Our Journey through the National Museum of African American History and Culture

By Judith Kargbo and Autasia Ramos

Photo of two women taken from below and showing a building in perspective in the background.

From Left to Right: Judith Kargbo and Autasia Ramos stand in front of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Introduction

For Black History month, Judith Kargbo, NEA press secretary, and Autasia Ramos, NEA Public Affairs intern, discuss their recent visits to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which opened in September 2016.

Autasia toured the bottom floor of the museum, which houses the History Gallery. The History Gallery presents a wide range of African-American history, dating back to slavery and leading up to the election of the first black president, Barack Obama. During her second visit to NMAAHC, Autasia attended a screening of the award-winning film Moonlight.

Judith explored the top floor of the museum, which houses the Cultural Galleries. The Cultural Galleries present the impact of African-American contributions in music, art, television, and more.

Started from the Bottom

By Autasia Ramos

I was thrilled when I secured the most sought-after tickets in town: to visit NMAAHC. It meant the world to me that not only was I going with two of my extremely close friends from Howard University, but my mother also came all the way from New York City to join us in this experience. We all embarked on this journey fully engrossed in the black experience.

Among all of us, our heritage represented the diversity of the African diaspora. My mother is an African American from Brooklyn. My friend Lina is a proud Afro-Puerto Rican from the Bronx. Brea is a Queens girl whose family hails from Panama and Jamaica. And I am of African-American and Puerto Rican descent. This made us all the more connected to what we would soon witness in the museum.

Before we arrived, I read all of the articles about the museum that flooded my Twitter timeline and Facebook newsfeed. Everyone bragged about how amazing the museum was and how empowered it had made them feel. I was excited to finally experience it myself. The moment I stepped inside the museum, I felt a rush of emotions that took me to a different world. I felt proud to be a black woman. I saw this pride radiating from all of the other visitors inside the museum too. Suddenly I realized, here I was, at this museum, surrounded by strangers that were all connected through a common struggle.

From there, my feelings only intensified. During my visit, I was only able to see the bottom half of the museum. The bottom three floors are dedicated to the history of African Americans. This was not only eye-opening but a reflective moment for me. Beginning from the time of slavery all the way to present day, the galleries exemplified the true resilience of African Americans. The first room told an in-depth story of slavery. I learned more from that exhibit than what I had ever learned in class! It was truly emotional. One particularly moving exhibit displayed a never-ending list detailing how many Africans unwillingly boarded different slave ships. The list also included the number of people that didn’t complete the journey to various countries after crossing the Middle Passage. While everyone hadn’t made it, those that did are my ancestors, and their resilience has helped elevate African Americans in this country today.

From there, I explored an overwhelming array of information and artifacts, allowing me to come face-to-face with the complicated history of America and its treatment of black people. From a slave’s living quarters, to an actual plantation in the South, to Emmitt Till’s casket, the museum’s artifacts created an experience that left me speechless and torn. On one hand, I felt tired, weary, and afraid because African Americans have had to bear so much pain for centuries and still face inequalities in this country today. However, I was and still am hopeful, inspired, and moved to take on a role so much more than myself.

The museum offers much more than history. On my second visit to the museum, I had the pleasure of attending a preview of the film Moonlight in the Oprah Winfrey Theater. This was another amazing experience. Moonlight is a film that follows the life of a young black man growing up in Miami, Florida, as he deals with having a drug addict mother and no father figure. He suffered bullying and the story follows his self-discovery of his sexuality. The screening was followed by a Q & A panel featuring Berry Jenkins, the writer/director of the film, and leading actors Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris, and Andre Holland. The film was breathtaking and the experience couldn’t be matched. Bringing together people from all backgrounds, ages, and races to view the film represented the true nature of the museum. Yes, the museum is dedicated to African-American history, but this history is American history, and in order for us to move forward together, we must face it together.

