WASHINGTON — I grew up with African-American history through the stories my grandparents taught me. Those stories planted the seed for my appreciation of my culture.
So, there was an overwhelming sense of pride as I walked through the doors of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture for the first time.
As expected, the entryway was crowded with a combination of families, friends and class trips. Still, the lines moved efficiently as tickets were scanned and individuals were let inside.
The size of the museum is evident when you walk in. The elegant but simple entrance is spacious enough for the large crowds to seem small. It was so big that I had to ask where to start. The busy yet organized visitors desk had a map and resource guide.
The lower three levels tell the history of African-Americans, starting out with the earliest accounts of black descendants from Africa and the slave trade, ending with today’s Black Lives Matter movement. The top three levels focus on African-Americans’ contributions to culture in America.
Almost five years ago, as a junior in high school here in the nation’s capital, I watched as construction began on the museum. I had no idea that the massive pit of dirt would hold key artifacts and information about the origins of African-American ancestry and slavery.
I felt emotionally moved by the small things such as a plank of wood from the ships that carried hundreds of slaves in the 1700s and the metal shackles that bound the hands and feet of children and adults alike. This set the tone for what I was about to see in the rest of the museum.
Each section of the museum evoked feelings that were hard to ignore. There is a large statue of former President Thomas Jefferson, one of the architects of the U.S. Constitution. It showed how he wrote about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while keeping a thorough record of his slaves, which included his own children.
Another section included the names of the victims of lynching and the stereotypical caricatures that are still evident in today’s media. The combination put me on a roller-coaster ride of emotions.
Just as there were sections that evoked sadness, there were those that brought joy. A personal favorite for some of the visiting women seemed to be the section about Madame C.J. Walker and her contributions to the hair care industry.
“We really have her to thank, but Lord knows what they had in those products back then.” I overheard a woman say as she read the notes accompanying the artifacts.
Overhearing the opinions of strangers also contributed to my first time experience. Thinking out loud was a popular activity among spectators.
I came away from the museum thinking we as African-Americans still had a lot of work to do. Though I was only halfway through the museum, it was clear that much more could and would be added over time.
At the end of my trip, I took a glance at the time and realized that it had been three hours, and I had yet to finish the museum. Still, I was fulfilled. I was content knowing that I got everything and more out of my first visit, and I also knew this would not be my last.