Aching for Home: On Creating Spaces for Blackness in America at NMAAHC
“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” -Maya Angelou, "All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes"
Boldly embossed on a gallery wall of the third floor, Maya Angelou's words are some of the last you encounter at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The quote hangs over the heads of the visitors like a hopeful coda, illustrating this sense of "home" that visitors have arrived at in their journey through the floors of African American history, and speaking indeed to the place of home that has been forged with this museum.
I was lucky enough to read Maya Angelou's words for myself this weekend, after the Grand Opening dedication ceremony. I joined the 28,000 visitors who gathered together to see the opening of the museum and to hear President Obama address a nation with the hope that this museum would "bind us together, and reaffirm[s] we are all Americans."
Alongside his wife, Michelle—the first black woman to be the First Lady of the United States—and Ruth Bonner—the 99-year-old daughter of a man born a slave—President Obama rang the Freedom Bell and called African Americans home.
Responding to the aching for home rooted in the African American spirit, Founding Director Lonni Bunch and his staff at the Smithsonian Institute have created a landmark space for the expression of the African American experience. Curated from more than 36,000 artifacts, dozens of films, and an entire floor of interactive experiences, the stories housed within the walls of NMAAHC are truly sourced from a community desiring to make a home on the front lawn of America.
Standing magnificently in the shadow of the National Monument, with the Lincoln Memorial to the west and the White House to the north, the NMAAHC rests as the 19th and final museum to open on the National Mall. As the only non-marble, nontraditional (read: not Greco-Roman) construction on the Mall, even the architecture demonstrates the museum's dedication to making tribute to color, with bronze-colored metal lattice work in the style of Yoruba art of West Africa, and a long, wide front porch at the front of the museum, welcoming visitors with a nod to traditional African architecture from the African Diaspora.
In its architecture and sacred curatorial contents, NMAAHC shows us the enduring fight for the human dignity of blacks in America. As an integral and inseparable keystone of American identity, African American history and culture finally have a physical space carved out for their own. NMAAHC is most decidedly a project of national identity to amplify black voices and to create a home for black Americans.
How, then, do you begin to tell the story of the black experience in America?
It's best to explore one story at a time.
Explore More Gallery: The Green Book
In my behind-the-scenes weekend at NMAAHC, I was able to view the soon-to-be-opened second floor of the museum, the Explore More Gallery. Among many interactive experiences, one stood out to me as a significant piece in understanding African American life and the struggle to find safe spaces to be black.
In a time black bodies are under attack in public spaces, when black people are killed simply for being black— for complying with the police, carrying a book, opening their front door, grocery shopping, for having a flat tire—now more than ever it is imperative to create safe spaces for black people in America. If only there were a guidebook for safe spaces for people of color to exist. In 1930s America, such a book existed, and it saved countless lives. Its legacy lives in NMAAHC in an interactive experience, called The Green Book.
The Green Book interactive is based on the experience of using the historical Negro Motorist Green Book, the enduring guide and testament to the dangers of traveling as a black person in predominantly white, dangerously segregated America. Beginning as a travel guidebook for nonwhite travelers to avoid businesses that didn't serve blacks, the guide developed into an elaborate and personalized handbook, passed on to others, to help their travels not only be safer but to ensure that blacks were traveling to supportive and allied communities.
The Green Book became an iconic, evolving document that was passed hand to hand in the black community, being renewed annually and enduring for decades until its purpose became (supposedly) obsolete with the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
This particular installation in the Explore More Gallery, called The Green Book, allows museumgoers to chart their course through the American South to visit Grandma, using the historical Green Book guide as their reference. By making choices of what to pack, where to stop, and when or how to ask for help, visitors are privy to realistic consequences and outcomes of traveling as a black person in America. In a time when stopping at the wrong gas station could mean death, The Green Book interactive serves as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure for a person of color seeking safe spaces during travel, creating an understanding of the social landscape and social obstacles faced by black Americans before the Civil Rights Act.
In the restored 1949 Buick Roadster, the windshield uses a 4K projector to show the film, and the dashboard has three HD touchscreen monitors to interact with the film. Combined together, the interactive film experience is state-of-the-art with a vintage feel. Archival images and original film work together to create a sense of being in 1940's America. The user sits before the steering wheel of the car and screens, acting as the driver on a journey away from home to see Grandma. Through the film and composited images, the user interacts with people along the way who offer advice for their journey or tell them to stay clear of their establishment.
This gallery installation resonates sharply today as people of color continue to struggle to find safe spaces, have safe journeys, and make their way home. This is merely one of many interactive experiences that allow visitors to see through the eyes of black Americans. There is an entire floor devoted to interactive experiences that has not been unveiled yet in the Grand Opening. The museum expects to unveil this floor within the week.
At the intersection of African American history and living culture exists countless stories of a people's journey. The National Museum of African American History and Culture has curated for the world these stories to tell the experience of blackness of America. These stories, The Green Book and its wary travelers among them, inform our collective memory and create an enduring national portrait to help us understand what it means to feel unsafe and without a home in one's own country. It has been a long, lonely road, but maybe home has been found at last.