Once upon a time I interviewed my grandfather about segregation and Jim Crow for a school project about family history. After recounting only a couple of painful memories, my typically jovial grandfather grew even more sullen and said, “Half the things I saw will go to the grave with me."
And those unspoken memories are locked with him forever.
My grandfather, Bert Hadley Sr., died back in March 2009 at the age of 97. Born in 1911 in (then) rural Leon County, Florida, he’d completed mission (seemingly) impossible. He’d lived through the tyranny of Jim Crow and lived to witness the inauguration of President Barack Obama, the first African-American president of the United States.
So this past weekend, as I traveled to Washington, D.C., to witness the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), my thoughts were of Bert Hadley. A man who only had a third-grade education, had never traveled beyond his neighboring states until my father bought him to visit me in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1999.
This man who triumphed and travailed under a racist system that saw him only as lesser than, a man who managed to love and build a beautiful family, was in awe of his nation’s capital. And my mind went back to those unspoken memories.
We tend to think about museums as showrooms of stuff. They clean up our relics and tell us a story about them.
We tend to talk about the Black Experience as if it’s an unending parade the repeats the same five facts and names:
Underground Railroad = Harriet Tubman Harlem Renaissance = Langston Hughes Civil Rights Movement = Martin Luther King, Jr. Bus Boycott = Rosa Parks Game changing politics = President Barack Obama
That’s big-sized African-American history. But if you look at the pictures from these moments, there are countless unnamed black faces surrounding the names on which we focus. At NMAAHC these faces move further into the center because your mama’s life, my grandfather’s life, and other folks’ families lives are what make up big-sized African-American history.
What NMAAHC is not, is a Hall of Fame. It is not a retread of the “black history facts” that were taught to us in elementary school. Its space is more than the sum of its parts. It is a unification of parts of our bondage and freedom that never got to live under the same roof and have their stories told. And the way in which they speak to us is varied and unique as the people streaming into the museums doors.
I attended the opening with my friends and with my parents. My parents both graduated from segregated high schools in the South. I am one who makes her living thinking, teaching, and talking about black people, black music, and black lives. But I was unprepared for the emotionalism of hearing my parents and the friends and family who we ran into open up and discuss their black lives in such intimate ways.
Two anecdotes from my parents help drive this point home:
1. Walking through the section on protests and sit-ins, my mama pointed out the Tallahassee bus boycott led by FAMU students. Then she pointed to a picture of the preacher who organized it, Rev. CK Steele. Thus, reminding me that the preacher who married my parents almost exactly 47 years ago was an activist.
2. I was staring at a cotton gin and my dad went into telling me about when his parents grew cotton and the whole process of taking it to the gin in southern Georgia, how they vacuum pack it, weigh it, and pay you for it. He concluded said story by saying, "and that's why I keep raw cotton on the dashboard of my truck, so that I never forget."
But my family was just one of thousands of families who joined a new conversation in the museum that day.
We spent 10 hours in the museum and coursed through every floor, and everywhere we looked we saw generations of people passionately discussing their lives and experiences with their families and sometimes with strangers. The museum teemed with people in T-shirts representing their hometown, their church, their alma mater, their family reunion, their sororities and fraternities, their nationalities. It was family reunion/HBCU homecoming/church anniversary/MLK Day all under one roof.
As Kanye said, “I wish I could give you this feeling.”
My grandfather, my parents, my friends, and me are not exceptional. We’re a part of the 13% of this population who live our lives trying to do the best for our family while pushing back on a country that often pushes in on those of us who paid a disproportionately high price to make America great.
You’ll walk through this massive maze of Blackness and you’ll see yourself. You’ll see places you’ve lived, schools you’ve attended, musicians you’ve loved. You’ll feel moments that made you laugh and moments that killed some of us. You’ll feel closer to that intangible feeling that compels us to attend HBCUs, family reunions, black churches, and juke joints.
NMAAHC reminds us that it was never just about the names we honor during Black History Month, our black history and future is about how me, you, your mama, and your cousin too wake up every day black in America and, in fits and starts, we, the darker brothers and sisters, do our part to make this country better than she otherwise would have been.