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Against Exceptionalism, Beyond Triumphalism

A Review of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture

On 13 April 1943, on the 200th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated the Jefferson Memorial to the nation’s third president. Facing a sharp wind blowing in from the Potomac, the president admired the heroic statue and read the famous words that grace the interior walls of the building: “All Men Are Created Equal.” In the midst of a global war against fascism, Roosevelt proclaimed that the Jefferson Memorial would stand as “a shrine to freedom,” dedicated to a man who bent his entire life to the proposition that “men are capable of their own government and that no king, no tyrant, no dictator can govern for them as wisely as they can govern for themselves.”

The official tale of Jefferson’s contributions to American liberty are engraved in those marble letters, illuminated by sunlight reflected off of the Tidal Basin. This reverence is one of the hallmarks of American exceptionalism: the belief that the course of American history has made the United States uniquely qualified to defend liberty throughout the world. However, the hallowed ground beneath this monument to democracy once served as a segregated beach for white swimmers only. The narrative of American exceptionalism requires the suppression of this uniquely American history of white supremacy, and a willful blindness to the centrality of slavery, genocide and dispossession in the history of the United States.

Nat Turner's Bible © Lauren Burke
Nat Turner’s Bible © Lauren Burke

More than seven decades later and less than a mile away, a shadow monument to Jefferson’s legacy arose in the basement of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).  This underground version establishes a counterpoint to the sunny story told above. The same words grace this monument: “All Men Are Created Equal,” but the monument itself also includes the names of the hundreds of enslaved men and women who formed the foundation of Jefferson’s wealth and power. It is a darker and more complex story, but also a more complete one that shows that it is possible to celebrate American progress and democracy while at the same time taking the full measure of who’s really paid the price of those freedoms.

One of the most significant things to note about this shadow monument and the entire museum is that they are located on the National Mall. The Mall has long been a space where it is extremely difficult to challenge the orthodoxy of American exceptionalism. In the early 1980s, the design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial prompted opponents to decry it “as a black gash of shame” and “a nihilistic slab of stone” that dishonored the troops. In 1995, a national backlash shut down a Smithsonian exhibit on the Enola Gay that sought to contextualize the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The museums and monuments that line the National Mall define the American narrative. That there is room in that story for the 2011 Martin Luther King Memorial and this new museum of African American history show that at some level, some portion of America is ready to acknowledge the contradictory legacies of racism, slavery, and white supremacy that still lie at the heart of the American story. It is a hopeful reaffirmation of the words in Langston Hughes’s famous 1936 anthem:

“O, let America be America again—

The land that never has been yet—

And yet must be”

Anyone who has been to both museums will note the striking similarities between the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. This is no coincidence; both were put together with the guidance of Ralph Appelbaum Associates. The NMAAHC is divided into three sections: at the lowest level, the foundation of the museum is history; above that is a floor dedicated to community; the top floor is dedicated to culture. The permanent historical exhibition of the NMAAHC begins in the sub-basement and is structured in such a way that, as you ascend you also move forward in time from the 14th century through to the present day. The key strength of this chronological organization is that it allows the re-narration of American history in such a way that it places the twinned histories of black self-assertion and white supremacy at the heart of this story. In so doing, the curators and designers are able make a cogent argument against exceptionalism.

Harriet Tubman's Shawl © Lauren Burke
Harriet Tubman’s Shawl © Lauren Burke

This narrative structure allows the permanent exhibition to display and contextualize objects such as Nat Turner’s bible, Harriet Tubman’s shawl, as well as a series of 19th century banknotes along a wall whose value was backed up by enslaved black workers. These instances where the museum is able to interpret a historical moment through the lens of material culture are profound. Fitting these relics into their historical context imbues them with an explanatory power that permits the telling of a truer, if less comfortable, version of the American past.

In the cavernous hallway that traces African American history from the American Revolution to the Civil War, the museum links westward expansion with the series of compromises over slavery necessary to keep the contest between free and slave states from erupting into armed conflict. By clearly charting how sectional divisions over slavery led to the Civil War, the permanent exhibition effectively counters neo-Confederate nonsense that the sectional conflict was over conflicting interpretations of states’ rights. This long-form historical narrative also allows the museum to drive home the still-necessary point that slavery and anti-black racism were just as powerful in the North as in the South.

