Tribute & Truth: Experiencing the National Museum of African American History

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2 weeks ago, my family and I visited the National Museum of African American History.

It is said the museum was a century in the making.

When you walk in the doors, you know exactly what that means.

We happened to enter behind a black family of four. Two parents, who appeared in their mid-late 30s, and two young boys, both of whom could not have been more than 5. It was raining that day and they were all bundled up – hats, vests, scarfs, boots. Despite the aggressive gear, as soon as we got inside, off those boys ran, like they were in their own playground. While a lot of kids run everywhere they go, to see these little black boys, brothers, running free and unencumbered in this building, their building, on the National Mall, erected to honor their ancestors, standing in honor of them, was the perfect prelude to what lay before us.

The whole day, we saw babies and watched children, crawling, running, sitting, climbing. Like the little one, maybe 3, who walked up, alone, and sat next to me on a bench. Together, in silence, we watched a short video about the contributions of African American athletes. Shortly afterwards, his father and brother arrived, obviously happy to have found him. But there he was, drawn to the images, sitting still and watching intently, as people who look like him did great things. I can’t imagine what the moment felt like to him. Perhaps it was simply another age-appropriate act of independence and environmental curiosity. But sitting next to him, the moment felt full and hopeful.

But it wasn’t just the young who captured the moment, it was also the elderly. Those who entered the museum with canes and walkers, who moved with the support of their family or church or neighbors. Those draped in t-shirts commemorating their visit, who traveled across states just to be there.

I think of one woman in particular.

She walked slowly, with her weight heavily upon a cane, her white hair curled, her lips peach with pigment. A women who seemed like her daughter walked at her side, supporting her, and a young woman, maybe age 20 or so, walked in front of them guiding them towards an exhibit on Greenwood in Tulsa, OK. The walls were flanked with images of a town that looked ravaged by a natural disaster. The air in the small exhibit felt thin and heavy. You stood, surrounded, by a town decimated in ash. Only the actor was not an unruly Mother Nature, but rather the destructive, unpredictable, and irrepressible swell of White Supremacy that leveled, literally burned, an entire neighborhood, notably one of the wealthiest black neighborhoods in the country at that time, to the ground. As I stood, solemnly confronting the wall-sized photos and recovered personal items, next to what appeared to be a family of women, I watched as the elder asked the youngest to read the inscriptions to her. I don’t know if it was the photos, the women, or the collective recognition of what black people have endured, suffered, and lost in this country they have called home – but I cried openly there. Left my tears, my heart, my gratitude, to those women, to that place, to the grit that rose from those ashes to trouble and inspire me.

My experience of the newest Smithosonian museum was captured in small moments and big. Moments when I stood shoulder to shoulder with history and watched as the future crawled along the floor, with a certain mix of joy and pride I can only remember having felt so vividly the morning after Barack Hussein Obama became President of the United States. There was a palpable shift in the world as this black girl turned black woman saw and was seen. Standing with my family only added to the consequence of the moment.

As science, history, literature, the arts, and public consciousness inch towards full acknowledgement, engagement, inclusion, and elevation of our presence, our personhood, our importance, and our centrality in the American experiment, this building will stand in tribute and truth. The gift is our ability to return to it, in reverence and expectation, to share that truth with our future generations.

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Black Art

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Warning: This is not your typical physician blogger post. But, as you’ve hopefully figured out by now, I’m not your typical physician blogger.

There have been but few times in my life when the power of the written word has changed me.

When words, so delicately crafted, approximate both the splendor and the obscenity of human experience, and the light can overcome the shadows. When I was liberated because they spoke it so.

Those are sacred moments between me and Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Amiri Baraka.

When I read Amiri Baraka’s Black Art I was a sophomore in college and about 19 years old. I was living in a world dominated by the images, opinions, and interests of white people and trying to figure out what it meant to be a brown girl like me. He said:

Poems are bullshit unless they are teeth…

We want “poems that kill.” Assassin poems,

Poems that shoot guns…

Clean out the world for virtue and love,

Let there be no love poems written

until love can exist freely and

cleanly. Let Black People understand

that they are the lovers and the sons

of lovers and warriors and sons

of warriors Are poems & poets &

all the loveliness here in the world.

We want a black poem. And a

Black World.

Let the world be a Black Poem

And Let All Black People Speak This Poem

Silently

or LOUD

What a thought.

What if blackness was the perspective from which all other experiences are compared?

What does it mean to conceptualize blackness beyond a race card or a problem or a conversation about affirmative action, inner city violence, or health disparities?

Is it possible that black people could be “all the loveliness here in the world?”

If it is possible, then how can I embody that pride effortlessly or “say it loud?” Both, of course, being equally acceptable.

Historically, this poem framed a time of anger and unrest at the centuries of injustice suffered by black people in America. It was the 60s. It was the beginning of the movement for civil rights. It was the birth of the Black Arts Movement, the contribution of black artists, writers, philosophers, and activists to not only chronicle the emotion and the intentionality of the movement, but take the greatest weapon at their disposal – the written word – and BE the movement.

Amiri Baraka was the movement. He was bold. He was fiery. He was unabashedly committed to re-claiming blackness and the beauty it embodies. As a young black woman who found my passion for social justice in medicine through the ethnic pride I discovered in college, I can only hope my writing will do justice to the beauty of the people I seek to serve. For the overlooked, vulnerable, and marginalized among us, thank you Amiri Baraka for fiercely embracing our power and showing us how to live in the beauty in us all.

RIP.