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.

My Anger

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Although I write a blog that centers people of color in exploring the connections between the medical system and raceĀ  – an activity that has always been fundamentally personal – I rarely discuss how it personally affects me.

The occasions in which I have, were driven by my need to make sense of Trayvon and Walter, Tamir and Freddie and to reconcile their lives with how I move in my life, as a black physician. But there is no sense to be made of state-sanctioned murder and each time I left the task weary with emotion.

I used those emotions to power 6 months of writing and editing my first submission to Pediatrics, the most important academic journal in my field, on police violence; both begging and demanding this type of violence be considered a devastating threat to public health and safety for children of color. The first comment my co-authors (also black women) and I were asked to address was what the editors called our “anger” and the last was to “say something nice about the police.”

Here I was, asking to be seen; asking for black children and families to be seen; but having to respond to why I don’t see police and why what a white man perceives as my emotion, is a problem to be addressed, in writing. My emotion. That they named anger.

To be labeled angry and asked to publicly disavow said emotion for professional legitimacy was nothing new, for me, my co-authors, or centuries of black women accosted by the limited public characterizations of our person-hood. But when they named my emotions anger, did they also name my tears? Did they name the deep humiliation I processed to explain, to a pediatric medical journal, why the deaths of black parents and children should be a priority?

Did they furiously, nauseatingly, mind-numbingly, cry over the public executions of their people? Did they choke and swallow those emotions back everyday just to function as a productive adult in the world? Did they wake to bury the devastation that allows them to hold academic conversations about the threats, challenges, and disparities that may amount to the extinction of their people?

In medicine, if we talk about racism at all, we talk about how it is unfair – but no ones fault really. Short of bias training that validates a generalized lack of explicit accountability – we primarily do nothing. It is as if medicine thinks the solution to centuries of systematic racism and racial inequality that continues to poison black bodies, young and old alike – through public divestment, disease and varying degrees of despondency – is self-reflection.

But it is killing us.

Racism. Is. Killing. Black. People.

Sometimes I feel the poison in me. Squeezing my chest in anxiety, fear, or fury as I navigate the complex terrain of my public female black-ness, trying to wear my emotional and intellectual complexity in a way that at best, allows me to be seen but at least, prevents me from being dismissed altogether. The daily work of avoiding the silencing that accompanies being mistaken as simply an “angry black female” while also finding safe spaces to be a black female who can hold anger and the emotional complexity inherent to full humanity – is an extra job, that I do, at my regular job and on vacation.

Sometimes I see the poison in my family, as they do the work of making space for their whole self in a world that can easily, effortlessly limit them to an assumed identity. I watch them negotiating other people’s comfort in an exhausting performance of excellence and I understand the raw pain blackness chafes on their humanity.

Racism excludes black people from public goods and private sympathies. It is the root cause of health disparities, the education gap, the wealth gap, the gender wage gap for black women, and the unconscionable incidence of institutional violence against black bodies.

And in so much that medicine ignores that root cause, it is and will remain complicit in the maintenance of institutional racism, both inside our walls and out.

So just in case you have wondered or are wondering, yes, I am angry.

I feel intense and unapologetic anger. But know, my anger isn’t the poison, racism is.