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May 6, 2018

It’s been a while since I read Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and I didn’t have much to say about it until having read it helped me understand what I was seeing in the African American History museum in Washington, D.C.

We went to D.C. on an overnight trip, flying out of Columbus early Monday morning and returning late Tuesday night. Since the 80’s, when we lived in the Maryland suburbs, I’ve always longed to be downtown at cherry blossom time, and although we just missed it, being there in the spring was still deeply satisfying.

IMG_1462I walked through the garden behind the Smithsonian “castle.”

IMG_1455I visited my favorite sculpture in front of the Hirshhorn.

And I stood in front of my favorite painting in the modern wing of the National Gallery for a while, until a school group came in to see it and the teacher began asking them how many trees are in it and whether the horse is in front of the trees.IMG_1460


It has been pointed out to me that there’s a horse theme to my tour of favorite pieces of art, but I think that’s incidental to the fact that it’s the only Magritte in the permanent collection and the sculpture is full of such pure joy.

I went through the Holocaust museum, which I’d never managed to do when the children were younger. After Ron’s meetings were over, on Tuesday afternoon, he went with me through the African American History museum. It begins with slavery, and there were pictures of castles on the Gold Coast, which wouldn’t have interested me had I not already read Homegoing, in which two sisters from Ghana live briefly in Cape Coast Castle, Effia upstairs with her British husband and Esi downstairs in the dungeons before being shipped off to America and sold.

I found Homegoing a hard book to read, especially the parts about H, who was sentenced to hard labor because “don’t nobody want to see a black man like you walkin’ proud as a peacock. Like you ain’t got a lick of fear in you.” His years in the coal mines were like another story from Doug Blackmon’s nonfiction Slavery By Another Name, with the same conclusion: “what kind of life was this? At least when he was a slave, his master had needed to keep him alive if he wanted to get his money’s worth. Now, if H died, they would just lease the next man.”

The African American museum was also hard to see. There’s a slave shack. I went through the line in the room with Emmett Till’s coffin. To go through the history floors, you begin at the bottom and work your way up, so the process of walking through the museum reminds a person of what Gyasi’s narrator says near the end of Homegoing: “It was the way most people lived their lives, on upper levels, not stopping to peer underneath.”

The African American history museum ended with Obama’s presidency, unlike the American History Museum next door, where the first ladies’ dress exhibit ended with Melania’s. I was trying to frame the experience in terms of thinking about the progress of history as two steps forward and one step back, until I came home and read the prologue to Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which he describes as a new kind of history, one that “does not present a postracial story that ends with the election of Obama. It does not present a story of racial progress, showing how far we have come, and the long way we have to go. It does not even present a story of racial progress of two steps forward—as embodied in Obama—and one step back—as embodied in Trump.”

So I guess I just have to keep reading and going to Washington D.C. to keep walking. I have to hope that as more of us go inside these museums, eventually fewer will be left outside on the mall wearing MAGA caps.


14 Comments leave one →
  1. May 6, 2018 2:56 pm

    I found Homegoing incredibly powerful. Recalling it alongside these exhibits is thought-provoking – thank you for sharing.

    • May 8, 2018 9:07 am

      It is a powerful book, and the experience of going through these museums–the Holocaust one from the top down and the African American one from the bottom up–is similarly powerful.

  2. May 6, 2018 3:43 pm

    I still haven’t made it to the African-American museum, but I hear only good things. I did make it to the Portrait Gallery a few weeks ago to see the Obama portraits, and they were wonderful to see.

    • May 8, 2018 9:16 am

      Next time I’ll have to try to see the portraits. I was at the very edge of my ability to walk this time.
      When you go to the African American museum, you should try the cafe. It looked wonderful, and the friends we met for dinner after our visit told us that it’s the best museum food, along with the Native American museum’s cafe.

  3. May 6, 2018 6:06 pm

    A weekend in DC is well worth the time and effort, even with our current administration.

    • May 8, 2018 9:17 am

      Yes. It can remind a person of what some of our tax dollars go for–free admission to all the Smithsonian museums, for one thing.

  4. May 7, 2018 3:10 pm

    I loved Homegoing and found the section about H particularly enlightening, as I somehow (shamefully) hadn’t learned about the forced labor in the South during Jim Crow. It made me think that we do such a CRAPPY job teaching history in America. No wonder most (white) people are so blissfully ignorant. I want to go to the African American Museum – it’s been far too long since I’ve been to D.C.

    • May 8, 2018 9:25 am

      The section about H does illustrate one of the many kinds of stories Doug Blackmon researched for his book, which I recommend.
      It’s kind of an interesting question about how to teach history to children. I thought mine were too young for these museums the last time we went to D.C. “Too young” in the sense that it would upset them beyond my ability to explain in terms they’d understand.
      The Holocaust museum had a few of the exhibits behind waist-high (on me) walls so that younger kids couldn’t see unless a parent held them up and over–it would have to be very much on purpose.

  5. May 7, 2018 4:33 pm

    The African-American museum sounds amazing! One day I will make it to DC and do all the things. Glad you had a such a nice trip and got to visit all your favorite art!

    • May 8, 2018 9:37 am

      It’s so easy to fly into Washington National (Reagan) and take the metro anywhere downtown. And spring is a great time to plan a trip.

  6. May 7, 2018 7:22 pm

    Wow, you went the Holocaust Museum and the African American Museum one day apart. Yikes, that must have been intense? The Holocaust Museum is hard for me to go through. I love DC, though. So many opportunities to learn. Last time I went I really enjoyed the The National Museum of the Native American.

    • May 8, 2018 9:43 am

      It was pretty intense, but I’ve wanted to see them for a while, so took the opportunity while I could. Next time I do want to see the Native American museum.

  7. May 17, 2018 11:43 am

    I’m reading this now. It is powerful, but it’s also hard to keep going.

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