Discovery - Connecting with History and Meaning on The National Mall
We started on the top floor where the celebration happens. Looking at the pictures, installations and film, all the faces: Magic, Oprah, Ray, Ella, Baldwin, Ali, Maya, MLK, Malcolm, Serena, the list is endless. My longtime friend had been there a number of times already and somehow, as he always does, found us last minute tickets on a sold out Friday afternoon. My first visit to the Museum of African American History and Culture was long overdue. I had heard from so many its wonders, read the articles of praise and finally there I stood ready to take it in with my friend and mentor of almost 30 years.
When we first met in D.C. in the mid 80s, the city was almost unrecognizable versus its current state. 14th Street was an open-air drug market. Penn Ave. was largely quiet and boarded up between the White House and Capitol, D.C. was the “murder capitol of the world.” The Whitman Walker Clinic was overrun tending to the dead and dying of AIDS. You could drive in front of the White House, walk most anywhere on Capitol Hill unattended and unguarded. No Verizon Center. U Street was tumbleweeds. And, there was some semblance of civility in the federal government and houses of Congress.
We had met through our common work in telecom and my brief stint on the Hill and forged a bond that lives through today. Riley has taught me more over the ensuing years about gender, race, the arts, life and friendship than could fill a few lifetimes.
So, on that cold, cloudy day just weeks after the inauguration some weeks ago - our first trip together to the museum was prescient. He was like a kid in a candy store. “Let’s go first to the top floor and then we’ll work our way back up, let’s start with the celebration, then to the struggle.” Of course I agreed and after returning back to the ground floor, we entered the slave ship, the middle passage, where the spirit, emotions, environment and energy could not be any further from that of top floor.
Terror, struggle and fear are the river that runs through the floors leading up to the celebration. But also survival, hope, perseverance and above all, faith, walking lockstep alongside the horrors that befell African Americans as our country grew up. I could not help parallel this struggle with the angst and fear that is gripping our country and the world today. But then, if they could rise and overcome these horrors I thought, there is hope and we must persevere.
It was amazing to see group after group of kids queuing up to get in and touring the museum - oh, the truth and understanding they take with them back into the world, even if just through osmosis, they will walk the earth differently after that day. “The Great Force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it…History is literally present in all we do”, states Baldwin’s quote, rightfully two stories high in the center of the museum’s interior.
I was stunned in my tracks entering the area where you are greeted with Thomas Jefferson. Larger than life looking out ahead, with a brick piled behind him for every slave he owned and the words from his pen and the Constitution high above on the wall, “All men are created equal…with certain unalienable rights…Whenever any form of Government
becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to Alter or Abolish it.” Rereading these words in the context of the museum and current events, history repeats itself in ways we never thought.
So, I’m left with a few integral thoughts after this wonderful day and the years leading up to it, all serving to make the day possible for me. Persistence and hope are essential, it could take one or many generations for change to occur, faith is necessary. Often, from tragedy comes grace and forward progress. Watching over Medgar Evars’ casket in the museum, one thing you learn is that some of Rosa Parks’ inspiration and courage to act likely came from his tragic murder…advance, fall back, get up, advance.
Continuous learning and curiosity - we’re all in this together whether we like it or not, by never stopping to seek the truth, learning and practicing empathy, a greater community is born. And finally, the incredible gift of longtime friendship. For us that day was a culmination of many wonderful moments over the years, filled with deep meaning, connecting history and the present.