I recently visited the National Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C., a major symbol of the turn toward greater honesty in the telling of America’s story.
Many contemporary American conflicts and problems are rooted in a history we think we know, but don’t really. Fortunately people across the country are taking important steps to get history right.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is a major symbol of the turn toward greater honesty in the telling of America’s story. The museum opened nearly a year ago on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and it does an excellent job giving a straightforward presentation of our troublesome history.
The museum begins its story before there was a United States of America and moves forward in time floor by floor to the present, but I spent most of a day on the lower floors, where a visitor can see the framework for America being laid.
There is a quick introduction to Europe and Africa in the 1400s, when some of their kingdoms began to do business with one another, and the narrative moves on to the arrival of Europeans on this continent and the forces that would change all three lands dramatically.
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You see how the relationships among the peoples of the continents shift as the European desire for land and for people to work that land grows, along with European wealth and power.
Many things stuck out as I moved up through the museum, like this note: “The financial legacy of the slave trade helped create the nation-states of Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, France, Great Britain, and the United States, as well as others in the Caribbean and South America.”
Or this: “Scholars estimate that of every 100 people seized in Africa, only 64 would survive the march from the interior to the coast; only 57 would board ship; and just 48 would live to be placed in slavery in the Americas.”
As America became a nation, its people were on fire with ideas about liberty and equality. In a section on that fervor, the museum prominently places a statue of Thomas Jefferson, whose words helped create America. Behind Jefferson is a wall of bricks, and on each brick is the name of a person held in bondage by the champion of liberty. Over his lifetime, Jefferson held 609 people as property. All men are created equal, he wrote. Twelve of the first 18 presidents owned people at some point.
All those enslaved people represented wealth.
Abolitionist Henry Bibb wrote this in 1849 when the internal slave trade was tearing families apart: “After the men were all sold they then sold the women and children. They ordered the first woman to lay down her child and mount the auction block; she refused to give up her little one and clung to it as long as she could, while the cruel lash was applied to her back for disobedience. She pleaded for mercy in the name of God. But the child was torn from the arms of its mother amid the most heart-rending-shrieks …”
Bibb had escaped slavery and founded a newspaper in Canada. Many white people fought against the system, too, like the Grimke sisters, Angelina and Sarah, who left their slave-owning family to fight for abolition and for women’s rights.
Enslaved people fought against slavery from the start. Some threw themselves from slave ships and drowned. Others fought the enslavers on ships and on plantations. Many ran. It took constant terror to keep the system in place and its profits flowing.
Enslaved people grew tobacco, rice, sugar, cotton and more. They built roads, buildings, railroads, made furniture and tools. They made the economy. Insurance companies, shipping companies, Northern factories all depended as much on slavery as did enslavers.
Another display read: “$250,000,000 Value of cotton produced by enslaved African Americans in 1861; $3,059,000,000 Value assigned to enslaved African Americans in 1860.”
And another: “In two generations, cotton produced by enslaved people transformed the fledgling nation into a world power and a leader in global trade.”
I had it backward when I was a child. Being descended from people who were enslaved was for me and my friends something to be embarrassed about. We knew almost nothing to start, and learned very little as we moved through school.
It took years for me to realize I’d been miseducated. It took more years to recognize most of the country shared my ignorance, and that the miseducation is an ongoing process.
Two years ago a white supremacist shot and killed nine black people in a Charleston, S.C. church. The killings raised awareness of the power of an ideology that draws strength from the mythology that surrounds slavery and the war that ended American slavery.
South Carolina took down a Confederate battle flag from its state Capitol grounds, and displays honoring the Confederate cause are being removed in some other states as well. We’re having long-overdue discussions about that foundational history.
In 2011, as the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War approached, Pew Research Center asked Americans what was the primary cause of the conflict, and 48 percent said states’ rights, while 38 percent said slavery.
The South fought to preserve and spread slavery. Facts matter. Truth matters.
But truth can still be hard to come by. The year of that shooting, students in Texas were issued history books that continue to teach that the war was mostly about states’ rights — books that also leave out or play down other aspects of history that have to do with race.
We need more history, not less. We should have a national museum just about slavery. That part of our history has done so much to define America and the world right into the present, that I haven’t even mentioned the rest of the museum — lynching and the rise of the KKK after the war, segregation, the tears you may shed if you sit and look at the casket Emmett Till was originally buried in, the civil-rights movement, daily life for Americans throughout that history, the contributions of African Americans to the military, music, business, science and every other facet of life. There is always more.
When I visited the National Museum of the American Indian, I was moved by the exhibit on treaties, a few earnest, many treacherous, all ending badly for Native Americans. I left wanting more. We’ve left out way too much for so long.
People have been so hungry for what the new African-American museum offers that visitors have to apply for passes months in advance.
The history we tell affects how people feel about themselves and about other Americans. It shapes how we view the nation itself. History gives context to issues from affirmative action to shootings by police to rollbacks of voting rights.
We need to stop shortchanging history.