Dom Flemons Opens Up About the National Museum of African American History and Culture
inBlack History Monthon February 1, 2017
For this year’s Black History Month I have decided to write about what I feel is one of the boldest institutions celebrating Black History in America at this time: The National Museum of African American History and Culture.
On September 24, 2015, the museum, a project started one hundred years ago when African American Veterans from the Union Army got together at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church to find a way to celebrate the contributions to the culture and the history of the United States.
I had the great fortune to represent at the opening ceremonies playing the folk songs of my musical ancestors. It was a true honor to play on the Gil Scott-Heron stage facing the Washington Monument directly. I tried my best to play every note up into the air. It was my hope that each one would hit the top of the needle so that it could spread across the National Mall in all its glory!
I was humbled by the chance to participate but I was not ready for what awaited inside the museum itself. There are more than enough people who have spoken about the contributions of African American people in the United States. We have heard the pain of displacement, the indignities of slavery, the utter turmoil of Reconstruction and the long road that led us through two World Wars, the March on Washington, Black Power and finally the 21st century with our first African American President, but the museum is something different.
These stories I mention have been lived. The history has been told in the faces, the words and the actions of all the generations leading to modern times. African American culture has relied heavily on the transmission of culture orally through the direct passing of information from one person to another. While this has sustained the culture internally, a fully tangible representation of this entire history, artfully crafted and curated, has been long overdue.
I found myself, a historian, completely in awe of this history or as the museum describes it, “A People’s Journey”. For the first time, I found that the history that I and the many who have come before me fought for, made it. The history is preserved. The continuation of African American culture is no longer a struggle to legitimize the history, it is now the measuring stick in which we can measure that legitimacy.
Being of mixed race, I see the power in this museum. It creates a space to elevate people of color, any color. The African American story is unique to the African American people but it is not unique to the American people. Every ethnic group has a story about their struggles represented. Mexicans, Chinese, Jews, Muslims and races considered “white”, Italians, Polish, German all have their story.
What is unique about African Americans is that this group of people are forever interwoven into the fabric of our country and have been since day one.
I could go on about the actual artifacts. Nate Turner’s bible, Harriet Tubman’s shawl, Scott Joplin’s piano, Paraliment-Funkadelic’s Mothership, a portrait of the 1992 NBA Dream Team, Jack Johnson’s boxing glove, a gallery of the tens of thousands of veterans who have served our country since the Revolutionary War but I’ll let you look those things up.
For me, to be able to see the Carolina Chocolate Drops
, a group I formed in 2005, up on the wall along with the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Chuck Berry and Hiram Reynolds, I realized that all the work I had done in my short time was all worth it. I made it. They made it. We all made it.
I will conclude by mentioning an observation that I made that made me smile. There were a LOT of families at the museum. A LOT of wheelchairs. But my observation was not the wheelchairs but the elders who were sat in them. To listen, to the side conversations of grandparents and great-grandparents telling their descendants about their days in the Segregated Pullman Train Cars, the old Emancipation Day Holiday, the reasons they left the South in their youth, the impact of Emmett Till’s murder. Like musical therapy, the museum was creating historical therapy. These elders were reliving something that many up to that could not have described before either out fear or design or some other obstacle that they may have faced along the way.
But it was not only them that had an epiphany, it was everyone in the museum. The Museum has been open for only a short period of time. I recommend visiting it. Learn more about the NAAMCH here – https://nmaahc.si.edu/
Happy Black History Month!
The American Songster