NMAAHC: On Oprah's Comment That This Museum Will Heal Our People

Vista of the Museum from Constitution Avenue, looking across the north lawn to the Washington Monument. Photo credit: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHCcaption
When the six-month backlog of free visitors passes have ended and all the novelty of having toured the National Museum of African American History and Culture has dimmed, perhaps my family with go there. Maybe by then I'll be able to manage that painful tour.

Oprah Winfrey's uttered narrative identifier of the museum as a source of pride and healing thing for us is something I don't entirely agree with.

I had pride in myself before  the idea of this museum even existed. So the museum as a pride tool doesn't hold true for me at least. I can't and don't speak for every member of our race in our country. Understand that this is me, Afro-Latina first person singular. I was raised by many mentors to internalize that pride in a period of our history when James Brown could be heard any day on the radio singing Say It Loud. I'm Black and I'm Proud, Aretha sang R.E.S.P.E.C.T, and Sidney Poitier delivered an onscreen slap to a bigot heard round the world. I marinaded in the Blues as the physical and emotional therapy for the suffering of our race and Gil Scott Heron's spoken word shout Johannesburg gave me hope that freedom was going to be a global state for our people.  It was a self-worth that predated a building with carefully curated items. It was a time and environment without which I could not have survived events in my life to this age with this degree of inner peace and happiness. So while the museum now might contribute to instilling pride in future generations and in others who perhaps had no understanding of our history or what we have overcome, for many of us, it is not a magic bullet of pride.

To me, this museum is a symbol of demand for the affirmation of our existence as human beings and American Citizens who helped to make this nation great and therefore have a right to be treated as equals in it.

"A photograph of Frank Campbell, one of 272 slaves sold to keep Georgetown
University afloat, was found in a scrapbook at Nicholls State
University in Louisiana.The children with Mr. Campbell are unidentified. "
Credit William Widmer for The New York Times
I am Black, specifically Afro-Latina and raised around an Afro-Indigenous grandmother and three generations of African American women, one of whom remembered her parents in bondage. My Black experience is not the Black experience of an American daughter of refugees from East Africa. It is not the experience of a woman who just learned the awful reason her family practiced Catholicism in their Southern state surrounded by AME churches was because their ancestor had been sold into slavery as a child by the Jesuit priests of Georgetown University who first taught him to be Catholic and then taught him he was beneath them, chattel to be sold to educate white students for free.

We are all African American, but within our community, we are diverse in cultural heritage, beliefs, gender identity, ability, philosophy and most important, in how we experience the legacy of the melanin in our own skins and how our Black bodies navigate within our myriad environments.

Example.

I had a friend from the south side of Chicago, and she was rightfully proud of herself for having survived the streets and achieved a masters degree in counseling and social work. Her husband,  a military police officer who was ten years older, hadn't met me yet. She had arranged to meet him at my office on a military base so we could all take a lunch break together one day. She wanted to show me something, certain I'd be as surprised and shocked by it as she had been.

"Show her your hands, honey," she said to her husband. Smiling patiently at his wife, the master sergeant and Vietnam veteran showed me the backs of his hands. On skin that should have been as smooth and dark as black silk, a web of old, deep, raised scars left discolored highways on the backs of both his hands. "Cotton," I answered quietly. "You were made to pick cotton by hand." "Sharecropping," he said, nodding his head in acknowledgment.  We hugged, and my friend from the South side of Chicago, who had never seen cotton picking scars before and had no idea that in that day and age our people were still picking cotton and starving, or what sharecropping meant, stared at me in wonderment. "No mystery," I said sadly."Some of my elders have those scars too." She told me she had reassessed her definition of a rough life after listening to the story of the life her husband had. But the three of us are African American, in the same space, abiding in three different realities of being Black in America.

We are not a monolithic race, therefore our lived experiences are such that combining them under a single roof would be difficult at best.

There is a qualitative difference between affirmation, visibility, countering erasure, and being an object of healing.

This museum's exhibits reemphasize the reality of how many African American people came here against their will. This is not healing. It is excruciatingly painful. The unsolved murder of Emmett Till, the evidence of what he suffered before he died, standing in line to view his original casket, is not healing. The triumphs of what we have achieved as a race in times when we succeeded despite the threat of horrible harm and death only serve to remind us that we are still Black bodies at risk. The environments have changed, the tools of assault are more sophisticated. The fact that the main narrative has not significantly changed embodied in the inclusion of items from the Freddie Gray protests is painful, not healing.

Taking my offspring there won't heal them or me. The scars of racism are permanently branded on my black body, crying witness in broken bone an awkward gait, faded burns and disjointed patterns of discolored scars on my dark skin. The dress that Lupita Nyong'o wore when portraying an abused slave isn't going to heal them. Parliament Funkadelic's mothership might make me smile but it won't heal me.

Objects that tear scabs off the wounds of our people cause pain, they don't heal. While it may be good to have our children see how far we've come despite the massive odds against us, it is incorrect to say that this museum is here to heal us.

I feel Ms. Winfrey has again displayed how disconnected she appears to be from the rest of us, who she champions in her own way and very much at her self-congratulatory leisure.

If healing is embodied in celebrity, then healing is Alicia Keys, engaging in brief revolt to find herself before the crushing pressure of a cosmetic industry fearing a trend away from makeup shut her voice down. In that moment the industry that profits from promoting the black body as lacking could not have a celebrity demonstrating to women of color that unadorned we are beautiful. Healing is Beyoncé quietly  posting bail for every activist arrested during the Freddie Gray protests, not caring what anyone else thinks about how she turned the fetishizing of Black women by just about everyone into a career that none can gainsay. Quietly paying bail en-masse to get our youth exercising their right to peaceful protest out of prison and back to the front lines of civil disobedience requires putting your finances where your rhetoric is. It requires tremendous courage as it demands Beyoncé push herself outside the realm of objectified fetish and into demanding her right viewed as a three-dimensional African American femme who understands her racial peers suffering is the united suffering of us all.

While I appreciate Mr. Winfrey's large financial and administrative contributions in the creation and opening of this museum, I don't appreciate the misdirection and attempt to control the narrative of what it is supposed to stand for, what it means to me and mine, and what it will accomplish for our diverse, varied, African American identifying people.

In fact, no one has the right to usurp that experience by making themselves the interpreters of our pain or pride. That is our individual right alone.

Resources:
A Glimspe into the life of a Slave Sold to fund Georgetown University
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/12/us/georgetown-university-slaves-life-campbell.html
Jay Z and Beyoncé bailed out protesters in Baltimore and Ferguson, activist says https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/may/18/jay-z-beyonce-baltimore-ferguson-protests-bail-money
Oprah's Interview on the National Museum of African American History
https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/an-interview-with-oprah-winfrey-i-come-as-one-but-i-stand-as-10000/2016/09/14/25f34b94-4a11-11e6-bdb9-701687974517_story.html?utm_term=.958f45148686

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Bravery Tapes of Jens Erik Gould

AP Stylebook: On Writing As Activism

Answer The Question