So I went to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History yesterday. I was genuinely excited when I visited the East Wing of the 1st floor and saw a timeline of American transportation: an old Chicago El; the Honda Civic that emerged as Japan’s answer to the oil and gas crisis, etc. I saw the lineage of invention in Edison’s light bulb (and found that I wasn’t so interested in that — spent about two minutes in there… I don’t do filaments and various light bulb jargon). Admittedly, I was completely surprised by the unfamiliar feeling of patriotism I felt when upon walking through the Star Spangled Banner section. Something about seeing that big ass flag that was raised at the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812, inspiring Francis Scott Key to pen the lyrics to the song that gives me chills to this day when I hear Whitney Houston belting it out just before the start of Super Bowl XXV.
I got misty-eyed; I did. I thought about the courage and foresight it took for those men to imagine and embark upon an idea as remarkable as the United States of America — undoubtedly guilty of its sins, but still, an unprecedented idea and unlikely reality.
In that relatively dark tunnel, illuminated only by the modest light granting due and proper reverence to that flag, I experienced the moment of demarcation that happens, I think, to many folks who look like me. There’s a moment when you buy into it all…you’re no different, all of this America stuff rightfully applies to you too. Profound nationalism filled my chest and threatened to spill out as tears of pure American pride.
And then I began to really read the various placards which provided the back story. Mary Pickersgill, with the help of her ‘African American indentured servant’, her daughter, niece, and a friend sewed the Star-Spangled Banner. Four words changed the entire experience for me: African American Indentured Servant. In these halls, in all of this splendor, with all of this talk of freedom and revolution and rights and independence, my people were, in the best case, African American Indentured Servants. Now, just because, I feel it necessary to mention that I don’t mean ‘my people’ in that, ‘say, my bruthaaah, the man had had me and my people incarcerated’ kind of way. Instead, quite possibly and quite literally, I mean my ancestors — my great great grandparents. I’m from Alabama, man.
What I’m getting at here, I realized in that moment: Black people do not exist in the annals American history apart from their relationship to slavery. But more than that, ‘African Americans’ did not even exist at the time. To be sure, many Blacks were born on American soil, but this was 1814. Citizenship wouldn’t come for another 54 years; another half a century. Plus four. That’s a long time to be plowing fields and cultivating the Southern economy, waiting for your ‘papers’ to come through. Really, I don’t mean to harp on this stuff. I really don’t, but there should be some acknowledgement of how far my people have come — some acknowledgement that is not in February or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, or retroactively celebrated on Barack Obama’s election and inauguration days. In all the National Museum of American History’s nostalgic celebrations of American pride, Blacks, inextricably bound to the very beginnings, exist merely as slaves. I say merely purposefully because, to see this the way I do, slavery is Black America’s only contribution to America until Barack Obama addressed the DNC in 2004.
Ok. So, what did slaves contribute to the United States? What did Booker T. Washington contribute? Miles Davis, Madame C.J. Walker, Colonels Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. and Jr., Mary McLeod Bethune, George Washington Carver, Jackie Robinson, Henrietta Lacks, John Hope Franklin, Dorothy Dandridge, W. E. B. Du Bois? Surely, something about any one of the men and women previously mentioned, and the hundreds that I failed to mention, deserves some acknowledgement at the National Museum of American History. No?
What troubled me further was that, at this point, I believe we take this matter for granted. Blacks were slaves, Lincoln graciously freed them, MLK got them to right to vote, they’re still mad because they were slaves…blah, blah, blah. But think about this. I mean really think about it: I saw a narrative from a slave woman that read something like, “they be married in the mornin. Wife be sold by night.” I could try tugging at your heartstrings by recounting this history you’ve likely heard a hundred times, though I’m not sure how much that would matter because I believe we are so far removed mentally. As I stood in a corridor enshrining the Civil War, I stared at Lincoln’s stern, emotionless face, and at Frederick Douglass’s, and at some hapless slave’s, I absorbed the brevity of this period in American history. The South willingly tore this nation a part to preserve its way of life, its economy. And by economy, I mean Black people.
As I absorbed all of this, and the nascent beginnings of this blog congealed into cogent thoughts and rising levels of anger and sadness, two women gathered behind me. Me. A Black woman in the Civil War section of the National American History museum. They began loudly discussing purchasing dog tags — where to buy them; how many should they buy; who has what kind already. The conclusion to my swimming thoughts was manifest in the women behind me: The struggle is well-documented, but it is an afterthought. We are an afterthought.
For the record, these musings are not meant to America-bash. Instead, I am recounting to you what I felt yesterday, what I feel everyday when I really allow my mind to play this thing out. Each time, I come away knowing that Black Americans were dealt a very, very, very short hand. Yet, I do not diminish the remarkable progress we have made over the years. It is a testament to the promise of America, to the notion that when America lives out its ideals, we all benefit.
Black American history is American history too. Slavery was neither the beginning nor the end of our story, and its time we rightfully acknowledge that.