Y’all, in a word the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is AMAZING. Please know that this post is LONG and I really fought the urge to right a dissertation about my visit! I have been a fan of black history since I was a child. My grandmother could captivate me with stories of our family history layered with historical context when I was in elementary school. She shared these stories orally in the same manner that much of our history has been passed on. Fast forward to college where I majored in History and immersed myself in every black history course my school had to offer. In short, black history is kind of my fave.
While I was in college George W. Bush commissioned the creation of the NMAAHC and approved a spot for it right on the National Mall. I, like many black folks waited with bated breath as the construction began. I absorbed every story about the museum and especially enjoyed the ones about the curators efforts to collect our history for this project. All of this culminated in the opening of the museum in September 2016. My mother and sister were equally as excited as me and a trip to D.C. during Black History Month was quickly planned. Seeing the importance of this experience for young black men, we also brought my two little cousins (12 and 13 years old) for the trip! Here is my review of “a People’s Journey.”
So here is the thing with tickets getting tickets is not the hardest thing known to man but understand that you do need tickets and cannot just walk up willy nilly on any given day. We knew we wanted to go in February, but before selecting our flight we went searching for tickets. Currently, the tickets are released online ahead of time about three months in advance. For example, tickets for June will be released on March 1st. On the selected release date, you head online at the designated time and pick your tickets. For those who are unable to get tickets ahead, a few day of tickets are released online at about 9am. They also offer some walk up passes at 1pm on weekdays.
A few things to note when selecting online. The museum opens at 10am, so if you can get the opening time do it! We entered the coveted collections on the bottom floor with no line. Once we exited, there was about a 45 minute wait to enter. Also, keep in mind that visitors are spending on average SIX HOURS in the museum. I went and trust me there is plenty to captivate you for that time frame. With that said, pick some times that give you about six hours to browse.
Some of you will cry about spoilers and honestly, I am not telling you everything I saw because a) I want to be brief and b) I want everyone to go see this for themselves. Before going, I read everything I could and cannot say much was spoiled for me. If anything, these articles told me what to look for while I browsed. You should also note that there is SO much in the museum that you will not see everything. While many of us who visit have the shared history of being the descendants of slaves, different aspects of the museum will speak to different people. So here are a few things that stood out for me.
After Emmett Till’s exhumation in the early 2000s, his family restored his casket and ultimately donated it to the Smithsonian to be featured in the NMAAHC. Emmett’s mother, Mamie, bravely showed the world what his murderers did to him by having an open casket at his funeral. In this exhibit, you enter what feels like a wake as Mahalia Jackson sings in the background. The casket is open with a glass covering as it was in 1955 and visitors pass by as you would during a funeral. Literally in 2017, I felt the emotion of attending Emmett Till’s 1955 funeral.
This is a powerful exhibit that is not to be missed. The lines here tend to get long so the guides recommend starting here. On this day, we were one of the first to enter and sat there awhile soaking it all in. My two little cousins who traveled with us had never heard of Emmett Till, so we made a point to share this story before moving on in the museum.
When I visit museums or monuments, I am the person who can find “the black” in anything. I am often tickled when notable elements related to black folks are absent in these museums. I recognize that curators likely omitted it because it demonstrates character flaws in some revered person or points to a dark time in American history, but come on! One of the best examples of this is Thomas Jefferson. A man who not only served as one of our earlier Presidents, but drafted our founding documents. That’s great and all but often times I have the urge to scream HE WAS A SLAVE OWNER! He didn’t believe in that whole “all men are created equal” spill when it applied to the black folks he owned guys!!
While I am all about noting a person’s role in history with reflection on social norms of the time, I always look for the full honest portroyal and not the typical heroification. I have yet to see any museum provide that needed nuance for Jefferson more than NMAAHC. As you move into the section on the American Revolution, you see Thomas Jefferson proudly standing as he has in every museum that boasts his contributions to America’s founding. But, here Jefferson’s legacy is literally weighted by bricks that bear the names of the slaves that he owned including Sally Hemmings. The names of the children that Sally bore for him by what can only be described as rape, are also named.
At the museum I was drawn to the history of Missouri pre-Civil War, post- Civil War and the Jim Crow era. This is the state where I was born and a place that generations of my family have called home. My ancestors were literally slaves in the county where I went to college. As I marched through the “people’s journey” I picked out notable Missouri moments such as the Missouri Compromise, the Dred Scott case and Missouri laws regarding educating slaves. This essentially amounted to a visual timeline of what my ancestors endured.
The Lunch Counter Exhibit
If I had to pick one thing that fully captured my little cousins’ attention, it was the lunch counter exhibit. Here, visitors take a seat at a lunch counter and walk through interactive SNCC training sessions as their members did before taking part in lunch counter protest. It’s a great way to implement technology into a historical element.
Civil Rights Section (Gallery Two The Era of Segregation)
If you come here looking for a whole section dedicated to Martin Luther King, then you my friend have much to learn and here is a good place to start. While MLK was a great man, the Civil Rights movement was much bigger than him. At the museum, you will find a lot of time spent talking about people and events that you may have never heard of. This is an area of history I studied heavily in college and law school yet I still found myself jotting down note about people or stories I had never heard of. That is the key thing about NMAAHC, it is an opportunity to share stories that we have never heard.
Here is just a gallery of a few of my favorite black women moments in the museum
The Upper Levels
The NMAAHC guides advise visitors to start at the basement of the museum where our story begins with the Transatlantic slave trade. By design, this area is dark and feels very serious. You will find many of the visitors are quiet and reverent as they make their way through here. This area marks our history through the election of Barack Obama which I think is a great place to end “the journey towards freedom” But it’s heavy y’all and sometimes we just want to celebrate our culture! That is where the upper levels come in! The upper floors are brighter by design and more celebratory. Here you will find the sections highlighting African American gains in sports, science, inventions, entertainment and music. It really was a party up there especially in the music section! The history part is daunting, but do not miss out on the celebration at the end.
Few Tips Before I Go…
- Check out the NMAAHC website especially their 10 things to know part!
- Start at the bottom, even if there is a line. You must get the full history before you progress to the upper levels. The bottom levels include three galleries, Slavery and Freedom, the Era of Segregation and a Changing America. I promise you do not want to miss it.
- Get those 10am tickets if you can. There is nothing like making your way through the bottom levels without having the crowd.
- Plan to spend the entire day at the museum. We spent about 4.5 hours there while guests on average spend 6 hours.
- If you love books like me and my sister, have your coins ready for the gift shop
- You will not see everything and that is okay! You can come back! I know I will be back sooner than later.
- Follow NMAAHC on twitter for updates and ticket information.
- I failed here but I am still going to tell you all this. Do not take a picture of everything guys. It’s fruitless sand pictures never do the museum justice to be quite honest. Take it in and enjoy it.
- You MUST visit Sweet Home Cafe during your visit (more on that in a later post). To get to the cafe you have to exit the galleries and get in the line to return to the galleries. So the tip here is plan to finish the galleries and then head up to Sweet Home Cafe. It took us about two hours to finish the galleries and we spent about five hours total in the museum.