A Museum can surely be an action of advocacy, if it provides awareness towards empowerment.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture that ex President Obama inaugurated on 26th September 2016, certainly wants tell the African long slaves’ search for a deeply awareness and struggle towards their dignity and freedom as people. “For while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard,” said Obama, quoting James Baldwin in opening his speech.
“Below us, this building reaches down 70 feet -he went on -, its roots spreading far wider and deeper than any tree. And on its lowest level, after you walk past remnants of a slave ship, after you reflect on the immortal declaration that all men are created equal, you can see a block of stone.” A slave block.
The building, covered with 3600 plates, evoking an African crown, is a tribute to the work of the slaves during the 18th and 19th century and protects the effective area of almost 8,000 m2 exhibition. It is inspired by Yoruba Art, New Orleans, the Diaspora and the Caribbean, because African-American history is central to the American story, stressed Obama.
This Museum, “helps us better understand the lives, yes, of the President, but also the slave; the industrialist, but also the porter; the keeper of the status quo, but also of the activist seeking to overthrow that status quo; the teacher or the cook, alongside the statesman. And by knowing this other story, we better understand ourselves and each other.” The Museum, “A people’s Journey – A Nation’s Story”, tells us that “The African American experience is the lens through which we understand what it is to be an American.”
As advocacy is about politics and change, values and beliefs, consciousness and knowledge, this Museum aims to build awareness in the ex African slaves focusing on questions left out or hidden. But, as for the ultimate result, is it people empowerment to solve the main issues they are facing in the present and the future to come? Of course, a Museum cannot tell about future. Nevertheless through the three lower History Galleries – From Slavery and Freedom, The Era of Segregation, Changing America – the Museum goes on with the upper three Galleries – Explore more, Community live, Culture – and tries to have a wink to the future. As John Hope Franklin once said, “Good history is a good foundation for a better present and future,” but is not enough. On this issue, the Museum remains short.
Obama, the first negro American President, opened the Museum taking in his hand that of Ruth a 99-year-old descendant of a former Mississippi slave. Together they rang a bell from the First Baptist Church in Virginia that signaled Emancipation a century and a half ago. This gesture suggested that slavery page of history was over, but the reality is still different. “A museum alone will not alleviate poverty in every inner city or every rural hamlet. It won’t eliminate gun violence from all our neighborhoods, or immediately ensure that justice is always colorblind. It won’t wipe away every instance of discrimination in a job interview or a sentencing hearing or folks trying to rent an apartment. Those things are up to us, the decisions and choices we make. It requires speaking out, and organizing, and voting,” recognized Obama in his address.
Perhaps it would be better to have George Bush – who sign the erection decree of the museum -, to ring the ancient liberty bell hand in hand with the old Ruth. It would say what is still lacking for the United States to close the arc of the slaves’ story towards freedom: the real equality of rights and duty, foundation of every racial, political and cultural integration. Only then all will be able to say: We are America. I too am America. Otherwise it will happen as of the aluminum panels, that replaced those of bronze: in a few years losing the paint they will show their inconsistency.
John Paul Pezzi, mccj
VIVAT International NGO,
with consultative special status at UN