The Museum Grappling With the Future of Black America

The Smithsonian's memorial of African American history and culture turns 1 at a time when its lessons are particularly resonant.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture with the Washington Monument in the background

“It is an act of patriotism to understand where we’ve been.”

So said President Barack Obama during his speech at the opening ceremony of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which celebrated its one-year anniversary on September 24. “This,” Obama had continued, “is the place to understand how protest and love of country don’t merely coexist, but inform each other.” His words feel eerily prescient given the national news of the past week—a week that coincidentally marked the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine’s first day at an all-white high school—and, more broadly, the past year.

Since the election of Donald Trump, conversations about the history of race and the utility of protest have remained at the forefront of political debate. At a rally earlier this month, Trump criticized NFL players who kneeled during the national anthem, calling them “sons of bitches,” and suggesting the league fire them for being unpatriotic. “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race,” Trump tweeted Monday, despite the fact that the former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling last year to protest police brutality against unarmed black and brown Americans. It would seem that dissent and love of country are incompatible to Trump, contrary to Obama’s words. At the same time, Trump’s definition of patriotism isn’t informed by the understanding that to be black in America is to have hope for the future despite generations of disenfranchisement and racist terror.

It’s within this fraught political context that the most comprehensive exhibit of black history in America has operated for the better part of a year, almost serendipitously overlapping with the rise of the current administration. The NMAAHC has attracted more than 2.5 million people thus far and averages about 8,000 visitors daily, including President Trump shortly after his inauguration. Even though the museum is rife with symbols of fortitude and freedom—and notably sits close to monuments dedicated to Presidents Jefferson and Washington, both of whom owned slaves—it isn’t wholly insulated from the increasingly conspicuous polarization taking place outside its walls. Events like the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August make the museum’s director, Lonnie Bunch, think deeply about how history can help people have reasoned debates about issues like the country’s current racial tension. “This is a moment that is going to force America to recognize that it’s in a war for [its] soul,” Bunch told me. Shortly before the Charlottesville rally, which left one counter-protester dead, visitors found a noose hanging inside the museum.

When asked how he conceives of the museum’s role today, Bunch said, “Part of what you want is people to understand that the journey is long, the road is crooked, but ultimately the opportunity to effect change is still there regardless of what party is there and who is in the White House.” In curating the museum, Bunch sought to strike the right balance between depicting painful moments and offering examples of black people’s unique resilience.

A typical journey through the museum progresses both chronologically and vertically. Visitors begin on the lowest level of the building with exhibits about how the African slave trade evolved starting in the 15th century; they can then climb their way upward through floors dedicated to the Antebellum era, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Redemption, and the civil-rights movement, and into the present-day achievements of notable black people in sports, the arts, and government. The exhibits’ timeline ends not after Obama’s election, as one might expect, but with the rise of Black Lives Matter and modern racial-justice movements. After visiting the museum for the first time prior to its unveiling, my colleague Vann Newkirk called the exhibits “triumphant and crushing at once, both a celebration of how far black people have come in an ongoing struggle for equality, and a reminder of the near impossibility of that struggle.”

One of the most indelible examples of the staunch resistance to racial progress is what happened to the Little Rock Nine. In an act of bitter opposition to the Brown v. Board of Education decision to integrate schools, the Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered the state’s National Guard to bar a group of African American students from entering the all-white school they’d been assigned to. Later that month, federal troops successfully escorted the nine teenagers into Little Rock Central High School. But the students in question subsequently faced near-constant harassment from their classmates, and after only a year, Faubus closed the school for the 1958-59 term in an effort to stymie African American attendance. On Tuesday, the NMAAHC concluded the celebration of its inaugural year with a panel discussion spotlighting six members of the Little Rock Nine who faced an angry white mob in 1957.

The museum features the students in a collection highlighting figures crucial to desegregation efforts, notably Ruby Bridges and Dorothy Geraldine Counts. At the event, held earlier this week in the Oprah Winfrey Theater, Melba Pattillo Beals, Elizabeth Eckford, Ernest Green, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown Trickey, and Gloria Karlmark shared what inspired them to enter the school in the first place—including Jackie Robinson’s start in Major League Baseball and the Montgomery bus boycott—and the abuse they and their families endured.

None of them expected the violence they encountered when they tried to enter the school. “For the first time in our lives—at 14, 15 years old—we had to consider, what could happen to us?” Beals said at the NMAAHC event. “But you did not give anyone permission to know that you were hurt by what they did.” What the nine teenagers experienced in those first few days was only the beginning of a torturous year, one in which Trickey was eventually expelled for “retaliating” against those who mistreated her. “I spent 60 years trying to undo the reputation for being violent,” Trickey said.

The fact that school districts continue to grapple with segregation—and that most have failed to come up with a workable solution—illustrates that progress in the fight against structural inequality is not, and has never been, linear. Despite the milestone achievements in Little Rock, today’s public schools are more segregated than they’ve been in decades. Just Monday, Netflix released a documentary titled Teach Us All, directed by Sonia Lowman and distributed by Ava DuVernay’s Array collective, that draws a line from the Little Rock Nine to school systems’ failures to live up to desegregation promises.

It’s this tug of war between advancement and regression that keeps the Smithsonian’s attention split between the past and present, especially as the museum tries to calibrate how much has changed in America in the short time since its opening. Looking ahead, Bunch is already considering collecting material from Kaepernick or perhaps procuring a Confederate statue—even if that memorabilia doesn’t show up in the museum during his tenure. After a successful year, the curator gets to step back and ask the big question on many people’s minds: How will we explain this moment?