On September 17, my partner Akeem Muhammad and I had the honor of attending the donor's preview of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
We had a deeply profound experience at the first national museum dedicated to African-Americans. I cried tears of joy as I reflected on the museum's implications for Black youth. Black children will now have an arena where they can consume their own history, rather than having it relegated to the shortest month of the year.
I am thankful our children will have a place where they can see that our history is American history.
As an entrepreneur, I cried when I saw the pure joy on the faces of Mae Reeves' family as they admired a showcase of her work. Reeves opened Mae's Millinery in 1942 during the Jim Crow era. Her hats were worn by Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and Marian Anderson. Now, her hats are memorialized in the NMAAHC.
However, I also felt a very familiar pain when I entered the exhibition on Angola Prison, a Louisiana State Penitentiary and former slave plantation. A powerful film about the suffering and violence prisoners faced accompanied the display. The film discussed the prison's history as a plantation and now as the final resting place for thousands of Black men.
Akeem and I recently spent 20 brief, but deeply traumatic, hours in East Baton Rouge Parish Prison after we were arrested at the Alton Sterling protests on July 10. The Angola exhibit made me imagine the prolonged trauma of incarcerated Black men.
It made me clench my hands and wipe tears from my eyes.
Akeem was also deeply moved by the display, but a white woman and her partner seemed less emotional. They stood beside Akeem and I as we watched the accompanying film. When the narrator said, "Most of these men will die in Angola Prison," the woman smiled fondly at the screen as she dismissively remarked, "We know."
I could feel my face becoming warm as I grew frustrated with her reactions. I turned to Akeem to ask him why the woman smiled at such a painful video.
She heard my whispered observation and quickly replaced her cheery smile with a condescending disposition. She informed us that she created the film presented at the exhibition, which is the reason she smiled throughout the video.
I am sure she's honored to have her work displayed at such a prestigious institution but her reaction raised an interesting question for me: Why was she smiling, laughing, and taking up space while looking at the trauma of Black bodies?
Unfortunately, the NMAAHC reintroduces the discussion of white spectatorship of the past and present of Black trauma.
The privilege of whiteness in a white supremacist society allows white people to feel so far and comfortably removed from Black suffering that they're able to completely disregard the significance and the pain associated with the history documented in the NMAAHC.
The museum is an archive of the violence imparted on African-Americans. It documents the very first Africans brought to this country in bondage. The North Atlantic Slave Trade, Jim Crow, police brutality, the prison industrial complex, the war on drugs, and so much more trauma is also displayed in the museum.
The museum is more than a building. It is an experience.
The way this woman, a white woman, smiled at the bleak reality presented by the film turned my stomach. It reminded me of how the Louisiana State Penitentiary has created an industry out of the spectatorship of Black suffering. Every Sunday in October, prisoners are coerced into performing for primarily white audiences during the infamous Angola Rodeo.
Her smile felt like a mocking contentment. It desecrated the lived experiences of those suffering within prison systems. She felt entitled to disrupt desperately needed spaces of mourning and reflection for Black people.
The fact she'd "met some of the faces in the video" gave her the notion that the exhibit "belonged" to her and by implication, the suffering of these men did too. Her sentiments are rooted in America's history of white spectatorship and Black suffering.
Lynchings, some of which are documented in the NMAAHC, have historically served the very purpose of being a spectator sport. Scholar Harvey Young's piece, "The Black Body as a Souvenir in American Lynching," discusses the public execution of Sam Hose on April 21, 1899. Hose's murder served to entertain "2,000 white men, women, and children…in Newman, Georgia."
Today, widely circulated clips and videos document the final moments of countless innocent Black people slain by police officers and vigilantes. The circulation of state-sponsored murder at the hands of police and the play-by-play analysis that often follows mirrors the legacy of white spectatorship of Black execution.
Black people have not been afforded humanity and this allows for our trauma and suffering to be viewed as entertainment.
I am concerned that this woman won't be alone in her blissful ignorance.
The NMAAHC opens to the public on September 24, though Congress established the museum in 2003. Efforts to create a museum dedicated to African-American history and culture have been thwarted for more than a century.
Black Civil War veterans began pushing for the museum more than 100 years ago, according to The New York Times. President Calvin Coolidge signed legislation on March 4, 1929 to create a commission responsible for building the national memorial, according to Robert Wilkins, author of "Long Road to Hard Truth: The 100 Year Mission to Create the National Museum of African American History and Culture." Congress passed the law without providing federal funding, which left the commission dormant for many years.
"It remains dormant until the mid-1960s, concurrent with the Black Arts and the Black Studies movements that are beginning in the mid-1960s," Wilkins told WBUR. "There was a great debate in Congress about whether it should be called a Negro museum or an Afro-American museum or African-American or black history, similar to the debate going on in America at that time. And James Baldwin and Jackie Robinson and Roy Innis, they all testified in Congress in support of this, but nothing passed."
Over the years, some politicians argued that a national museum would cause a snowball effect.
"Once Congress gives the go ahead for African-Americans, how can Congress then say no to Hispanics, and the next group, and the next group after that?" former Republican senator Jesse Helms said in 1994 during a senate hearing.
Critics said the National Mall had become too crowded for an additional museum.
The federal government constantly advised an exceedingly patient Black America to wait for a "more convenient season." The timing never seemed right — until now.
Funding for the museum came from Black American icons including Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, and Samuel L. Jackson, all of whom appear in the museum. Almost $4 million of the funding came from Black Americans who donated less than $1,000 each, according to The New York Times.
Throughout the museum, our hardship is accompanied by a celebration of the resoluteness of the Black American spirit. It is an intensely sacred space honoring our ancestors and inspiring our children.
Those who see themselves within this tortured past will personally relate to the museum in a more intimate way. It gives us hope that America will one day acknowledge the vibrant legacy Black history, humanity, and culture.
The museum is a direct protest America's refusal to afford humanity to the darker brother.
Main Image: Courtesy of Blair Imani