By Ernie McCray
Soon the new National Museum
of African American History and Culture
will open and stand infinitely
on the National Mall
in Washington D.C. –
sharing a home
with other grand memorials
Americans and events
in our nation’s history,
giving “Black Lives Matter”
dignifying the humanity
of kidnapped and bought people
who toiled as slaves
in cotton fields in a long ago day,
to those, like me, who survived the evil-ness
of Jim Crow’s ways,
to those born this very day
with so many in the nation
speaking loudly of making America great again
as compared to who knows when.
Oh, it so enlivens my soul
to have my people’s stories told.
It’s a story that needs to be told because our country chooses to ignore its Black History which, in essence, is American History.
I mean we black folks are as entrenched in our history as Babe Ruth is embedded in the history of the New York Yankees. We’re as American as hot dogs and apple pie on the 4th of July.
I like the way Lonnie G. Bunch III, the Founding Director of NMAAHC, puts it when he says: “The African American experience is the lens through which we understand what it is to be an American.”
I have to say we really need to take that to heart as there are so many Americans who speak of the “race card” being played and harp on how blacks need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and put slavery behind them and quit all the selfish whining about wanting to “matter.” “All Lives Matter” they say.
These people obviously don’t know their country’s history or they wouldn’t think in such ways. They’d realize that race cards make up most of the cards in America’s deck; that black people are some of the most “picking themselves up by the bootstraps” human beings on God’s green earth; that we want more than anybody to stop reminding the country that we are people too; that when our lives matter, all lives will truly matter.
If they had any curiosity at all about black people they would have discovered that this country was built on the backs of black slaves and that their free labor helped build and drive a world economy – and they’d, perhaps, consider all that’s taken place in our history that would make the descendants of those American “pioneers” still have to march with signs in the streets: still striving to be treated decently, to be treated like an American; still rallying to not have their voting rights tampered with so easily; still pleading to not have their children shot down unarmed by the neighborhood police…
I’m sure the museum will eloquently tell the story of how all this came to be, hopefully causing a visitor to entertain honoring, in some way, when they leave, what it says “is a story of resiliency, optimism, and spirituality.”
Our history verifies such a declaration with so many stories of us keeping our eyes on the prize, with every ounce of our physical and spiritual energy, bursting through one wall of resistance after another: shackles; Jim Crow with his segregation laws and lynching ropes; water hoses, mean dogs, assassinations, police brutality, voter suppression, excessive jailings; having our protests always portrayed as inappropriate like when a quarterback sits instead of stands for the National Anthem – with very little said about “the oppression of black people,” the reason for his stance.
And so we still sing “We shall overcome” but I’m comforted just knowing that there is one place on earth where anyone, no matter who they are, can experience our story: feel our power, our grit and determination, how we’ve, out of our pain, written songs that the world listens to and sings, songs that soothe the soul, that make you get up and dance; discern how our culture influences how people dress and talk and walk throughout the world as black slang and swag is all the rage on the international stage…
I have several hopes for the museum. I hope it can play a key role in the conversations we must have to better race relations in our country. I hope it can be a spark for bringing America around to loving, or at least accepting, black people as much as it loves our culture. What a beautiful world that would be.
I hope that, as people interact with the museum, they will see how their own stories and histories and cultures are shaped and informed, how we have so much in common.
My biggest hope is that visitors to the museum will come away with their minds opened to viewing black folks in different ways, ways that make “liberty and justice for all” not just a hollow ring in a pledge said every day in school by our children, but a reality for everyone.
It will take the whole nation to help a people “overcome,” a nation that knows its history so it can better understand what must be done.