The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (Courtesy photo)

There is one building in Washington which deserved and received rock-star treatment even before the day it officially opened: The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, or NMAAHC.

Located on the National Mall, near the Washington Monument, to me, it looked like some kind of scientific installation when its construction began. Now complete, it looks like an outer space mothership, landed on top of a mothership, on top of a mothership. But NMAAHC has more than just a pretty face.

The museum says the building’s three-tiered shape evokes a traditional Yoruba crown. The exterior corona is made of 3,600 bronze-colored cast-aluminum panels. Teams of architects collaborated on the exterior design, and it seems on various aspects of the museum. The exterior, it is said, symbolizes hands lifted in prayer, in what the museum says is an expression of faith, hope and the will to survive and to succeed.

I first went to the museum with a chip on my shoulder, expecting that my favorite story in the saga of Black life in America — the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam rising up out of Detroit during the Great Depression and establishing a foothold among the descendants of the slaves — would continue to go underreported. And I was correct. There is no “Nation of Islam Room” nor a “Black Panther Room,” or a room just about Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

I went back to the museum when I realized that this ancient repository — where the Bible once owned by Nat Turner is a part of the collection — is the place where 34,000-plus items have been collected into a mosaic which depicts more than 400 years of American life and culture through the eyes of black folks, not just one period.

So, metaphorically, the museum is like a parlor, or a living room, where guests are contained, entertained. It’s not a library where knowledge and ideas are unbound. It’s a museum, a really entertaining, fancy museum.

All over Washington, there has been concerts and celebrations to welcome the new neighbor. There is an official local host committee, which has been promoting events from the National Cathedral, to Shiloh Baptist Church, to the Church of Scientology, to Union Temple Baptist Church — a larger celebration even, than D.C. Emancipation Day.

This gala resembles a presidential inauguration, and fittingly, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will take part in the grand opening. In fact, group watch-parties were organized in public places and private residences. This museum is a big deal.

This museum sits as a conversation marker between our past and our future, at the intersection between the races, in a manner we recall Dr. W.E.B. DuBois reminding us — “the color line” — but in a way Smithsonian Secretary Dr. David Skorton said is reminiscent of something Frederick Douglass said a generation before DuBois.

“It was in 1863 when Frederick Douglass said, ‘The relation between the white and colored of this country is the great, paramount, imperative and all-commanding question for this age and nation to solve,’” Skorton told reporters at the museum press preview. “Over a century and a half later, it is high time to honor the words of this statesman, who began life as a slave. As its mission states, our nation’s newest landmark was created to be a beacon that reminds us what we were, what challenges we still face, and point us toward what we can become.”

The response has been enthusiastic. Hundreds of thousands of free, timed passes were issued online to the public. It’s the talk of the town.

The museum, with its prominent Oprah Winfrey Theater, Sweet Home Café and so much more, was a big hit even before its opening, and now it is being welcomed into the neighborhood like a beloved rock star.

Askia Muhammad

WPFW News Director Askia Muhammad is also a poet, and a photojournalist. He is Senior Editor for The Final Call newspaper and he writes a weekly column in The Washington Informer.

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