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New museum highlights continuing struggles of African Americans

Yona Helaoua

The first black president of the United States inaugurated on Saturday the first national museum dedicated to African-American history and culture while protests in Charlotte show that the country is far from a “post-racial” society.

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“The timing of this is fascinating,” President Barack Obama told the approximately 750 people gathered in the Grand Foyer of the White House to celebrate the opening of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

"My hope is that, as people are seeing what's happened in Tulsa or Charlotte on television, and perhaps are less familiar with not only the history of the African-American experience, but also how recent some of these challenges have been, upon visiting the museum may step back and say, 'I understand. I sympathise. I empathise. I see why folks might feel angry and I want to be part of the solution, as opposed to resisting change,’" Obama said at the inauguration.

Obama was referring to the protests that have consumed the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, over the past four days after the police shot and killed Keith Scott on Tuesday. This is just the most recent in a series of police shootings of black citizens that have been highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement has helped start a national discussion about police violence against minorities and racism in the USA.

Indeed, the Black Lives Matter movement has been chosen as the final exhibit at the new museum, highlighting the continuing struggle of African-Americans.

Obama’s presence at the museum opening makes a strong statement, according to historian Kellie Carter Jackson, a professor at City University New York who specialises in 18th and 19th century African-American history.

“I can’t think of anyone better placed than the first black president in the United States to mark this moment,” Carter Jackson said. “He represents what our ancestors hoped for. He represents progress.”

Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, has his own exhibit at the museum.
Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, has his own exhibit at the museum.

The museum

The building, designed by British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, is located just a stone’s throw from the White House. The imposing structure, with a surface area of 37,000 m2, houses a collection of more than 34,000 objects carefully collected and curated over the past 10 years.

The layout of the museum takes you chronologically through history. The exhibit starts with the slavery era (1619- 1865) at the underground level of the museum, to symbolise the hell of enslavement. Successive floors celebrate the diverse contributions of African-Americans to the country.

The museum, which offers free entry, cost $540 million to build and more than half of the funds came from private donations, many from leading African-American figures. Oprah Winfrey donated $21 million, internationally successful TV producer and writer Shonda Rhimes (of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal” fame) donated $10 million and basketball legend Michael Jordan donated $5 million.

American talk show host Oprah Winfrey has her own exhibit at the museum.
American talk show host Oprah Winfrey has her own exhibit at the museum.

“This museum is not just important for African-Americans, but for all Americans,” explained historian Carter Jackson. “This museum represents American history. Without the contribution of African-Americans, the United States would be a completely different country.”

Re-examining history

The museum, which has been in the works for over a decade, is also opening its doors at a time when the US is reexamining its legacy and past.

The Black Lives Matter movement has spread across cities and campuses, sparking debates about the history of many elite universities in the US, many of which were funded by benefactors who made their fortunes in the slave trade.

In early September, the president of Georgetown University made waves when he announced that the institution would take steps to face up to its past, including a formal apology to atone for its founders role in the slave trade.

“We are at a critical moment when our nation is debating our collective debt to families of slaves,” Richard Cellini, who is part of a group which identified and brought together some 600 descendents of the slaves sold by Georgetown University, said. “Twenty or thirty years ago, we weren’t having these conversations.”

For Cellini, the opening of the National Museum of African-American Culture and History is an encouraging step.

One part of the museum looks at the "Black Power" movement.
One part of the museum looks at the "Black Power" movement.

Historian Carter Jackson agrees. She says that this museum could help people understand the wide-ranging effects of slavery and how it functioned as a political and economic institution.

“I often have students who tell me that their ancestors didn’t own slaves,” Carter Jackson said. “But there were many other ways that white people benefitted indirectly from slavery. We need to discuss not only the harmful effects of slavery and segregation, but also the privileges that come with being white.”

For Carter Jackson, understanding this legacy is important to moving forward and reconciling with the past.

“There is a never-ending fight for equality for African-Americans,” she says. “But, in that, I don’t see anything more necessary and important than the opening of this museum”.

(This article has been translated from French, click here for the original)

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