Going to the National African American History and Culture Museum made me unlearn everything I thought I knew

I spent almost two years working in D.C. on and off. One of my favorite parts of the city was its free Smithsonian museums. It was easy to get lost for hours reading descriptions, watching different videos, and learning outside of institutionalized settings. Before I came back to D.C. a little over a year after leaving it, a close friend of mine sent me an email telling me that I had to take my husband to the African American History and Culture Museum. He made sure I did that before I even caught up with him. This meant he was not kidding.

My husband had not seen D.C. before and is originally from Australia. His frame of historical reference was the struggles of the Aboriginal people mirroring the Black Civil Rights Movement in America. When I presented the idea, he immediately said that he would only do one museum and do it right. This one was it. When I went back to my friend’s email, he mentioned that the tickets are free, but you have to secure timed-entry tickets in one of three ways: same-day online, walkups only on the weekdays, or advance online.

We personally chose the same-day online choice, even if it meant waking up at 6:30 a.m. EST.  After going to the museum, I realized the 6:30 a.m. wake-up time was well worth it and was the best since we did not have much time to plan beforehand. For those who may be living in D.C., or just happen to be there and with a flexible schedule, the second option might make sense. The advanced online sales only occur on the first Wednesday of the month, which can also be great if you have a planned trip to D.C. within the month. However, it is limited. Essentially, it all depends on the season you go. We were there in the summertime, which can be difficult as D.C. is full of interns and tourists. Hence, we woke up.

Now that you know how to get into the museum, the one bummer is the actual “timed entry” is only three hours. We had our passes on the last timing of the day, which meant we were there until closing. And when it closes, the security makes sure that you get out. I found myself loving the museum so much that I would sneak into another exhibit. I would then find a security guard telling me to leave. It was sad and hilarious at the same time. Why was I not wanting to leave?

Because there are so many exhibits and I made the mistake of trying to read absolutely everything. Doing that with the crowds was not so smart if I hoped to get through most of it.

The entire museum is a timeline. It starts from the origins of the slave trade and ending with African American contributions today. I eventually found myself rushing through exhibits after the Civil Rights movement (calling for another visit). The museum did not miss anything, including an explanation of the Black Feminist Movement in the ’70s, which had to face resistance from their own Black community. I knew nothing unbiased about the Black Panthers, except for the very negative images that sometimes came up in popular media, such as in Forrest Gump. I found myself thoroughly shocked when I saw the massive amounts of old media images and paraphernalia portraying Black people in subservient and extremely stereotypical ways (such as the Black Mammy). The juxtaposition of the exhbits and the many different angles were impressive. Nobody can walk into this museum thinking they already know everything.

I cannot say that I had a favorite exhibit. Each one was so comprehensive that I felt like everything I learned about Black history at school was too elementary. And more importantly, too sanitized. To have something on the national level like this finally validated years of untold and heavily biased history. The museum only opened two years ago, which means that it took this long to make Black history among the ranks of a Smithsonian museum, but I am glad it came.

Aside from the exhibits, seeing African Americans from all over the country bringing their children to a national place of reflection on their own history was endearing. It reminded me that beyond a designated month for Black history a rich national museum operates now. It is about time.

By Saba Danawala

Writing yogi and traveler immersed in all issues public health and social justice. Transplanted to Pakistan by way of DC, New Delhi, and Texas. Seasoned in the game of questioning systematic gender and social norms. Pragmatically idealizes a world populated with more self-aware and empathetic human beings.