From the Mountain Top

By Judith Kargbo

The first thing I noticed walking up to the NMAAHC was the long line of visitors wrapped around the building. Despite being open for nearly four months, the excitement still buzzed around the newest addition to the Smithsonian. Little did I know, that just visiting one floor of this museum would ignite an overwhelming sense of pride in who I am, where I come from, and how I identify with my culture.

With five floors and 85,000 square feet of exhibition space, I dedicated my first visit to exploring the top floor of the museum, which contains the Culture Galleries. Before reaching the top floor, I couldn’t help but be in awe of the interior structure of the museum. Warm rays of the sun shined through the bronze-colored structure, which contained rectangular gaps allowing visitors to see amazing views of the National Mall. I wasn’t the only one that noticed. Riding up the escalator, I saw many visitors try to catch the perfect lighting for a selfie. Later on, I learned that the building was wrapped in an ornamental bronze-colored metal lattice, in which David Adjaye, lead designer of NMAAHC, pays tribute to the ironwork craft honed by enslaved African Americans throughout the U.S.

As I entered the main entrance of the Culture Galleries floor, my senses were overwhelmed by the video packages that played on screens that lined the ceiling in a circle. A montage of influential figures played, including Beyoncé, Oprah, Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, and many others. This is just a small representation of the contributions African Americans have given to American culture. For the next 15 minutes, I simply sat, listened, watched, and soaked in the images and sounds portrayed on the screens. This overwhelming sense of pride was just the beginning of my experience. Three other rooms awaited to be explored: each highlighting an artistic field: music, visual art, and television/film.

From there I made my way to the music room, also known as the Musical Crossroads room. This exhibit took visitors through a historical journey of the musical contributions African Americans have made in every category of music, including classical, country, rock & roll, blues, jazz, funk, R&B, and hip hop. As I explored the different artists, I immediately felt a sense of familiarity. While I have no musical talents whatsoever, I couldn’t help but see myself in Nina Simone’s skin tone, in Stevie Wonder’s smile, Lauryn Hill’s locs, and in Missy Elliot’s exuberance. I felt like a piece of me was reflected in history.

Next, I explored the Visual Art & The American Experience room. This room showcased modern visual art and influential artists throughout history. It showcased an array of visual art that included paintings, sculpture, photography, mixed media, and more. The moment I entered that room, I was immediately transported into an art gallery. Despite the crowd, visitors quietly walked through the exhibit contemplating the pieces before them.

Lastly, I entered the Taking the Stage room. This part of the gallery honors the cultural influence African Americans have made to theater, film, and television. Two sections in this exhibit stood out to me. The black Hollywood section and the black television section. As a huge television consumer, I loved seeing the “old-school” black television shows that changed the culture of how African Americans were portrayed on television. Shows like Good Times, The Jeffersons, Family Matters, Living Single, and Martin. A communal experience was created as people gathered, watched, and enjoyed familiar scenes. As a proud ‘80s baby and a kid of the ‘90s, the theme song to Fresh Prince of Bel Air jumped immediately into my head as clips of the show played onscreen.

Next, I entered the black Hollywood section. The first thing that greets you entering into this room are television screens filled with iconic movies that changed the way Hollywood portrayed black people. Clips of movies that played included The Color Purple, Shaft, Gone with the Wind, Stormy Weather, Do the Right Thing, and Django Unchained. One of my favorite artifacts in the exhibit was a white fur coat worn by actress Tamara Dobson in the movie Cleopatra Jones. I simply just loved the image of a black woman playing an undercover special agent, all while rocking a fierce fur coat. It was simply empowering to me.

Overall, NHAAMC did a great job of creating an environment that connected visitors to the cultural contributions African Americans have made throughout history. The music, images, videos, historic artifacts, and art pieces are displayed in such a way that bring people into the experience. Seeing myself reflected throughout American history is truly a powerful feeling. Now that the NHAAMC is on the National Mall, these contributions and recognitions have a national institution that will preserve the achievement of African Americans for many years to come.