by Channon Oyeniran
Wow! 100 years…that’s how long it took for the creation of a national museum dedicated exclusively to African-Americans: their life, culture, and history. The new National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NAAHCM) finally came to fruition and opened its doors to the masses just over a week ago on Saturday, September 24th. I found it so fitting that the ribbon was cut by the first African-American president, the 44th president of the United States of America, the one and only, Barack Obama! (No shame in my Obama-love game.) The toils and efforts of the past, present, and future are finally manifested with the formation of this 19th Smithsonian Institute museum.
A Brief History of the NMAAHC
It was in 1915 when the first efforts began to have a federally owned museum dedicated to African-American History. African-American veterans of the Union Army were frustrated with the racial discrimination they continued to endure despite their service, and in response formed a committee that would petition for the building of memorials that highlighted the many accomplishments of African-Americans. Though the committee had minor victories in this area, there was little success or leeway over the decades towards the ultimate goal of a museum dedicated African-American history. The turning point came in 1988 when the movement for the museum was reignited. Finally in 2003, under the Bush administration, legislation was signed for the authorization of a museum that would concentrate on the history and culture of African-Americans! It took thirteen years, but the NMAAHC is finally open!
Visiting the Museum
I had the opportunity to attend the opening weekend and festivities of this memorable event in American history in Washington D.C. with a group from the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS). From the time we landed in Washington, everyone was talking about the museum and how excited they were that it was finally opening its doors! There was just an excitement in the air all weekend. The program for the ribbon cutting ceremony on Saturday was one of those spectacular, star-studded events. There were presentations and performances by Oprah, Will Smith, Stevie Wonder, Patti Labelle, Angelique Kidjo, amongst others. George W. Bush spoke about why he signed his approval of this legislation back in 2003, and Barack Obama spoke about the importance of this moment, how he watched the museum progress over the years while he was in office, and how glad he was that it was completed before he leaves the White House in January 2017. Sadly, I didn’t get to see this amazing program in person, but the Canadian Embassy accommodated the OBHS group and made it feel like we were on the National Mall watching the opening live! After the ceremony, our group walked around the National Mall, saw the White House, enjoyed free concerts in celebration of the opening of the museum, and spoke to others who were also there to visit the museum.
Sunday, September 25th, 2016 was the day I had waited for, the day that I got the opportunity to enter this amazing museum and be part of history! As we waited in line, I was full of anticipation that I was there and would soon witness the completion and efforts of something that was 100 years in the making. To be a part of history like this was an amazing moment! As we entered the museum, I knew we wouldn’t have enough time to see everything, so I made up in my mind that I wanted to see the first level (C3: the Slave Trade, Middle Passage, Slavery, and Freedom), a part of black history that is near and dear to my heart. The lines were long and the crowds huge as we made our way downstairs to the C3 level. Once there, I was in awe of what I saw and felt. I felt like I was in a slave ship because of the close quarters (this was done purposefully). I saw exhibits and artifacts that accurately represented who my ancestors were, what their lives were like, what they had to endure, and how they survived! Although I had been to other black history museums, this one was special. It was mesmerizing; it was done right. I was emotionally moved as I walked through the C3 level reading, reflecting and taking pictures of all that I saw. Learning more, growing more, being filled with more pride for a beautiful people that went through unimaginable horrors. The one thought that kept permeating my mind was that my ancestors, the African people, although ripped from their land, brought over on slave ships, separated from their families, humiliated, brutalized, killed and beaten, had endured it all and survived!
I encourage all people to go to this museum. It really was refreshing and encouraging to see different races in the museum reflecting and studying our history, and I hope that continues even after the pageantry of the opening fades away. Through the NAAHCM and the many visitors it will receive, it is hoped that black history will be appreciated and understood in such a way that it garners some empathy from people as to why there are certain issues still afflicting the black community, both nationally and globally. This trip to Washington and visiting the National Museum of African-American History and Culture was truly inspiring and, dare I say?, life-changing. Having a museum dedicated solely to African-American history, culture, and life seems absolutely vital at a time like this. We need to know where we came from to understand where we are. African-Americans poured their blood, sweat, and tears into building America and making it the country it is today. This is the very reason this museum matters; African-Americans are part of the very fabric that make up the United States of America!
Suggestions for visiting the National Museum of African-American History and Culture:
- The NMAAHC is the Hamilton of museums right now; tickets are free, but due to the enormous interest, getting in isn’t as easy as it as other museums. Start by planning your visit at https://nmaahc.si.edu/.
- If at all possible, plan for at least two to three days to see the entire museum, because of the ticket situation, this may not be an option over the next few months.
- The best strategy is to start on the bottom level and work your way up.
- To get the most out of the museum, take the time to read every exhibit (if you can!).
- Keep an open mind to the various exhibits the museum has on display.
- Have a positive attitude! It can be an overwhelming experience, but it will absolutely be worth it!
Resources for visiting Washington:
- Official Tourism Site of Washington, D.C.
- African-American Civil War Memorial
- Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
- George Washington’s Mount Vernon
If you can’t make it to DC, there is a plethora of resources to learn about black history! Don’t wait for February; check them out now!