“There’s a whole world out there whether your dream is to go to France, SE Asia, England or if it’s to explore another side of your block…. do THAT”  

– Gabrielle Hickmon (writer)

My name is Samantha Isom and after a 6-hour drive through fog, a few highway auto accidents, and Baltimore/DC morning rush hour, I arrived at my long-anticipated destination: the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

Long-awaited and desperately needed, the NMAAHC was established in 2003 by an act of Congress to recognize honor and share the African American experience. It opened its doors in 2016, 151 years after the abolition of slavery, 48 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, as a museum to recognize the pain, suffering, and injustices African Americans have suffered as well as to honor the triumphs African Americans have made in spite of such hardships.

 

inside the NMAAHC (Washington, DC)

The museum is designed so you start at the bottom (1st floor) with slavery then work your way up through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, civil rights, post-1968, then on into modern day America, leaving room for expansion as the years progress. I was also taken-aback and wonderfully overwhelmed by an impressive collection of African-American modern art, housed the very top-floor.

Watch the video below to experience the museum as I did…

I was seeing my ancestors as I took the tour. Symbolically, I saw my grandfather in some of the photos, then moving into the Jim Crow era, I saw men like my father, uncles, and cousins depicted in the images. And, then I came upon a photo of Richard and Mildred Loving, who in the late 1960’s defeated Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage via a Supreme Court ruling, and I saw my parents.

 

Photo of my parents in the early 1970s

My father is black (from Mobile, Alabama) my mother is white (from Trenton, NJ).They were married only three years after the 1967 Loving vs the State of Virginia case. What hit me when I saw their picture, was that so many people in the US do not know this story or that it was even a court case, let alone one that went to the Supreme Court.

If it weren’t for the courage of Richard and Mildred in their fight for their right to marry,  I would not have been standing in that museum.

I’d been greeted by the Communications Director of the NMAAHC, LaFleur Paysour and within only the first hour of my visit, we came upon a slew of what looked to be military cadets. We walked a bit closer to them and overheard the group’s leader reciting a poem to them. Both Fleur and I began to tear up. This was a group of Police Academy cadets visiting the museum, as part of a program initiated in hopes that police may have more compassion or a better understanding of American history, and that this knowledge will play an important role on the treatment of people of color (by police) in this nation. See their video below:

 

 

About halfway through, museum visitors can enter the Contemplation Court, to rest and reflect on what they have experienced thus far. Afterwards, take a lunch break at the museum cafe, which boasts several different food stations designed to escort you through African-American culinary treasures.

Choices such as (but not limited to) gumbo, greens, pecan pie — I must say I did not know where to start! It’s in here and out in the hallway on a bench just before re-entering the museum, that I noticed complete strangers engaging with one another, bonding over what they were experiencing while touring the museum.

A group of friends I spoke with while taking a rest on one of these benches, told me they came down from Philadelphia, one African American couple and one Caucasian couple. After speaking with them just prior to us all going back inside, the African American (man) said to his friend, “Hey, you know I would really like to know what YOU think of this”, and so the dialog between new friends from different experiences continued.

The NMAAHC creates a safe space for a long overdue dialog among people from different backgrounds.

Contemplation Court

Nothing is going to take away the residual pain of the treatment of my African-American family for centuries, though I do believe that this museum is a leap in the right direction to begin to heal very deep wounds.

Two Strangers Bonding outside the Museum

 

In listening to some of the conversations, I heard a repeating sentiment from Caucasian Americans…’I didn’t know’…’there is a lot I have to learn’. I must admit, I felt a sense of validation. This experience brought home the point of why it’s so important for generations of all ages and ethnicity to be informed about where we’ve come from and reminded of how far we have yet to go.

Have you visited the museum or plan to do so? Share your thoughts.

Check out more of my global adventures and photography at www.brownpassport.com

 

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