In the Jorge Luis Borges story from 1945, “The Aleph,” we are told of a sphere, secreted in a dark cellar, in which all the spatial infinitude and plenitude of the world can be seen simultaneously, from every imaginable angle. In it, the world’s most vaunted treasures—and, presumably, its deepest horrors—are on display. Some have interpreted Borges’s Aleph as prophetic of TV and the internet. The Smithsonian’s spanking new National Museum of African American History and Culture also echoes Borges, framing infinity in a bubble—that is the mission found within the museum’s seven-story energy containment field. This Aleph attempts to provide nothing less than the total, complex, historical saga of African people as they have evolved and as they have expressively resisted racism in America over the past 400 years.
As a cultural statement, the museum is partly dedicated to delineating the debt owed to those Africans and their descendants for Europe’s crimes against humanity via the 17th-to-19th-century human trafficking industry known as the slave trade. Every nation in the current E.U. except Greece participated in and benefited from this trade, as, of course, did these United States of America. The broad outlines of the story should be familiar to most readers of these pages, but, as with most things regarding the nation and race, the devil is in the horrific details, as is the never-ending tale of endurance and indelible, creative transcendence of those horrors that occurred along the way.
Great museums offer a range of opportunities and strategies not only for getting those devilish details right but also for killing us softly, as the song goes, while doing so. NMAAHC scores high on both counts. The place already has its own long, heady, convoluted history to impart: its advent was first proposed more than a century ago, in 1915—black Civil War veterans conceived it well before easily two thirds of the seismic historic events depicted inside were a glint in any anti-racist radical’s eye. Generations of presidential administrations have gone by, from Hoover to FDR to George W. Bush to his timely successor, Barack Obama. That providential symmetry is as fantastic as the material reality of the building itself, which looms as a gleaming, gold-tinted mirage from afar and becomes a bountiful temple of knowledge, from ancient to the future, up close.
Having spent a full weekend on the Mall grounds for celebratory concerts featuring Angélique Kidjo, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Meshell Ndegeocello, Living Colour, Public Enemy, and The Roots, all of whom are represented in the museum’s inner sanctum, I got to view the building’s exterior in several natural light conditions—near sunrise to well after sunset—and from a host of intriguing angles, none more so than from the mount of the Washington Monument.
A building whose primary shades are black and gold would make a distinctive statement anywhere, especially if set, like this one, on heavily touristed national land. As this particular structure sits in a valley below that most white, phallic, and red-white-and-blue-encircled of American public statuary, its counterstatement is indeed striking. It is a glowing alien artifact set in a landscape that the majority of our citizenry considers ground zero of our national identity.
Tanzanian-born British architect David Adjaye based the building’s leafy, triple-tiered facade on a regal headpiece he saw affixed to a tall, carved-wood Yoruba figure. That figure itself gazes out from behind glass on the museum’s fourth floor, its culture garden as it were, a spiraled rotunda devoted to the grandiloquent legacies of African American excellence across time in performance, music, and visual art.
Out of the country when the museum gave guided preview tours to invited guests and journalists, this reporter had his initiation on the museum’s first day of operations, September 26. A less-than-manic Monday in contrast with the preceding weekend’s once-in-a-lifetime festivities, which included speeches by Presidents Obama and Bush, it held true to NMAAHC’s predictions that on an average day the place would be host to 11,000 folks. But the lobby is extraordinarily wide and spacious, and throughout the day it never seemed overly congested. It helped that the crowds were modulated—a line stretched across the street and over the hillside leading to the Washington Monument, with gaggles of around 20 visitors permitted to enter every ten minutes or so.
This high-ceilinged lobby contains three commissioned works by an esteemed trio of abstract modernists—sculptors Richard Hunt and Chakaia Booker, and painter Sam Gilliam, who has been a D.C. art fancier’s favorite native son for about 50 years. Hunt’s biomorphic work of smelted copper, brass, and bronze, Swing Low (2016) hangs from the ceiling. True to the artist’s allusive and sui generis handling of wrenching, elastic form, the sculpture could be taken for a dizzily swooping insect, or a frozen 3-D model of aerodynamic movement.
Stripped, manipulated, and repurposed tire-rubber has been Booker’s bailiwick and chosen medium for two decades now. Given that she’s fabricated bucking, eight-foot-high wild horses from the stuff, her contribution here, The Liquidity of Legacy (2016), is modestly runic.
Color Field master Gilliam’s work, Yet Do I Marvel (Countee Cullen), 2016, is the most boldly suggestive and unabashedly lyrical of the group, and the one best situated for viewing and contemplation from the lobby floor. The title is drawn from a canonical 1925 sonnet by Harlem Renaissance bard Countee Cullen that quizzically, self-mockingly interrogates God’s relationship to ambitiously creative Blackness: “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing / To make a poet black / and bid him sing!” Refutation, affirmation, and mastery of complex forms are present in Cullen’s poem and in Gilliam’s artwork, a tight line of five rectangular panels, each painted in iridescent hues, two of them solidly colored and three with an asymmetrical array of arrows. Those directional pointers provide animated punctuation to a polychromatic schemata that obliquely and elegantly evokes song, flight, sorrow, heliocentricity, and dried blood. Should you venture to join the line to purchase and pursue from the gift shop, you’ll find yourself standing right under it.
