“This building will sing for all of us”: The National Museum for African American History and Culture

It took almost a hundred year to create The National Museum for African American History and Culture. The initatives began in 1915, when a group of veterans from the Union Army gathered for a memorial ceremony and parade. Frustrated by the racial discrimination they were still facing, they decided to form a committee for a memorial monument over African Amerian achievements and accomplishments. And they did have som success: In 1929 president Hoover appointed a commission for “a National Memorial Building showcasing African American achievements in arts and sciences”. And then nothing happen. For decades all attempts to get funding from congress fell through. Despite renewed efforts in the 70ies, no bill ever mananged to get enough support to pass. Funding was always the issue, or the excuse. It wasn’t until 2003 that congress approved of an expense of 17 million dollars for the planning of the museum.

Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup won the design competition and set out to create it. The architecture is inspired from all of Africa, and from the rich history of African American culture all over the US, “reflecting optimism, spirituality, and joy, but also acknowledging and incorporating the ‘dark corners'”, as the instructions for the design competition stated it. The corona is inspired by the three-tiered crowns used in Yoruban art from West Africa. By wrapping the entire building in an ornamental bronze-colored metal lattice, Adjaye pays homage to the intricate ironwork crafted by enslaved African Americans in Louisiana, South Carolina, and elsewhere. The openness to light is symbolic for a museum that seeks to stimulate open dialogue about race and help promote reconciliation and healing. From the topmost corona, the view reaches ever upward, reminding visitors the Museum is an inspiration, open to all as a place of meaning, memory, reflection, laughter, and hope. This design is also architecturally practical and sustainable. This building is the first museum on the Mall designed to sustainability standards, serving as the Smithsonian’s ‘Green Flag.’ In 2018, the museum was officially awarded LEED Gold Certification. All this according to the webpage of the museum.

Mixed facts: Oprah Winfrey donated som 21 millions to the project. The museum opened in september 2016. Last year, some 2.4 million visitors passed through its doors. This year, by August, it had had 1.7 million visitors.

“We’ve got to tell the unvarnished truth” – John Hope Franklin
The historical exhibition begins three floors or some twenty metres underground. In the elevator the years are counting down as you descend, as you travel backward in town towards the 15th century and the start of modern slavery and the North Atlantic slave trade. This was the first time in history that slavery was permanent, inherited and linked to the colour of your skin. At this point, the exhibition follows to parallell threads: changes within European nations that led to them to slave trade, and how different African kingdoms and cultures resisted it. It tells, amongst others, the story of the brillian queen Nzinga, and about the Igbo-people, who was particularly intense in their resistance. Many of them committed suicide rather than live in slavery, and they called it “to fly home.”

“If one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it” – Elizabeth Freeman
One of the things I appreciated most about all the exhibitions was the intense focus on agency and resistance: it did tell the unvarnished truth, but that story also contains the many and varied strategies adopted by African American individuals, organizations and communities. One of them was Elizabeth Freeman, the first person to file and win a freedom suit in Massachussets. Her suit, Brom and Beth vs. Ashley in 1718, effectively ended slavery in the state.

“I am pleased that God made my skin black, but I whish He had made in thicker” – Curt Flood
After three floors of chronological history, the museum instead chooses a thematic approach to showcase African American achievements within music, entertainment, the stage and sport.

The metro

So today I used the metro in DC for the very first time. I’m telling you this because a, my friend has lived here for two years and still haven’t used in and b, using public transportation always make me feel like I’m independent and a part of the city I’m visiting. I even used it in morning rush hour, so I stood with the commuting people and tried my best to blend in and look like I knew what I was doing.

All went well, except I didn’t really understand how I bought the metro card. And then my credit card didn’t work. And I had no idea which station to get off at. But you know. An independent woman about town.

The passive aggressive history of the Arlington Cemetary

I’ve googled this a bit more, and now I’m fascinated by the passive aggressive background of the Arlington Cemetary.

