Earlier this year I found myself in Washington, DC with an afternoon free, so I headed straight to the National Mall. There are a variety of wonderful Smithsonian museums found: the National Air & Space Museum, worth a visit just to see the Grumman Gulfhawk; the Museum of American History, with its tattered Fort McHenry flag, the original twinkling star pennant; The National Portrait Gallery, exhibiting a recently discovered Lincoln painting.
None of them considered.
Instead I headed to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I had to, because the place hadn't opened for business the last time I was in Washington, in the summer of 2016.
While crossing the mall, a relative who happened to be in town called. He also has free time. Want to get together? I asked if he wanted to visit the Museum of African American History and Culture with me.
“No,” he said.
No longer. Just “No.”
The “no” is disappointing, but not surprising. History can have an obligatory, pea-eating quality even when it is no one else's history but your own. Many Americans said “No” for most of history, but especially Black History — an unfortunate push that cemented into law in states across the country. Ron DeSantis raged against Black history when he announced his candidacy for president on Wednesday.
Of course he used the code. Its kind exaggerate what they fight against as “awakened mind viruses” and “critical race theory”, imaginary ghosts who insult and abuse their children. But throw away the rhetoric, and they're just whitewashing American history, whitewashing it, uprooting people who they believe should never have been there and shouldn't be here now.
Given my job, I have some skills to find a way out of my initial “No.”
“Have you eaten yet?” I ask. He didn't. Big. Let's meet at… oh… the National Museum of African American History and Culture. They no doubt have a restaurant. We will eat. Then we can dip our toes. Free. If you don't like it, fine, we'll move on. But at least take a look. Did I say it's free?
It worked. We met, heading to the large and busy basement restaurant Sweet Home Café. Dig into the pulled pork and mac and cheese, collard greens and cornbread. Comfort food. On the opposite wall is a very large panoramic photograph of the lunch counter protests of the early 1960s. Perfect. For now, looking around, I see all of America's race, eating together happily in almost the shadow of the Washington Monument. That's progress, right?
The museum struck me as a kind of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum turned upside down. The Holocaust Museum begins with community and ends in horror; this one starts with horror and ends in community – downstairs is devoted to the transAtlantic slave trade, upstairs celebrates the deep cultural impact that black people have and have had on the nation and the world (with lots of props to Chicago, including an alcove for Defenders and a place sacred to Oprah Winfrey). This bit was fun for me but less impressive for my younger colleagues – if you don't know what Parliament-Funkadelic is, then seeing George Clinton's Mothership, well, doesn't make much of an impact. I understand.
Some of the history is murky, true, but — Florida folks take note — nothing to make me feel bad about myself. Maybe it's because I don't view the Confederates as my team. This is Black history, but not Black history. Not exclusive. This is my history too, the history of my beloved country, and the story that begins with an iron chain and ends with Chuck Berry's red Cadillac Eldorado is many things – very American to begin with – but teachable is not one of them. It's so weird that even shameless people pretend to embarrass them and try to erase it.
The genius of the civil rights movement was the humility of its demands. In 1960, black Americans did not protest for the right to take white girls to the dance. They want to choose, sit at the Woolworth lunch counter and eat cheeseburgers. Anyone who disagrees with that, who will show up to growl and throw Coke at their head, is clearly a hater, out of themselves.
Ditto for “Black Lives Matter.” Could there be a simpler request? You have to be the most selfish idiot to beat yourself in the chest and say, “No! MY life matters!” (“Your son has cancer? So what! MY son skinned his knee.”) Nevertheless. There is no shortage of self-obsessed fools. They have their own political party. Don't whine to me if you choose to be a part, but can't see it.
The museum has a reproduction of the North Carolina lunch counter where the sit-in began in 1960. I sat down to rest my legs.
Musical accompaniment, including the old union anthem, “Which Side Are You On?”
Which side are you on the men's side?
Which side are you on?
That's it, I thought. in short. Period. Point. You are on the side of the underdog and are fighting, whoever they are. Attacking miners. Freedom rider. Or on the part of the haters and those in power. Bosses. The oppressors.
It is strange that the unknowingly oppressed are so often conned into siding with the oppressor. Slap some buzz phrases on facts you don't like and off to the races. Being young helps too – they think they're discovering the world, when in fact they've just emerged and don't know any better yet. My partner and I rushed through the museum in three hours – I had dinner to attend – but it could have taken twice as long. As we were leaving I asked him what he thought of the museum after he had been there.
“That's good,” he said. I am glad to hear it. If ignorance is a quagmire, then history is a winch.