebrations across the city, in what the museum director Lonnie Bunch has called a “mini inauguration.” The most anticipated event was the opening ceremony, which included speeches from Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and former president George W. Bush, who signed the 2003 bill that authorized the museum.

Bush called the finished product “fabulous,” saying: “It shows our commitment to truth. A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.”

He gave credit to Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who spent 15 years fighting in Congress to make the museum a reality. When Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, took the stage Saturday, he had to take long pauses to contain his emotion.

“There were some who said it couldn’t happen, who said ‘you can’t do it,’ but we did it,” Lewis said. “This place is more than a building. It is a dream come true.”

The building itself is striking: its bronze-hued exterior and unusual shape stand starkly in contrast with the buildings surrounding it, and purposefully so. Inside, visitors walk the path from slavery to civil rights to the Black Lives Matter movement, and everything in between. The familiar and the untold stories of history are shared through meaningful objects: from the shawl of Harriet Tubman to a candy-red Cadillac driven by Chuck Berry, to the uneven-bar grips used by Gabby Douglas in the 2012 Olympics.

The objects, the museum’s director told the audience, are “a clarion call to remember.”

“Not just the well known,” Bunch said, “but also those famous only to their families, whose lives in quiet ways shaped this nation.”

In the near future, getting inside the museum will take some advance planning. Although, as with all Smithsonian museums, entry is free, admission currently requires a timed ticket, available at nmaahc.si.edu/visit/passes. All the tickets for opening weekend were snapped up the moment they were made available in August. Tickets for September, October, November and every weekend in December are sold out. But starting Monday, individuals can obtain up to four same-day passes from the visitor services staff starting at 9:15 a.m.

Even without a ticket, there’s still good reason to head to the Mall this weekend, if you don’t mind crowds and security checkpoints. On the Washington Monument grounds between 15th and 17th streets NW, the museum is hosting a free, three-day festival celebrating African American culture. Food stands will offer Southern barbecue, Kenyan curries, Caribbean jerk and Gulf Coast po’ boys. Music, poetry, dancing and storytelling will entertain visitors throughout the day, leading to a Saturday night concert featuring Living Colour, Public Enemy and the Roots. The festival will continue on Sunday. (Full schedule here.)

People streamed onto the grounds of the Washington Monument before sunrise Saturday, hoping to get a view of the festivities — or at least see them on the Jumbotrons nearby. The Mall filled with tour groups, church congregations, fraternities and the occasional celebrity, including Samuel L. Jackson, Dave Chappelle and Rashida Jones. Black Civil War reenactors came as reminders of history; parents brought their children to witness the historic moment.

As they took their seats or sprawled out on grassy spots long the mall, the crowd seemed to collectively recognize the morning as a moment of reflection.

“To see all of our story and history from the very beginning, from the shackles,” reflected poet Sonia Sanchez. “From how we were enslaved and how we have become president, and how we have come writers in this country and professors…We are a part of this great American landscape and you are going to remember us. You’re going to remember us when you come to this museum.”

Beulah Stowe Cary, 92, sat outside the ceremony in a motorized wheelchair, telling the story of her childhood. She was born in North Carolina in 1924, but remained in the state for just three weeks before her family sent her to relatives in Virginia. She had a white mother and a black father; they feared that a biracial baby wouldn’t be safe in the South.

David Hudson, a volunteer from Silver Spring, recalled being chased out of a restaurant in South Carolina because he was black. He was 8 years old at the time.

Now, at 63, he was able to pass out programs at the foot of a building meant to ensure his country will never forget how boys like him were treated.

Many looked up at the Mall’s newest landmark and wondered aloud what its existence means to the conversation about race in America. The opening ceremony came at the end of a week when two deadly police shootings — of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, N.C. and Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Okla. — became the latest catalysts for ongoing protests about the way black men are treated by law enforcement.

“How can you fail to see the links between current events – Charlotte, Tulsa, Black Lives Matter – and the brutal death of Emmett Till all those years ago?” asked philanthropist Peter Kovler, a donor seated in the audience. “You have to be deliberately not looking at things to not see that there are things from that era that apply to our era.”

Kovler, who is white and Jewish, is the chair of his family’s foundation, which granted $2 million to a museum exhibition that includes the casket of Till, the 14-year-old boy who was murdered for reportedly whistling at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi.

“I can only hope that this [museum] does provide an opportunity for greater healing,” said Atiba Muse, a political organizer from Petersburg, Va. who sat among other donors at the ceremony. “We’re in need of triage. This is the initial steps to resuscitate.”

Their feelings were echoed by the President, who acknowledged that the museum itself won’t fix America’s problems.

“A museum alone will not alleviate poverty in every inner city or every rural hamlet,” he said. “It won’t eliminate gun violence from all our neighborhoods or immediately ensure that justice is always colorblind.”

But what it can do, he said, is provide the context America needs to “see each other.” Perhaps a white visitor can begin to “understand the pain and anger of demonstrators,” and a black visitor can appreciate that white law enforcement officers and officials “are trying to do the right thing.”

“It reminds us that routine discrimination aren’t ancient history,” Obama continued.

“It’s just a blink in the eye of history. It was just yesterday. And so, we should not be surprised that not all the healing is done.”

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