New Black Museum: Kudos and Caution As 2003 wound to a close, African Americans had a rare victory to celebrate. President George W. Bush signed the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act. For Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga., this is the culmination of a 15-year effort. The legislation had bipartisan support in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and is a tribute to Lewis’ tenacious spirit. At the same time, it makes sense to wonder what took so long, and why such legislation didn’t pass when Democrats were in charge.
The passage of this legislation is just the first step in getting the museum built. The Smithsonian will both select regents for the museum’s council and select a site of the museum in the next year. Given the central role African American people have had in our nation’s history, we ought to be on the National Mall with all the other key museums, but four possible sites are included as choices in the legislation. Congressman Lewis said, “I believe firmly that a national museum of African American history should be in the front yard of the U.S. Capitol. The National Mall and the space around it is the front door to America. It is a symbol of our democracy.” With preservationists arguing that the National Mall is already “too crowded,” the struggle to choose a site for the museum is likely to be intense.
Then, funds have to be raised to build the museum. The legislation authorizing the museum authorizes $17 million for the museum, but the funds were not appropriated when the legislation was signed. Congressman Lewis estimates that the museum will cost around $300 million, and at least half will have to be raised privately. Between fund raising and construction, it may take a decade or more to build and establish the museum.
The real struggle is likely to happen once the museum is built, when issues of focus and content are discussed and decided. The Smithsonian is a venerable institution, but its so-called “objectivity” may introduce some bias into the presentation and interpretation of African American history and culture. The legislation is appropriately neutral, saying that the museum will be devoted to the “documentation of African American life, art, history and culture.” The Smithsonian suggests that topics will be “as varied as slavery, post-Civil War reconstruction, the Harlem renaissance and the civil rights movement.”
At the same time, Black conservatives are already lining up to slant the focus of the museum. From Project 21, the conservative Black “think tank” comes the notion that “A museum about the history of Black Americans should be a place of solemn reflection and celebration and not a platform for finger-pointing.” Is it really finger-pointing, though, to note that millions of acres of Black land was stolen by Whites in the post-Reconstruction period by both legal and illegal means? Or to note that Black men were legally prevented from owning the tools of their craft trades in the post-slavery period so that Whites could establish a crafts monopoly that continued for a century through the racist practices of some crafts unions? One scholar’s finger-pointing may be another’s fact-finding. How will the museum decide?
The difference in perspective about African American history is perhaps best illustrated by the official revelation that the segregationist Strom Thurmond fathered a daughter with his family’s young, African American maid nearly 80 years ago. Essie Mae Washington-Williams shared the details of her parentage in mid-December, just a day or so after President Bush signed the legislation authorizing the museum. Dignified and circumspect, the retired schoolteacher confirmed rumors that had swirled around her for much of her life. Many African Americans responded by wondering, “What news?” Many Whites, on the other hand, gave the incident greater meaning. Some were surprised at Ms. Williams’ “lack of bitterness.” Some were painfully naive. The “Today Show” host, Matt Lauer, asked Ms. Williams if her mother was “ashamed” when she introduced young Essie Mae to father Strom. Washington-Williams replied, “Whatever happened I’m sure she was over it.” But I cringed at Lauer’s myopia. Shouldn’t Thurmond have been the one ashamed?
Essie Mae Washington-Williams isn’t the first Black person whose parent was a segregationist. Turn the clock back a century or so and consider the number of slaves who were fathered by their masters. The sexual exploitation of African American women is as much a part of our nation’s history as the economic exploitation of our entire people. I wonder if that is something that will be explored in the new museum, and I wonder how much we lose if that aspect of our history goes unexplored.
For some, I am putting the cart before the horse, bristling with caution when kudos are required. While I recognize the passage of the National African American History and Culture Act as an achievement, I am mindful of the hurdles that must be cleared before the museum becomes a reality, and the challenges that will be faced to make the museum truly reflective of our history. As the life of Essie Mae Washington-Williams shows, there are some historical facts that too often go unspoken, that too many want to sweep under the rug of historical silence. The new museum won’t “heal our nation’s racial wounds,” in John Lewis’ words, unless it is prepared to be transparent about our history.
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