Only 40 percent of NMAAHC is visible from the street. The rest of the building is underground, stretching downward into a bowl or “bathtub” designed to displace waters from the swampy underworld of the capital city’s substratum.
If undertaken as intended by the museum’s designers, your journey begins three floors below the lobby, in the labyrinthine bottom section that opens the Slavery and Freedom narrative arc. There are stirring statements and signposts to be found at every juncture of this historicizing monument whose navigation from pit to summit could easily occupy eight hours or more, depending on how diligent your witnessing—and how quickly you can move through the packed lowest corridor. Down in that hold, you have little choice but to shuffle along at an ankle-shackled tempo.
How compulsively you read the wall text and inscriptions will also dictate your pace through this maze. Certainly some of the most moving moments I experienced occurred when reading information on slave labor’s invaluable—but not incalculable—contribution to America becoming a world economic power. Soft lights, sepia walls, and graceful fonts seduce us to startling, fraught knowledge about the immense financial contribution of African bodies to the blood-soaked foundations of American wealth and prosperity. “$250,000,000: value of cotton produced by enslaved African Americans in 1861. $3,059,000,000: value assigned to enslaved African Americans in 1860.”
One visitor was overheard referring to the museum itself as “our Great Pyramid,” a fitting assessment, given that edifice’s symbolic importance to students of African-centric thought and history everywhere. But the museum can also be thought of as a mega church that holds meaningful daily services for the idea of Blackness itself in all its infinitude and plenitude of multidirectional and multidimensional forms.
Contained within this mega church, as in the grandest houses of worship, is a chapel space, in this case, a gallery given over to the legacy of visual art produced by African Americans since the 18th century. The layout of this space not only evokes but reproduces a chapel setting, one that contained a single-channel version of Hank Willis Thomas, Chris Johnson, Bayeté Ross Smith, and Kamal Sinclair’s video of elder African American men in dialogue with younger ones on the subject of masculinity. At the opposite end of a corridor, the gallery proper begins with textured painterly abstractions by McArthur Binion, whose indented, stippled surfaces are composed of mashed-up crayons. On a pedestal nearby sits the museum’s second spaceship (the first being the recently reassembled 1,200-pound aluminum stage prop that is the Parliament-Funkadelic Mothership), a re-creation of the Mercury capsule by Jefferson Pinder, combining cast-off tin and wood from the platform President Obama used to give his first inaugural speech, as well as a sound system loaded up with Sun Ra and Stevie Wonder. Diagonally across from it sits the life-size sculpture Blue Horse (2009) by BK Adams, a hole cut out of its belly revealing bicycle wheels. It sports a set of pink handlebars between its shoulders and a pink seat on its back.
This spaciously installed opening array signals the gallery’s commitment to microcosmically linking the formal and stylistic breadth of work by African American visual artists. It highlights visionaries as committed to emancipatory transformation within the white cube as any of their abolitionist foremothers and -fathers were to physical self-possession. As a Howard University alum, it was especially gratifying to see four members of Chicago’s famed AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) collective—James Phillips, Nelson Stevens, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and Wadsworth Jarrell—represented on the walls. (One of that group’s founders, the late Jeff Donaldson, was chair of Howard’s art department when this reporter attended; Jarrell and Phillips were professors and mentors.) From the godfather of black artist scholarship, David Driskell, there is an iconic painting of Emmett Till and his fearless, stoic mother; from the godmother of all African American–made conceptual art, Howardena Pindell, a golden, spiky, framed-box construction.
Nineteenth-century Hudson River School devotee Robert Duncanson is here, as is the mid-20th-century existential surrealist Hughie Lee-Smith. As always, there is nothing but perfection to speak of in appraising Whitfield Lovell. Seen here is the “Card” series, a large wall of soulful, fine-featured, charcoal portraiture that conjoins fatalism and ardor in the depiction of its variegated subjects. The varied styles of complex, provocative works by Barkley Hendricks, Kara Walker, Betye Saar, and Renee Stout further discredit past jibes stereotyping African Americans’ art practices as monolithic, mono-political, or mono-dimensional.
Your personal NMAAHC engagement isn’t dependent on your African American history IQ—you’ll leave with at least a baseline quotient if somehow you’re a tabula rasa going in, even if you haven’t listened to the radio or seen a televised music or sporting event in the last 50 years.
All the same, there’s still goo-gobs to learn, even for those of us who enter with a certain arrogance of foreknowledge, the result of having already spent decades stuffing specific bits of the museum’s grand narrative into our hearts and noggins. That narrative’s boldest strokes—told in the form of material-object, filmic, and photographic artifacts, from slave ships to Parliament-Funkadelic Motherships, from Angola’s crafty Warrior-Queen Nzinga to Louisiana’s notorious Angola State Penitentiary, from Jim Crow railcars to Chuck Berry’s gas-guzzling, freak flag–waving, fire-engine red Cadillac, from Nat Turner’s Bible to J. Dilla’s drum machine—are all amplified by the many textual factoids that frequently sneak up, only to become surprisingly emotive, teachable moments. Learning that when human trafficking season was in full bloom there were often up to 30 ships docked in West African harbors awaiting cargo is a revelatory corrective not least because movies on the subject have conditioned us to think those floating hellholes came and went solo, and never accounted for the high number of Africans who died or committed suicide mid–Middle Passage, as the museum does. To contemplate those death ships gathered in a feeding frenzy on Africa’s shores was truly soul-shuddering for this viewer.