So until the Civil war the majority of the military personnel who died in battle close to DC was buried either at the United States Soldiers’ Cemetary in DC or the Alexandria Cemetary in Alexandria, Virginia. But at the end of 1863 they were both full. So the Congress passed legislation authorazing the purchase of more land for a new cemetary, and the military’s eye fell on Arlington House.

Arlington House was built in the beginning of the 19th century by George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington and adopted son of George Washington. He bought the land in 1802 and began the construction of Arlington House, named after the village in England where he was from. At his death, the estate passed to his daughter Mary Anna, and Mary Anna was married to Robert E. Lee.

When Virginia seceded from the union, Robert E. Lee took command of the armed forces of the Commonwealth of Virginia. For a while the militia occupied the high ground of Arlington, but this left the capital of the Union in an untenable position. Mary Anna was sure that federal soldiers would soon recapture Arlington House. So she buried the family treasures in the garden and left for her sister in Fairfax County, Virginia.

And recapture it the federal army did, and the war continued, and more soldiers died, and the army was given the task of finding suitable land for a new cemetary. The arguments in favor of Arlington were several: it had a view of District of Columbia, was aesthetically pleasing, and placed on high grounds, which reduced the risk of flooding unearthing the buried bodies. And perhaps most importantly: it would deny Robert E. Lee the use of his home after the end of the war.

What better way to honor the fallen soldiers than to passive aggressively bury them in the backyard of your enemy?

Known but to God

If I had set out to plan a monument over the relentless suffering and inherent meaninglessness of war, I could not have devised a better way to show it than the endless rows of exactly similar small white gravestones of Arlington Cemetaries.

The first thought that enter your head is the sheer scale of the madness: almost half a million people are buried here. The second thought, how the wars never end. They just begin a new section, spreading from the Civil war to the First World War to the Second World War to Korea and Vietnam and Afghanistan and Iraq, adding new white tombstones as time pass by. The third: how anonymous the soldiers honoured here feels. And yet I think people come to Arlington Cemetary and think instead of the greatness of the military, which is perhaps most crazy of all.

While I walked underneath the oak trees, looking out over more small white tombstones, reading the name of a private or a sergeant every now and then, I wondered what it would be like to be buried here, one of a half a million people, being for ever defined by the war that killed you. On the other hand, at least you’d rest among people who knew exactly what you went through, instead of being for ever surrounded by clueless civlians.

I have always been moved by the monuments for the Unknown Soldier. During the First World War, British Reverend David Railton saw a simple grave on the western front, marked only by a rough cross with the pencil-written “An Unknown British Soldier”. The idea of a monument for the tens of thousands of soldiers who died unidentified spread across the world. In the Uk, “The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior” was created at Westminister Abbey, and in France “La Tombe du soldat inconnu” was placed at the Arc de Triomphe.

And in the US, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier resides at the Arlington Cemetary. The inscription: Known but to God.

Busboys and poets

So, the place where I would write if I lived in DC: Busboys and poets. It also sailed straight to the top of my Favourite bookshops in DC-list.

I love how political everyone is in DC. Yes, yes, I know, it seems obvious, but I don’t mean political in the sense of “I work for a federal agency” or even “On the Hill”. I mean political as in “the revolution and resistance is being plotted as we speak”. This is especially true at Busboys and poets.

The first books you see when you enter the combined bookshop/poetry scene/café/restaurant/bar is: Fascism – A Warning, by Madeleine Albright, Fear (of course), What Truth Sounds Like – RFK, James Baldwin and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America by Michael Eric Dyson, White Rage by Carol Anderson and Choke Hold – Policing Black Men by Paul Butler. No comments needed.

The staff wears t-shirts with different words on the back, such as Tribe or Pride and very cool people constantly walks in and out through the door. The food was amazing (I guess that’s an important part of plotting the revolution), and after an hour there I’m suddenly convinced that the world might be allright in the end.