When entering the particularly well-lit lobby of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, it would be nearly impossible to overlook the massive art structure suspending from the ceiling. The collection of wielded bronze, Richard Hunt’s “Swing Low,” was created to pay homage not only to the specific Negro spiritual for which it was named, but also the genre of music as a whole, which helped define early African-American development and self-consciousness. Encouragingly, this sculpture is only the museum’s first example of how our ancestors’ enslavement continues to both affect and inspire modern
The museum, which architects designed to be viewed from the ground up, begins beneath ground on the very first level with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and our ancestors’ journey from Africa to the Americas. Although stairs are a much quicker option, the elevator is actually worth the ride. When I entered, the elevator’s attendant made sure we all took note of the walls around and the ceiling above. She revealed the design was “so that kings and queens could look up and see themselves surrounded by gold.”
That feeling of nobility is needed as you enter the first exhibit, “Slavery and Freedom,” because you are immediately confronted by the memory that Africans and their descendants were once treated as animals. The words of John Hope Franklin—acclaimed American historian and one of the museum’s founding fathers—are quoted as a reminder at the entrance: “We must tell the unvarnished truth.” He believed that knowing and understanding history was the best foundation for a better present, therefore we must confront even our
most brutal of pasts.
Certainly for the majority of visitors, this visit will not be the first time they see images or artifacts pertaining to the most vicious slavery known to mankind. Yet something about this collection seems less censored and much more raw. Slavery in the New World was the first time the modern world used human beings as commodities—things to be bought, sold and exploited to make enormous profits. And this exhibit tells the story from the perspective of the slaves.
The dim, somewhat damp room, which felt closed off thanks to large display cases and extremely low ceilings, was the ideal setting for feeling grief and despair, although encountering a pair of shackles small enough for a child has a way of doing that all on its own. Around the room you’ll find various quotes and facts that tell the gruesome story of slavery. One quote that made my stomach turn was one from sea captain and slave trader William Snelgrave, who said, “Tho’ to traffic human creatures, may at first appear barbarous … the advantage of it … far outweigh all … inconveniences.” Brutal.
However, nothing shook me up more than the display that listed each country involved with the slave trade: Denmark, Portugal, Great Britain France, and the Netherlands. Below each country is the number of slaves the country transported, and around that you will find every documented ship that sailed the Middle Passage. Along with the ship’s name, you’ll find the origin of the trip, the date of the trip and the number of passengers at departure and arrival listed. One of the more startling voyages was that of France’s Aigle Aguila Negra. It set sail July 16, 1702, with 500 people enslaved, but when it arrived to its destination
only 107 were still alive.
Being that they were just commodities, there were many reasons why slaves would not make it to the New World. Because of poor sanitary conditions, disease would sometimes spread, killing several at a time. Sometimes they were treated as ballast and thrown overboard when the ship became too heavy. And sometimes they willfully committed suicide with hopes that if they died their souls would return home.
It should be mentioned that the biggest driver of the slave trade—and this foul treatment of human beings—was something as simple as sugar.
There are a ton more facts to be read and artifacts to be seen, but once you have chronologically moved passed the abolishment of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the exhibit changes drastically. The room opens up and introduces us to one of the museum’s most thought-provoking exhibits: “The Paradox of Liberty.” On a wall dozens of feet high, you’ll find the major documents that helped give Americans their freedoms: The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Standing in front of the wall is one of America’s founding fathers and a known slave owner, Thomas Jefferson. The paradox that a country filled with immigrants that were all fighting for their freedom consciously took away the freedom of millions of people seems almost too hypocritical. Jefferson is surrounded by a few founding fathers (and mothers) of the abolishment of slavery: Toussaint L’Ouverture, Benjamin Banneker, Phyllis Wheatley
and Elizabeth Freeman.
A few other noteworthy items found during this time period were the original pews from Mother Bethel A.M.E church, Nat Turner’s Bible and one of Harriet Tubman’s shawls.
The vast amount of knowledge the museum shares with its visitors is astounding and, often, emotionally overwhelming. Words can’t do it justice. It’s something we all have to experience. Something we all need to feel.
Megan Pinckney (@shadesofpinck) is a retired beauty queen turned lifestyle blogger who loves exploring the world
and writing about it.