On Wednesday, the Smithsonian Institution officially began construction of their National Museum of African American History and Culture. The event drew some important names, including Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.), former First Lady Laura Bush, and President Barack Obama.
“As others have mentioned,” the president began, “This day has been a long time coming.”
Located a short distance from the Lincoln Memorial, the museum recalls to our minds the defining struggle of a young American nation. Alexis de Tocqueville described our peculiar racism as “the most formidable evil threatening the future of the United States,” adding that while “the law can abolish servitude … only God can obliterate its traces.” He seems to have spoken prophetically: we’ve endured Dred Scott, Civil War, the Black Codes, the Civil Rights cases , Jim Crow, lynching, Plessy v. Ferguson, and much more. “Slavery was in retreat,” Tocqueville wrote, but the “prejudice from which is arose is immovable.”
And yet we have moved it. The great works of men like Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Booker T. Washington, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have gone a long way towards improving the souls of us Americans. All of them form parts of a grand American dialogue: how can this nation, built before its birth upon the injustice of slavery and prejudice, live up to its promise of “all men” being created equal? This question has always required an answer, and those who have stood to do so certainly deserve recognition. We should hope that the president is confirmed in stating that “it is on this spot, alongside the monuments to those who gave birth to this nation, and those who worked so hard to perfect it, that generations will remember the sometimes difficult, often inspirational, but always central role that African Americans have played in the life of our country.”
Obama's Speech: This day has been a long time coming
As with all such museums, we should also hope that it does not give itself over to gimmicks. The building is expected to come with a price tag of $500 million, half of which is being supplied though federal funding. With a planned seven floors (mostly underground), it will also sport a unique “tiered corona” design. Museum curators have reported 15,000 to 20,000 “artifacts” to be in their possession, although they are hoping to possess nearly double that amount. While it is exciting to have items such as Harriet Tubman’s shawl or Emmitt Till’s casket, the exhibits ought to aim primarily at communicating the crucial experience of black Americans in our history.
After all, African Americans have defined America. Certainly, the Founders gave us the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and Lincoln gave us the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation; but African Americans have held us to them time and time again. It was Frederick Douglass who told us that July 4 belonged to the white man, not the black; and it was Booker T. Washington who reminded Northern whites that “we rise as you rise; [and] when we fall, you fall.”
Even now, despite our disagreements on policy, we should all be able to take a moment and reflect upon the great step forward Americans took in the election of President Obama. He tells us that the museum “should stand as proof that the most important things in life rarely come quickly or easily,” and that “it should remind us that although we have yet to reach the mountaintop, we cannot stop climbing.”
This is an American motto, and we should all hope the museum lives up to its mission.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons