Today I took my African American History students to the National African American History Museum. My lesson plan was motivated by two quotes from Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Negro History Week which later evolved into Black History Month”…. to handicap a student by teaching him that his black face is a curse and that his struggle to change his condition is hopeless is the worst sort of lynching” and “The thought of the inferiority of the Negro is drilled into him in almost every class he enters and in almost every book he studies.” I wanted my students to better understand how access to artifacts and inclusive museum exhibits help people obtain a more complete understanding of history and their place in American History. Students were given a structured assignment which guided them through the museum but gave them the freedom to choose exhibits they found interesting to complete their project. After I got over the anxiety of taking 40 students out of the building on public transportation, made sure all of my students were set, I used my remaining time to explore the museum solo.
This is my sixth time visiting the museum , second time within the last three months. I was starving and didn’t get a chance to eat breakfast so I first sat down to order some shrimp and grits, my absolute favorite dish in their delicious cafeteria, and then ventured to see the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibit. I have been reflecting on three artifacts I saw ever since. I saw a concrete block used both in a slave auction in antebellum Virginia and as a stump for general Andrew Jackson and Senator Henry Clay to give speeches to adoring crowds. I also saw a crib built for an enslaved baby on a South Carolinian plantation and a 19th century sack with an embroidered message sewn by an enslaved woman named Ruth. The message explained that the sack which originally contained three tattered dresses and a handful of pecans was given to her 9 year old grandmother by her great grandmother just before she was sold away and never seen again. She sowed the story behind the sack on the front so she wouldn’t forget.
Since I have become a mother, there are very few and rare times in a day where I am allowed to forget that I am responsible for the well being of another human. I couldn’t help but imagine the anguish all three of these women experienced. Whether they were suffering from the feelings of being utterly helpless while their child was ripped from their bosom on the auction block in a room full of profit driven speculators, relentlessly praying their baby survive the haphazard conditions of the slave quarters with insufficient clothing and food, or hoping their child who is being sold away will somehow remember them despite knowing they will never see them again, all of these women and mothers suffered heartbreaks that should have crushed their very will to live. It really shook me to realize that in the end it didn’t, because I am here today and I realize that I am only here today because they did not give up or give in.
There is no lecture I could have given in class that would help my students understand the history of the people contained in this museum.I strongly believe that there is no other monument or museum in D.C. that can capture the complete history of America than the stories contained in this museum. If you are ever in the area, you should definitely pay a visit.
Don’t get me wrong. There are an equal number of exhibits that spread joy and bring smiles to your face. I almost completely got swept back in time with a permanent koolaide smile on my face in the Arts and Culture exhibits.