Last Updated on February 21, 2017 by bvnadmin

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]I have twice had the chance in the last few months to spend a few hours at the NMAAHC, which opened in September 2016. I look forward to a day when I can wander slowly and at length through its extraordinary galleries. When I went back for a second time several days ago, I already knew I wanted to spend my scant hour looking at four things: Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, the Greensboro, NC lunch counter, Emmett Till’s coffin, and the Contemplative Court.

I am an ethnomusicologist and I focus on race and performance in my research. I attend to the many ways people make sense out of their lives and their communities through performance, whether music, dance, theater, film, or ritual. The NMAAHC is obviously a towering national achievement, and public interest in it is unprecedented. Once the initial rush passes, maybe it will be possible for anyone to go in whenever they want, but for now, the free entry tickets are much in demand. I am grateful to my colleagues at the Smithsonian who provided access to the new museum.

Each of you will undoubtedly find certain objects displayed in the NMAAHC that speak deeply to you, whether the small shackles for children or George Clinton’s exuberant mother ship. I want to tell you about four exhibits that moved me profoundly.

I’ll start with a single case containing two objects that belonged to Harriet Tubman. One is a white lace shawl give to her by Queen Victoria. It’s lovely to imagine it adorning Tubman’s small shoulders, yet I can’t help but think she probably didn’t wear this delicate thing while leading slaves through the woods to freedom. I’m more drawn to the book beside it, a small dog-eared and yellowed collection of gospel songs. Tubman didn’t know how to read or write but she famously sang spirituals from an early age, not least as coded signals to slaves planning escape. The hymnal is an extraordinary and puzzling object. It manifests Tubman’s deep connection to song and belief. Certainly she didn’t need the hymnal to learn songs: she learned songs in the ways that slaves and many people across history and across the world have learned them: from other people, by hearing them sung, and by feeling their messages of faith and resilience through the body and spirit. Still, the hymnal speaks volumes about the importance of Christian song for Tubman. I wish I could turn its pages. I wish I could ask her which songs were her favorites, and why.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”66896″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”66897″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]The museum galleries addressing the Civil Rights era are of course especially powerful and inspiring. Two exhibits in that section of the NMAACH are brilliant examples of how the museum goer can be drawn into an active relationship with history. One is a long lunch counter. An actual seat from a diner in Greensboro is encased beside it, and is itself a brilliant example of how a simple, everyday object can become powerfully meaningful. But I am drawn as much to the long counter with seats that invite the museum goer to sit and browse through the touch screens filling the counter space. The act of sitting becomes imbued with meaning. If you sit, you can’t not ask yourself what you would have done. Would you have joined the students? Would you have put your body on the line of resistance? Will you do so now? Are you ready?[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”66898″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]You rise and continue through the gallery and find yourself channeled toward a narrow corridor. The wall contains a quotation from Mamie Till-Mobley. You see small signs saying NO PHOTOGRAPHS. A museum guard is stationed at the inner corner and she reminds you: no photographs. You turn left past her and find yourself in a small room. The outer area has photographs of Emmett Till and his mother, and information about what happened and when. Mostly you’re aware that the air is filled with the sound of music, and that the room contains only one object: a coffin with raised lid. The small room is set up so that museum goers approach the coffin in single file, head ringing with gospel song, and you are suddenly at the funeral. You are one of the thousands who attended his funeral, and you are there to pay your respects and bear witness in the ways that Mamie Till demanded. No photographs. You are there to inhabit the moment and to fill up with anger, sorrow, and determination.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”66899″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]You make your way out of that small room and through more galleries, and then up a ramp and around a corner. You find yourself in a huge room with a two-story ceiling, filled with the sound of water. The air is cool and alive. A waterfall cascades down from a gigantic ring at ceiling height and falls into a black stone pool. Dark benches allow you to sit down at the pool’s edge, and at this point, you need to. You’ve walked through five hundred years of unbelievably terrible histories. You need to sit and think about it; you need a space of contemplation, and this room – both dark and full of cascading light – offers just that. Each of the four walls contains inscribed quotations, but the one that draws your eyes is by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

I hope I will get to revisit each of the four exhibits I describe here. I also hope you will get to visit the museum and find the exhibits that will provide you with your own private, individual moments of reflection and inspiration. I enter this Black History Month feeling as helpless and hopeless as I have in many years, yet I also know that the moments we step up to inhabit the day and the call, with others beside us, are how change has come, over and over again. Be the change you want to see. I’ll join you.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_separator][vc_column_text el_class=”small”]Deborah Wong is a faculty member at the University of California, Riverside.

All photos courtesy National Museum of African American History & Culture[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]