My mood is somber as I examine the artifacts of slavery: rusted chains that once encircled the wrists, necks and ankles of captured men and women. The door of an African castle used to imprison slaves waiting for ships to set sail.
I think of my own ancestors, how they willingly boarded ships from Europe. I’ve always thought of their trips as a hardship: some were ill, traveling with young children, one was separated from her family at Ellis Island, detained due to illness and never reunited. All came with little or no money. It all seems like a privileged way to travel now.
I am at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., host to America I Am: The African American Imprint, which examines and answers this question:
“Would America have been America without her Negro people?” ~W.E.B. Du Bois
Another picture depicts captured Africans walking through a field, chained together at their necks. What I notice the most are the mothers, with babies slung low in cloth slings tied around their waists.
I try to imagine what it was like to care for a baby while laying in the bottom of a ship, tossed by the ocean’s waves. I read about all the adults who did not survive the horrific conditions. Many adults. I am certain the children faired worse.
I move through the exhibit to the rooms that depict life in America for slaves. I am touched by the many influences that still exist in our culture today from the foods that we eat to the music that we listen to.
And again, I see through the lenses of the mother that I am and I zero in on a trough, carved out of a large log. This is how some enslaved children were fed, communally, the sign tells me. “Cornmeal or bread, mixed with water, milk or the liquid left in a pot after cooking.” I think about how much I fret and fuss over my children’s nutrition and then I think of how I would feel if this trough of mush were my children’s sole source of nourishment.
On the move again, through the exhibit, I read about The Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the Jim Crow laws and segregation. I am re-educated about these things through the exhibit, having already learned them before, but America I Am has a way of making them more personal, making them come alive in a way that no textbook could.
And then there were some things I never knew, like about the 8,000 black cowboys that herded cattle in the West in the mid-1800’s. And about a man named Omar ibn Said, an African Muslim who wrote in Arabic extensively about his life as a slave, his journal preserved under glass before me.
I read in detail about the importance of the black churches, which the exhibit describes as “the touchstone of the black community”.
I examine the long, curly coat of a buffalo soldier, the stark white uniform of a Klu Klux Klan member, and the books of the Harlem Renaissance.
Then I turn a corner and I smile. My mood shifts. I see Gregory Hines’ shoes, Muhammed Ali’s robe, Prince’s guitar. Michael Jordan’s basketball jersey, Jimi Hendrix’s flashy purple outfit, Stevie Wonder’s harmonica. I see Etta James’ red sequined dress and in my mind, I see myself, dancing with my husband at our wedding to one of her songs, “At Last“.
I can hear music around the corner. Then Barack Obama’s voice fills the room as he accepts the presidential nomination. The music of Motown swells: James Brown, Aretha Franklin. Then a gospel choir.
I feel triumphant. This is history. American history!
America I Am: The African American Imprint.
On exhibit at The National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. through May 1, 2011.
Other resources for educators:
African American Lives 2, PBS series hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The host presents newly discovered genealogy to Chris Rock, Tina Turner, Maya Angelou, Don Cheadle, Morgan Freeman, and many more.
Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.