By Darryl Lorenzo Wellington
I won't be present at the Saturday opening of the Smithsonian's 400,000 square foot National Museum of African American History and Culture. I won't be in attendance when President Obama delivers his dedicatory speech.
But I will be there in spirit. I will still peruse the museum's collections online and study striking photographs of the 3,500 artifacts in the present exhibition. (The museum has a whopping 40,000 total pieces). The items represent moments in our history that are so raw, yet so iconic: Harriet Tubman's hymnal, Nat Turner's personal Bible, a pail Martin Luther King soaked his feet in after the Selma march. One of the items is a prominent statue of Thomas Jefferson backed by the names of the slaves he owned, with text informing museum visitors that Jefferson owned his own children. It reminds me that I'm old enough to remember when Southern history buffs, even some historians with real credentials insisted that the claim that Jefferson fathered children by Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves, was fiction.
I'll eventually make a pilgrimage to Washington, DC. When I do, it won't simply to be to visit a museum. It will be the next step in a pilgrimage that lasts a lifetime for many black African Americans --- a pilgrimage toward truth and reconciliation of what it has meant and what it means to be black in this country.
The journey for me began during my Southern childhood which transformed me into a history buff, both because history was so much in the air (in Savannah, GA, where I was born, and Charleston, SC, where I spent my young adulthood) and because of the way history was told was biased toward protecting white sensitivities.
One incident in particular stands out in my memory. My 7th grade social studies teacher was Ms. Whitaker. Ms. Whitaker paired the class into groups representing the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. We had been instructed to creatively reenact the making of the US Constitution, with our own debates, arguments, and resolutions. For instance, by majority vote, we decided the United States would be governed by three presidents (a three-heads-are-better-than-one-philosophy) and one house of Congress. We eventually debated slavery. The class (which was a mostly white "gifted learners" group, with a handful of blacks) unanimously voted slavery down.
The decision clearly upset Ms. Whitaker, who claimed we were "thinking too much the way people think today" and ordered us to vote again. Of course, influenced by Ms. Whitaker's chagrin, the white students changed their votes. The black students (like myself) had no intention of changing, persevered in making a moral point and lost the second vote.
I remain to this very day baffled, and more than a little hurt by this bizarre incident. What was the real lesson? Was Ms. Whitaker trying to instill racial disunity? I believe looking back that our initial vote upholding the sentiment that slavery contradicted the ideals of the Republic pained or offended Ms. Whitaker in a way she couldn't tolerate and refused to accept.
Even the word "slavery" was anathematic in the South throughout the 1970s and early 1980s and the word "slaves" was avoided. The many historic plantation tours in Georgia and South Carolina often downplayed human subjugation by referring to plantation "servants" rather than slaves. It was a milieu that was littered with monuments to the Confederacy and streets named after Confederate generals, but calls for memorials honoring black accomplishments during Reconstruction, or civil rights leaders who dismantled segregation were called divisive.
In high school, I educated myself about black history, in spite of what often seemed like a concerted effort on the part of supposedly integrated Southern institutions to encourage short-sightedness or amnesia. My high school American history lessons conveniently ended with Eisenhower's election (therefore avoiding discussing the modern civil rights era). At 16, I enthusiastically joined the local movement supporting a Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which officially became a federal holiday in 1983. Yet many states refused to implement it for over a decade. South Carolina was especially recalcitrant, becoming the last state to endorse a special King Day holiday in 2000.
As I grew into adulthood, I watched as black studies became a new field finding a foothold in colleges across the country. And I knew what I wanted. I wanted history. Not the blind versions of American history, which during my high school years left me disappointed by subterfuges and omissions. I wanted black American history.
Racism permeated the South throughout my adolescence. But there was also a quite racist, but arguably "well-intentioned" sentiment that black school children coming up in the 1980s would be better off not knowing the truth behind slavery's brutality or segregation's systemic disenfranchisement -- that historical distortions were kinder than reality.
This condescending sentiment that black history is dispensable still lingers on today. I hear it echoed whenever someone learns that I am a student of black history and says, (it happens too often) "Why do you want to limit yourself like that?" or "Why don't you study something universal?"
Answer: Because like a heart surgeon, or a urologist, I'm a specialist.
My pilgrimage to the Smithsonian museum of African American history will be a ringing confirmation for me that black history is not a closet of shameful stories that should be buried. Even when the nation overcomes racism, (which hasn't remotely happened yet) slavery and segregation, along with the great accomplishments of blues and jazz musicians, are all still part of our history. The National Museum of African American History and Culture will be a very timely monument, reminding us that Black lives have always mattered.