The museum also creates the space to include some of the most important work being done by today’s leading historians of the African American experience. Danielle McGuire’s research on the anti-rape activism of black women during Jim Crow appears in the display case on the life of Recy Taylor. Visitors can learn about how Taylor’s 1944 gang rape led Rosa Parks to organize an international campaign to bring the white men who assaulted her to justice. Also here is Heather Ann Thompson’s recent work prying open the long-hidden story of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s role in the 1971 massacre by state troopers of forty three guards and inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility. The legacies of mass incarceration are woven into exhibits clearly informed by the work of such scholars and activists as Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Sarah Haley, and Michele Alexander.

Fragments of Glass from The Baptist Church Bombing © Lauren Burke
Fragments of Glass from The Baptist Church Bombing © Lauren Burke

However, while this chronological focus allows visitors to see the sweep of African American history as an explicit counter-narrative to American exceptionalism, it also lends itself to a triumphalist rendering of this same history. That is, African American history is described as a perpetual trajectory of improvement, that first saw the destruction of slavery, followed by a long and successful struggle for civil rights, culminating in the 2008 election of the nation’s first African American president.

One aspect of this triumphalist narrative is the downplaying of the extent and vigor of the nationwide backlash to the gains of the civil rights movement. The museum does discuss the horrors of slavery, the terrors of lynching, and the violence directed against civil rights martyrs like Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and Harry and Harriette Moore. However, once the Civil Rights Movement has completed its work, this backlash mostly appears to be a thing of the past. Missing from this museum are the names of those political leaders and captains of industry who all profited from the racist backlash of the 1970s and 1980s: Nixon, Reagan, and good percentage of those southern Democrats who defected to the GOP after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act into law. Given that the funding for the museum often had to be shepherded through a Republican-controlled Congress, it’s no surprise that these critiques are muted. There’s only so much a museum situated on the National Mall can say. It’s up to the rest of us to make that critique on the streets and elsewhere.

Accompanying the triumphalist narrative is a blare of screens and audio. Much of it rightfully trumpets the success that African Americans have achieved in a country frequently hostile to black success. However, it is also distracting, especially in the history section after World War Two, once film and television become a prominent part of the story. The community and culture galleries on the top two floors are almost headache-inducing in the level of noise, flashing lights and distraction. They resemble the buzz and bustle of Times Square, and, like Times Square, this makes it difficult to pick out what is really important.

To offer an example, in the section on the history of the Civil Rights Movement, a case houses shards of shattered glass from the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Located in a really crowded section of the overall exhibit, the glass of the case continually reflects the light and glare of the screens on the wall behind it. For a moment demanding both reverence and reflection, the set-up of the exhibition makes it virtually impossible to achieve either.

At one point, the increasing number of screens even obscures the objects themselves. The screens physically obstruct the objects collected to represent African American life and culture since 2000. One literally has to peek behind them to see artifacts from Hurricane Katrina, the protests surrounding the murder of Trayvon Martin, and the Black Lives Matter movement. To put these particular objects on display at a moment in time when nearly half the country supports a candidate with ties to white supremacists is a profoundly political act. However, hiding them behind a wall of television screens suggests the museum is fearful of openly displaying them.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) © roma g | Flickr The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) © roma g | Flickr

The historical portion of the museum concludes with an impressive display about Barack Obama and the 2008 election. It is clearly one of the most popular points in the entire exhibit. Getting a decent look at the case was challenging given the number of people taking selfies before it. The first African American president certainly deserves a significant spot in this museum; however, placing Obama at the very end of history suggests that the complicated, conflicted and contradictory history of African Americans led inexorably to his election.

This design decision only serves to replace American exceptionalism with African American triumphalism. Neither the barely checked expansion of carceral state nor the ongoing murders of African Americans at the hands of police have changed with Obama’s election. When protestors have risked their lives to shut down highways to protest police violence, and African American athletes have refused to stand for the national anthem until black lives matter, it is clear that this history is incomplete.

If I were to choose an artifact to close out the museum’s permanent history section, it would be one of the hand-drawn placards hidden behind the wall of television screens in the hallway leading up to the Obama case. It reads, simply, “Justice for Trayvon.”

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