The Museum of African American History

By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
January 08, 2019

“The past is all that makes the present coherent.”

— James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

Dr. Selwyn R. CudjoeIt was a rainy afternoon in Washington D.C., the Friday after Christmas, when I paid a chance visit to the National Museum of African American History & Culture. I had heard so much about this fantastic museum and the attention it has drawn throughout the U.S. (United States) that I did not expect to get a ticket to explore its wonders. I took my chances and was lucky to enter its gates. I didn’t regret it. It was one of the most impressive museums I have ever seen.

It is fitting that a museum that celebrates the black experience in the U.S. should be placed on the National Mall adjacent to the Washington Monument and the White House. Lonnie G. Bunch III, the Founding Director of the Museum, says it “is not only a place that honors the nation’s legacies of freedom and equality but also one that helps Americans to remember. By remembering, we stimulate a dialogue about race in America and help to foster a spirit of reconciliation and healing.”

The museum takes a chronological look at African American history from fifteenth-century West Africa and Europe into the U.S. of the twenty-first century. This chronology is divided into three periods: from slavery to freedom, from institutionalized segregation through the Civil Rights Movement, and the struggle to redefine the U.S. since 1968.

I saw only the first part of the collection, “The Journey from Freedom,” in the David M. Rubenstein History Gallery. It announced that in the 14th century slavery was not based on the perception of race, a point that Dr. Eric Williams makes in Capitalism and Slavery. It says that many of our forebears were brought from “a state of innocence and freedom, in a barbarous and cruel manner, and conveyed into the state of horror and slavery.”

It noted that the Transatlantic Slave Trade that brought many of us to the New World was “the largest forced migration of people in world history. Profits from the sale of enslaved humans and their labor laid the economic foundation for Western Europe, the Caribbean and the Americas.” The 20 million pounds the British paid to the planters to free their human cargo is worth about 2.4 billion U.S. dollars in today’s currency.

This gallery gives a special place to Toussaint Louverture who led the Haitian revolution (1791-1804) that set in motion the liberation of enslaved people during the 18th century. C. L. R. James has written about the Haitian struggle (1791-1804) in The Black Jacobins.

The collection inscription says: “Toussaint Louverture said that he was ‘born a Slave, but nature gave (him) the soul of a free man.’ Throughout his life he fought for freedom….Well educated, he could speak both French and Kreyol. During the Haitian Revolution he used his military, political and economic knowledge to govern his country.”

The collection also reminded us about the importance the Rafa Drum played during the revolution. Imbued with a powerful life force, it was “a sacred instrument used in vodou ceremonies. Drummers play rhythms to call specific Iwa, or ancestral spirits, who aid in the struggles of daily life. Drumming was associated with Slave rebellions across the Americas and whites banned both drums and ceremonies.”

African Americans are central to the American experience. Not only did they (together with Africans from the New World) lay the foundation for the economic development of Europe, they also built the first buildings in which the U.S. cradled its democracy. “Enslaved African Americans, leased out by their Slave owners, mined sandstone from local quaries and built the United States Capitol, the White House, and the Smithsonian Castle. Congress, the people’s institution that guarded the people’s freedom, held sessions in a building constructed by forced labor. Americans witnessed the daily march of shackled Slaves sold South in the capital city.”

One is not sure how the present occupant of the White House feels about the enslaved people who built the house that he inhabits and the Capitol in which he exercises his power, but we know he luxuriates in the comforts they provide. It takes a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture to understand how Americans of all hues are indebted to black Americans.

No one who enjoys democratic freedoms in these Americas should miss the lessons to be learned from the 34,000 items in this collection or even the magnificent structure (selected as the Beazley Design of the Year 2017) of which Ghanaian David Adjaye was the lead designer and Philip Freelon was the lead architect. Even this physical structure melds into this archetypal story of the African freedom movement.

No one should miss this wonderful display of human ingenuity and persistence that took close to one hundred years to see the light of day. It started in 1917 when African American Civil War veterans sought to establish a memorial building on the National Mall “to commemorate the men and women of our Race whose deeds entitle them to honorable mention.”

This collection embodies everything these veterans hoped for and reminds us of our people’s unquenchable desire to build a better world.

3 Responses to “The Museum of African American History”


  • When one reads the collection of articles that Selwyn Cudjoe has written, one sees a clear underlying philosophy of history that guides his thought. I will try to outline what, in my opinion, is that philosophy of history. His article on the Museum of African American History is a good launching pad for that exploration. Selwyn Cudjoe has written extensively on C.LR. James, so he would know C.L.R. James’s analysis of Hegel’s philosophy of history, which is considered by scholars to be an original and profound analysis of Hegel’s thought. Central to Hegel’s philosophy of history is his analysis of the master/slave relationship; it is the driving force of history and exemplifies the dialectical nature of history. Thesis generates anti-thesis which generates synthesis. It is this process which ensures the movement towards freedom. Hegel’s history is thus progressive, it moves towards freedom. As Hegel puts it, first One is free, then Some are free, then All are free. It is this dialectic that characterizes various stages in human history and civilization. History is therefore characterized by a quest for power and domination, the need for what Hegel calls “recognition”, but that same quest for recognition engenders dependence on the one who has been dominated, that is the anti-thesis, then the synthesis – a relationship where the “other” gains recognition. So the master conquers because of the desire for recognition, becomes dependent on that recognition by the slave and eventually both master and slave gain a mutuality of recognition, thus history moves towards freedom. History is therefore like a gayelle where actors face off and in a struggle for mastery, through blood, sweat and tears, eventually come to respect each other. For Selwyn Cudjoe, “the history of society flows like a river, each group pours into that river its own experience to enrichen that mix called nation-building” There is no struggle in that history, no countering, no opposition. The master pours his experience, the slave pours his experience – no dialectical opposition. Nothing is questioned, the master’s actions and experience is as acceptable as the slave’s. All things are equivalent. There is no movement in history except a kind of conglomeration. Everything conglomerates. In the end, there is no concept of justice since there is no right and wrong. The master’s act of enslaving is equivalent to the slave’s enslavement. It is a kind of theory that’s great for black intellectuals who can move ahead in life by excusing the powers that be and providing them with cover. It is a how to manual for black intellectuals wanting to move ahead in a world that wants to cover over truth. And it shows why, for those genuinely wanting reconciliation, truth always goes with reconciliation.

  • As I read of the two brothers executed in PTown this morning.. One can only think of the journey their forefathers made to Trinidad.. Their journey is very much a part of that African American story.. They say that killings go up under a PNM government.. when one read of these senseless murders, you must wonder if it’s orchestrated…

    Anyway.. The Merikins of Trinidad.. Much Thanks to the former US Ambassador..

    https://youtu.be/BXg4me8GLdw

  • A people must remember and preserve their history. Thankfully today a lot of history can be preserved electronically. It is hard to believe sixty years ago you had signs such as “whites only”, “seating for white people”, “all coloureds to the back of the bus”.

    Segregation was indeed a painful part of African American history. It was Dr. King whose determination change all of that. His speech stirred the fire of resistance “judge not by the color of skin but by the content of character”. To forget that part of history is to live in a world whilst ignoring your foundation. As painful as that may be. We all did not just happened, our ancestors bear the load that we may have a better life.

    The most dangerous part of our existence is to live with self hate and that is what slavery did. It took away the self identity and replaced it with another. Which explains the “lostness” within black youths. The broken homes is a cyclical phenomenon that continues to destroy young lives.

    Every year in October or January I look at the Ghandi movie to remind me of the struggle against the yolk of the oppressor. Gandhi set the tone for resistance to injustice that changed the world. Would love to visit that museum!

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