Bravo! Bravo! Outstanding job by everyone involved. The hype around the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is legit. Still trying to figure out how I got lucky, I got a chance to visit last night. Not too long ago, my friend asked me if I wanted to go. This was followed up by my typical question, “Are you sure?” I needed to confirm that I understood exactly what he was asking. I have been well aware of how hot of a ticket this was, especially this soon after its opening. At this moment, the NMAAHC’s next available batch of free advanced timed entry passes is slotted for January – March. Right now as you read, the timed entry passes page is temporarily not available due to technical difficulties, I am assuming because of unusually high demand. Quite frankly, from the moment I heard that this museum got the green light, I had been actively pursuing employment or some other means to be part of the NMAAHC.
Having this trip was a perfect distraction for my still woeful days. I got picked up and we were on our way to meet the rest of the group for dinner before our timed entry. I forgot how vibrant DC could be, reminding me of why I want (must and need to make moves) to live in a city where there is comparable action. The streets were bustling with all sorts and energy as the people went about their way on a fantastic early fall day. It is not everywhere or everyday that you have a group of young street performers dancing feet away from a considerable high-end restaurant with wood paneled walls and hanging chandelier lights. Dinner was great with old and new friends and I grew more appreciative of having received this invitation. What had been a mesmeric, no need to look at time, hang with conversations about train rides in Peru, bioluminescence, training to become a sommelier and parenthood, became a very quiet hustle. Our entry time had crept upon us and in a short window of time; we still had a bill to take care of, restroom stops and the conversion of 3 cars of passengers to one for the drive up the street to the museum. Finding parking near the mall and the line became two other time taking tasks to factor in. By the time we pulled up on Constitution Ave, it looked like a swarm of people had descended upon the museum and it was decided that two of us should get out of the car and get in line while the other two found a place to park. Getting across the street was a bit of a dodgy adventure in the dark, but somehow we made it to the other side intact. On the corner, demanding its place in history was this gleaming, architectural feat wrapped in bronze lattice. Between the mass of people of all colors and ages, all with looks of being pleased, I was delighted to be standing in the midst of it all.
The parking gods were upon the two looking for parking and they soon joined us in the line. There was this invisible current as we all waited to get in the doors and inspected what we could from the outside. Our entry ran like a pretty well oiled machine. The museum attendant that was managing the queue stated that the attendance has been off the charts. Not to mention that we were reaping the rewards of this demand to be able to gain entry at the extended hour of 7:30 pm. Much like the cattle we were, we were eventually bunched into the doorway with the door closed behind us to enter the security line.
A quick scan of my purse and my person and I was through. We all stood there and looked up and around and behind and above, as if children lost in the woods trying to find our way by the stars. Immediately we felt overwhelmed and made our way to the information desk. The museum attendant was very kind and helpful. She stated that there was currently an hour and half wait to gain access to the floors below. Apologetically, she explained that this was no reflection on one floor being more impressive than the other; perhaps the obvious weight of “Slavery and Freedom,” and the allure of the Contemplative Court visible from outside, made them popular. We believed her enthusiasm and headed all the way to the top on the escalator. Up and down on both directions, I was surrounded by a synthesis of brown and coppery and alabaster faces ready to take it all in. Sadly the last escalator was not moving, making getting to the top a two-tiered relief. That was a universal, human struggle.
Level four is “Culture Galleries.” Behind a wall length of automatic opening glass doors, you are corralled into a semicircular exhibit “Cultural Expressions,” housed underneath a 360 degree moving projection, accompanied by sound. On the outskirts of the arc are the remaining exhibits, “Taking the Stage, Visual Arts and the American Experience and Musical Crossroads.” If you can manage to not stay solely hypnotized by the visual experience happening above your head, you will be equally if not more enthralled and engaged by the neighboring exhibits. I don’t know where to start with explaining how impressive this entire floor was to me and clearly by the other museum guests. This is such an immersive and educational experience, very thoughtfully created that I don’t dare begin to explain or describe it all. At best, I can only describe it with incoherent bullet points (with accompanying images above) and urge you to get tickets:
I should not have been as geeked out as I was over seeing a dress worn by the character Florida Evans from Good Times, or the video clip of the ever so popular Cosby Show, Gordan Gartrell episode.
Where else can you see The Holy Mothership belonging to Parliament-Funkadelic parked next to a full ensemble worn by one its illustrious members, Bootsy Collins?
The Jazz and Syncopated Instrumental section was full of amazing looks into the icons of the past, with videos of haunting voice of Billy Holiday, clothing and instruments from the greats, Miles Davis, Bird and Dizzy, Max Roach and Elvin Jones.
I completely fell into a hole of nostalgia in the back of the “Musical Crossroads” section. The designers are geniuses. They recreated the feeling of going back to the record store and flipping for the newest vinyl. They also created this live, automated jukebox that spanned the genre that the guests controlled. Of course everyone knew the lyrics to Biggie and had a hand in the air and waved it liked they just didn’t care. Did I mention that they had an eye patch that belonged to Slick Rick “the Ruler.”
Lena Horne. Class epitomized. Among the many faces, in the room, I recalled a vivid memory I had with a new friend of the same generation. Many moons ago, Lena Horne was a guest on Sesame Street and she sang, “It’s Not Easy Being Green,” to Kermit the Frog. I always remembered how tender she was to this little guy and how moved I was; that’s when I fell in awe of her beautiful sprit.
Needless to say, the “Visual Arts and the American Experience,” exhibit got my goat. This was my world. Not to mention that it was obvious that the curators took real time and effort to bridge the gap between my contemporaries and the greats in the art history books. I not only had the privilege to see work by two contemporary artists that I know, Amy Sherald and Jefferson Pinder, but they were hung in the same gallery as Robert S. Duncanson, Hughie Lee-Smith and Alma Thomas.
Putting eyes on personal items such as the Passport of James Baldwin humanized many of icons whose work I appreciate and admire. They were and are people like me, with feet on the ground.
The most prolific thing was in an exhibit room about Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Council of Negro Women in Washington, D.C. A large wooden table with chairs overtook the room. This table was for guests and was a place (Issue on the Table) where people were invited to write their answer to the following questions on a postcard that could be on display at a later date: What is an issue that matters to you today? (My issue is…) and what changes are needed to address this issue? (I propose that…) Reading the postcards already on display was a heartbreaking window into reality. Without knowing what other guests had written, most of the cards addressed the same issues and concerns, which have no clear resolution in sight.
For the record, even though the entry is timed and we were told that we had until 10:00 pm, it is impossible to have enough time on a good day to see one tenth of the NMAAHC. After a while, you concede to that fact. At least an hour on level four was spent before we headed down a flight. Level three: Community Galleries included, “Making a Way Of No Way, Sports: Leveling the Playing Field, Power of Place, and Double Victory: The African American Military Experience.” Overall, my experience left me humbled, inspired about my own contributions and perhaps leaving with more questions than when I entered. Either way, this visit to NMAAHC had enough of a clutch on me that I had to output the input within 24 hours. In the end, I know that no matter what people say or want us to believe, especially in what is a tumultuous time, I am somebody because of all the somebodies that came before me. This country is what it is, in all of its glory, because of these somebodies and it something that everyone can appreciate and learn from no matter who they are, or what color they are and what they have already been taught. Please take the time and find a way. In the meantime, I have to figure out how to get the Grahams in there, and let them take their rightful place on the wall for the pioneers that they were.