The long-awaited National Museum of African-American History and Culture, part of the Smithsonian complex and located on the National Mall in Washington, DC, opens today. Yesterday's New York Times provided an advance 8 page special section, including an interview with the lead designer, Ghanaian-British architect Freelon Adjaye.
It's message begins with the symbolism in the design itself. Rather than another classic white marble building (the Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln monuments, etc.) this building is a bronze, anodized aluminum material fashioned into a metalic fretwork skin, with views of those other buildings through the filigree openings. The triple-tiered silhouette of the building has its origins in Yoruba culture; and the filigree design motif is reminiscent of metal grillwork made by African-American metal workers in Louisiana and South Carolina that had West African roots. The building's color is a dark brown that, in certain light, is said to be "on fire."
The galleries are arranged so that one begins in the underground three levels with the history of Africans being brought to this country as slaves. The chronological narrative moves forward as one ascends to the above ground levels. There are public spaces on the ground level, then more museum galleries in the three levels above that, with contributions to sports, arts and culture on the upper level.
Items for the collection were solicited through an open invitation for people to bring what they had -- sort of an Antiques Roadshow meet-up -- where curators examined the artifacts and assembled a collection from the people. There's an outfit worn by Marian Anderson when she sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after the DAR refused to allow her to perform in their auditorium. There's Harriet Tubman's hymnal. Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves. Louie Armstrong's trumpet. Althea Gibson's tennis racquet. Oprah's couch. Chuck Berry's red Cadillac.
And it's not only the good stuff. There are slave chains, and a KKK hood. Replicas of slave cabins and jail cells. From what I read, the history galleries include the horrors of what really happened; but there is also celebration of the achievements and contributions, including recognition of the Tuskegee Airmen, the Harlem Hellfighters, and the civil rights heroes. Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. And, of course, Barack Obama as the first black president.
Although there is extensive coverage of the civil rights struggle, sadly, in the article there is little mention and no pictures of any artifacts from Martin Luther King, Jr. I try not to be judgmental, after all the King children went through; but one can't have read the Atlanta newspapers over the last five years and not be aware how often the siblings have been in court, fighting with each other over the sister's wish to treat their father's bible and his speeches as sacred, historical relics to be shared with the public -- and the two brothers' attempts to gain control so they can sell them to the highest bidder. One can only assume at this point that they were not about to donate such valuable possessions to this museum.
The Times article ended with a full last page given over to a reprinting of the Langston Hughes poem, "I, Too," from his Collected Poems (published in 1994 by Doubleday/Penguin Random House; copyright by the Estate of Langston Hughes). It is so powerful, and so appropriate for this occasion.
"I, too, sing America.
"I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen.
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
'Eat in the kitchen,'
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed --
"I, too, am America."