“Words, words, words” Hamlet spits in act 11, scene II. Hamlet, the king of soliloquies, would be made speechless by the words at National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Museums often fall into the trap of using too many words. Yet the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibit manages to effectively avoid this pitfall and provides a didactic, traditionally styled exhibition with an unapologetic sweeping history and enlightened personal stories that enlightened not confused. I was swept along by a powerful and active narrative that both informed and called me to action.
Countless history and economic lessons have tried to tell the story of the triangle trade route, which exchanged goods and human life between Africa, the Americans, and Europe. Yet, none had ever caused me to inhale sharply as I did when I read the last sentence of the transatlantic slave trade label: “Their tears were embedded in every coin that changed hands, each spoonful of sugar stirred into a cup of tea, each puff of a pipe, and every bite of rice.” These words give voice to a horrific systemic reality.
Furthermore, words (or the lack of them) reveal that slavery was not a passive act, as some textbooks and histories might lead one to believe. On the contrary, specific and numerous actions drove America into a paradox of a free land and unfree people. One choice can be seen in the crossed out words of Thomas Jefferson’s constitution draft, which the founding father’s thought suggested this paradox too obviously.
James Baldwin’s words remind us that these moments in history are not isolated events in the past. Baldwin’s words ring out across the empty air high above the gallery reminding us that “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it with us, unconsciously controlled by it…history is literally present in all we do.” History informs our actions while our actions, at this very moment, are shaping history.
It would be an injustice to not give praise the museum’s collection, which is incredible and had me shedding tears, pausing, dancing, and grinning ear to ear at various turns. Yet, at the end of the day, it is the curated words that are written in my thoughts. Katie Kendrick, Exhibitionist Curator at NMAAHC, shared the museum’s desire to curate an experience. Whether people glean that experience from objects, words, media, interactives, fine art, or likely a combination of it all, most will have an altered view of America. For me, the experience leaves me contemplating the many millions of voices that share in saying in the words of Langston Hughes “I, too, am America”.