The Civil War section presents true stories of the “self-emancipated” before showing Abraham Lincoln or his army—i.e., those African Americans who stomped off their exploited labor camps in droves as Union forces advanced. So deft and powerful is the revision of common language that such people are generally spoken of, almost 150 years later, as “runaways,” “fugitives,” and “contraband”—the latter the infamous term given to the self-emancipated by Union generals, who decided they weren’t yet free folk but “stolen enemy property” and forced them to work in Union camps. Folks thought to have been emboldened to leave by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation are revealed as having seized the opportunity to grip agency and free themselves. You may never again refer to Lincoln as the “Great Emancipator,” because you are informed that it was the actions and numbers of the self-emancipated themselves that forced old Abe to crank out his overhyped proclamation quickfast. Nearby, you can read Lincoln’s self-damning quote about his utter disinterest in ending slavery if the Union could be preserved without the slavers’ economy being disturbed.
Two exhibits close to one another in NMAAHC—an Angola prison guard tower and a renovated, segregation-era Pullman Company train car—were among the first installed in the building, both so immense that the museum was constructed around them. The Pullman car dates from around 1918, during the 75-plus-year Jim Crow period, when African American porters served whites and African Americans in separate but unequally accommodating cars. Simply as an object, the guard tower shook this witness to the core, instantly becoming the museum’s compound echo of the gates at Auschwitz, the Door of No Return at Senegal’s captive-holding Gorée Island, the mass incarceration at Rikers Island, and the Black Lives Matter movement all rolled into one. It was one of those rare moments when the terrifying, fixed functionality of a thing from the real world enters the museum as both a horror-laden madeleine and a mesmerizing abstraction, one only slightly aestheticized by what hangs behind it: a salmon-toned photograph, clearly taken at dawn, of the barren landscape from which the tower was removed.
The museum’s aim to stir conversation between objects compelled the viewing line for Emmett Till’s coffin room to run between the Jim Crow car and the prison tower. Concomitantly, the passageway leading to the tower is flanked by the infamous Mississippi lunch counter where Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Riders sat to protest and take abuse in the ’60s. This well-thought-out decor-cipher makes for a tautology insinuating how deeply static, industrially manufactured objects can reflect and refract racism-as-history. The harmonic convergence of violence and rebellion packed into that quadrant of the museum provide it with its most haunting and poignant quality of Aleph-ness.
The concluding corridor on that level is a media-overloaded stargate that shoots you from the ’60s to the early 2000s, from MLK, Malcolm X, the Black Arts Movement, and the Black Panthers to the Obamas, with stops in between for everything from a Nation of Islam–related costume display to what may be the museum’s most surreal and dialectical juxtaposition: a Whitney Biennial–worthy installation of Oprah Winfrey (via wall-length photograph) throwing dollars and cars at her devoted midwestern hausfraus, accompanied by actual seats from her TV show’s set, preceding a 15-foot-long red-and-black banner that once served as a stage backdrop for the revolutionary agitprop/hip-hop band Public Enemy. If ever there were two iconic images from ’90s Black popular culture one never expected to see sharing a timeline—even ironically—it would have to be rap’s rebellious masters of mass media baiting and celebrity television’s high priestess of media capitalizing.
In many ways, however, these two ideologically opposed yet temporally joined-at-the-hip images emblematize the double consciousness that runs through the museum’s conception: Black America’s rage for respect from the nation’s white financial, intellectual, and political gatekeepers, coupled with our iconoclastic bent for raging against the symbols of white power. Here’s an interesting twist, though: Public Enemy, like most rap artists, now perform internationally for majority white audiences, while it is Oprah whose mission since giving up her afternoon network show has been to put her vast fortune and power at the targeted disposal of African American entrepreneurs, creatives, and everyday cable viewers.
Mulling the topsy-turvy of those turnabouts, one comes to realize how well they summarize NMAAHC as a finished project, how the museum is a quintessential, fatefully timed statement about America’s ongoing love and apprehension of its African descendants that the official culture, in this Black Lives Matter epoch, needed to institutionally underscore. Without the drive for respectability and respect from the gatekeepers, there would have been no museum or Ivy League–degreed museum curators. Yet the institution also shouts across the capital rooftops that, without the radical actions taken by everyday people of African descent to defy, decimate, and transcend American racism in its most dehumanizing forms, there would have been no race-motivated PhDs—or much of any universal human consequence for them to install inside the joint.
Greg Tate is a writer, musician, and lecturer who lives in Harlem. His latest book is Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader (Duke University Press, 2016).
A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 30 under the title “SNMAAHC in the Middle of the Mall.”