WASHINGTON, D.C. — Walking into the National Museum of African American History and Culture gave me chills in a couple of ways.

The mere thought of visiting a museum that centered on the African-American experience in this country was one reason.

The other: I was doing so with my 14-year-old son.

Cameron is like most young teens. He's not taking life too seriously right now. But it's important to me that he and my older son, Matthew — though both share multicultural heritages courtesy of their mother — to know history, especially theirs.

My wife and I took Matthew to the Holocaust Museum before Cameron was born. That trip proved a special one because it created a bond. He understood the horrors of what he was seeing so thoroughly, he could not finish the tour.

Cameron is different, as most siblings are. He’s sarcastic, verbally witty, but almost Vulcan-like in his demeanor. Share a feeling? He’d rather dish out a purple nurple when confronted with the prospect. There would be no telling how he'd react.

As a father, I have to lead him to where he may not want to go, but where he needs to start.

For me, this mecca for our stories — I say "our" because no singular African-American experience exists — is the beginning point for a thorough survey of those experiences. Save two days for this if you're in D.C., because it took almost five hours to get through the first three levels.

Getting Cameron to see the complete record, and reconciling it with what he’s learning now in his first year of high school, might be the only way to ensure he’s given as complete a picture as possible.

In that regard, the bronze-tinged structure, designed with elements of various cultures, succeeds famously as a place to learn of the past while giving reason to look to the future, even in times when it feels as if America is regressing with respect to intolerance and bigotry.

 

Back to the past

With six levels divided between “history” and “culture,” starting at the beginning is the only logical way to proceed. As we entered the area that surveyed the time from slavery to freedom, I wanted to sense Cameron’s reactions, know what he was thinking.

I allowed the information to come to him as we scanned the exhibits that told various stories about how slavery took root and explained things such as the Middle Passage. He absorbed it silently until we walked into the display for the Sao Jose, a Portuguese ship that sank, taking the lives of 212 slaves.

“That was a slave ship, wasn’t it?” he asked with some reticence in his voice. I could only reply “Yes,” heartened by the prospect that this trip, for which he was taken out of school, might actually achieve my goal.

The history concourse of the museum consists of three levels that take visitors to the present day.

The curators analyze America’s original sin, each region’s history and the cultures that sprang from the victims of forced servitude. Much like the Holocaust Museum, the experience produces a host of emotions. Until you reach the part covering the Revolutionary War, you have little more than a morose, sickening feeling.

But when the British spill blood at the Boston Massacre, the feeling evolves, as a film produced by the Smithsonian Channel plays nearby to remind visitors that Crispus Attucks, a black seaman, was the first to die in that war.

As the Founding Fathers spout their pronouncements regarding freedom and how every man should be able to revel in liberty, the feelings evolve into anger at their ignorance. Promises of freedom for fighting for colonialists or the British are ignored, and slaves remain slaves, a situation explored in "The Paradox of Liberty" exhibition.

America’s peculiar institution lasted through debates and compromises until finally the Civil War, covered extensively here, brings freedom with the Union victory (the Slavery and Freedom exhibition). Despite the changes that come with Reconstruction, progress is eventually ripped away and replaced with domestic terrors.

Exhibit after exhibit details the contributions of African-Americans to this country, including the rise of Oprah Winfrey as the leading broadcaster of our time to former President Barack Obama, who finally provided some current perspective. 

 

Fitting it all together

If the historical journey reveals all of the struggles, the culture portion represents a celebration of what African-Americans have achieved and will accomplish, presenting cultural touchstones like sports, visual arts and music.

The tone, while still dealing with racism, exclusion and their effects, proves more celebratory. Not surprisingly, Cameron expressed a bit more interest in this area.

Stopping first in the cultural galleries on the uppermost level, we found the "Musical Crossroads" exhibit, which quickly made us feel as if we were at home — at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sifting through the displays, which featured music from everyone from Big Mama Thornton to Kendrick Lamar, was akin to being in a miniature rock hall. No small feat.

Another area that was especially memorable: "Sports: Leveling the Playing Field." Considering Cameron’s disdain for sports (“Yeah, sports ball!") I was kind of surprised to be greeted with a question as I peered at a tidbit related to a certain Olympic great.

“Who was Jesse Owens?” he asked. I couldn’t help but love that he asked about the legendary Cleveland resident.

Owens, who showed Adolf Hitler his notion of Aryan supremacy was bunk by winning four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, returned home only to be treated like a second-class citizen. He remains a legend and cultural touchstone.

Such stories aren’t unfamiliar. Read about the history of the Tuskegee Airmen.

The reason I wanted to experience this museum for the first time with my son is that he needs to understand the inconsistencies of America, the purported "land of the free." Ideals in this country have always been greater than its deeds toward many of its citizens.

Most middle-class African-Americans with whom I speak, including me, view this country with ambivalence. We’re very aware what it can and should be. However, given the struggles that continue to this day, skepticism taints our collective view.

It’s an opinion that’s tough to share, and one that I don’t enjoy owning.

My fondest wish for my sons? That they don’t suffer that ambivalence, because in their lifetimes America has evolved to a point where it’s rendered moot.

 

George M. Thomas can be reached at gthomas@thebeaconjournal.com.