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Somewhere Beyond Suffering

Reflections on The Museum of African American History and Culture

Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African American History and Culture Architectural Photrography

On my most recent visit to the African American Museum of History and Culture, which is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of Black life, history and culture, I wandered through the main halls of the museum. For anyone who has not had the opportunity to visit it, I will say that it is immense, wondrous and overwhelming. Almost every inch of the building is dedicated to some historical fact or homage to Black culture. For instance the cafeteria walls are covered with black and white stills of the lunch counter sit ins with quotes beneath the pictures. But I digress. I walked through the halls and tried to concentrate on what I was feeling. Besides feeling overwhelmed, I felt a sense of melancholy. And even for a second I had thought: should they have done this? Is this right?

It was that thought that led me to begin to dig into thick of those feelings. I silently chastised myself for even having the thought. Isn’t this what we wanted? Didn’t we want our history and culture to be acknowledged, celebrated and recognized as being interwoven into the American story?

This Museum will tell the American story through the lens of African American history and culture. This is America’s Story and this museum is for all Americans

– Lonnie G. Bunch III, Founding Director NMAAHC

Black Pain and Suffering

What I realized was that seeing the tangible records of our suffering and pain made me feel exposed. I felt stripped bare and the thought (and sight) of all these people White, Black and otherwise all walking around seeing my legacy, my inheritance, my pains, my struggles, my joys made me feel almost like something was being taken from me. For so long we, as Black people, have been the only ones to understand the complex, twisted and contradictory nuances of our history and culture. And we have always selectively shared those memories, thoughts and feelings. And here they are plastered all over the walls of a public national building where any and every can come and see them as they pleased. Black people have come to enjoy a certain amount of mystery and exclusivity to the Black experience. For so long it has been something that you would have to be Black to know and understand. Every Black person doesn’t have all of the same experiences be understand those variances in a very intimate way and now we will have to share them with the world. Not a bad thing, but a new thing. And honestly it was jarring.

Black Identity

I stopped touring the exhibits and made my way to the cafeteria determined to sit down and process my feelings and the strange revelations that they were bringing upon me. And this damned melancholy that wouldn’t let me go. Make no mistake the entire museum is not a requiem of Black pain and suffering. There are entire exhibitions for Black comedy, film, music and a myriad of not so painful topics but the melancholy plagued me still. Then it came to me. Black identity is so rooted in our pain, suffering an struggle that this idea of celebration with non-Black people felt so strange. I began to see how deeply pain, suffering, struggle and resistance is tied to the Black identity. 85-90% of anything that encapsulates Black identity is about resistance and struggle. We have had to defend, validate and assert ourselves so much that it’s a part of who we are. That is where the stereotypes of “the angry Black man” or “the angry Black woman” have come to be. That is where the notion of Black sassiness has prevailed. We have struggled with and against such stereotypes and notions. But the truth is, we are not sure what to put in its place. Who will we be without our pain? Who will we be without our struggle? In that moment I understood that we in our deeper planning and strategizing we have gone about this the wrong way. We have been so focused on the battle that we have not considered success. With all of the set backs from the innovations of oppression we have become so consumed with fighting that we have no idea what we will do with a win.

The Problem

We, as Black people, have learned to fight. We have learned to struggle. We have learned to endure. But we have not learned how to win. We have not figured out what we will do the day after the revolution achieves victory. It’s evidenced in the Civil Rights Movement. We made so much progress and when we began to gain ground and to see America bend, we were so confused we didn’t have. proper plan for what happens the day after the revolution is won. All we have figured out is when and how to fight but what happens when we win. When we have concluded the enemy, then what? For most theories and plans it only considers that there will be a new enemy with more opposition and we will figure out how to fight it. But what about the day when we have truly succeeded and there is no more fight, there is no more enemy? What will we do then?

The Black Lives Matter movement is so majestic and mesmerizing because they gained so much ground not counting on a win. But they won. And there was nothing for that part. They took some time and put together their plan of demands for change but they developed that after their win. They had not expected a win. The only thing we have mastered is battle strategy. We have no idea what to do with a win. I recall how towards the end, before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated he began to ask this question and he likened it to having led Black people into a burning building because he had not considered that America, itself, had troubles. And when the issues of inequality were conquered we (Black people) would have to figure out how to engage the rest of the world who had been progressing while we were fighting the oppression that hindered our progression. We didn’t think about how we would make up that disparity of development. So just like Dr. King realized that, with the end of segregation, we would be integrating into a burning building. We are again at the point that we are making progress and with that progress we are going to enter into a world that we do not understand and that we are decades behind in learning how to deal with.

The Point

The point is that along with all of our struggling and fighting; while we are figuring out how to defeat the enemy, we had better be banking on a win and figuring out what happens after we have conquered the enemy. There has to be as much thought to that as we put into how to battle racism, discrimination and oppression. we need to have minds and theories about what we will do with the victory. Because America will not wait for us to figure it out. If we do not create ourselves, America will do it for us. They don’t wait indefinitely. They want to know who you are and if you are not ready to tell them, they will assume. So we have to be ready to tell the world who we are. If we are going to demand that they deal with us, the least we can do is provide them with the definition of who we are. That definition cannot be tied to our struggle because the struggle will be over. So then what? We better be ready to define ourselves outside of the struggle or we will find ourselves in one perpetually.

I’m not just sayin; I’m just sayin,

An Angry Black Man

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