I shouldn't have been, but I found myself surprised at the white pushback I’ve seen to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, either you haven't read any comments on news articles or visited Twitter.)
Why an African American Museum? I hear. (Um, because these stories need to be told.)
Where’s the White Museum? I hear. (Um, how about every other museum there is?) That was my first response, and I felt like it was right and good. I saw others expressing the same sentiment.
But then I thought a little longer, and I became uncomfortable with the realizations I uncovered. I have to admit now that the National Museum of African American History and Culture tells my story too (and I’m not talking about my three black children when I say that).
I haven’t been to the museum yet, but I expect there are exhibits on slavery. My ancestors include white slave-owners in the South. That’s my history too.
I haven’t taken a deep breath while standing before this museum, but I expect to read about how our Constitution didn’t value black Americans as full people. My ancestors supported that. That’s my history too.
I haven’t walked into the hard-fought-for museum yet, but I expect to find stories of the Civil War. Maybe I’d find excerpts from states’ articles of secession, as these four cited slaves or slavery 83 times in their reasons. Some notable examples include “we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery” from Georgia and “our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world…. a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization” from South Carolina and a commitment to “maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery-- the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits-- a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time” from Texas. Actually, to spotlight Texas for a moment, I want to quote this too: “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.” I’m spending so much time pointing out the racist roots here because I’ve seen recent pushback against them and because I am dismayed by my own history here. My ancestors fought for the Confederate States in that war, and I’ve heard that our family tree includes Jefferson Davis, the president of those states. That’s my history too.
I haven’t gotten to bring my children into that museum yet, but I expect to see stories of black soldiers who fought in WWII and the Vietnam War. My ancestors fought in those wars too, with both grandfathers in WWII and my father a Green Beret in Vietnam. The difference is that they fought to preserve rights already extended to people who look like me while those black soldiers fought for a country that denied them many of those same rights. That’s my history too.
I haven’t yet shed tears in the halls of that museum, but I expect to see stories of white people who stood for segregation in school and communities and who opposed (or still oppose) affirmative action. My ancestors and even some living relatives are among those white people. That’s my history too.
I haven’t had my heart broken to see Emmett Till’s coffin in that museum, but I know he died at the hands of people who look like me. I know he didn’t get justice because of people who look like me. I know his grave was disrespectfully dug up, which is why his coffin can be displayed, as even his dead body was devalued by people who look like me. I know my ancestors were involved in other – maybe even similar – acts of treating people of color as if they weren’t made in the image of God, even though we all are. That’s my history too.
When we, as white people in this country, say a museum of African American history doesn’t tell our stories too, we’re lying. It does. It just tells stories that don’t put us in the best light, stories that show our ancestors on the wrong side of history, stories that we’re simply not proud of.
Maybe your story isn’t like mine. Maybe your ancestors weren’t here at the beginning of this nation. Maybe you want to shrug off our racist past as not being your own. If so, I get that. But I’d also challenge you to think about the privileges we – all white people – get when people who look like us have held the most power in politics and business and churches and education and more in this country. That history is why skin-colored bandaids are made to match us while I have to special order ones for my black children. It’s why shows that feature people who look like me are simply called shows but ones that feature a primarily black cast are called black entertainment. It’s why, out of the top 500 grossing companies in our country, only 5 have black CEOs while the vast majority look like me (or, more accurately, my husband). It’s why for the past 21 years, only 10% of children’s books included multicultural content while it’s easy for white children to see themselves reflected there. It’s why, even in 2003, the same resume from a stereotypically white-sounding name got 50% more callbacks than an identical resume from a stereotypically black-sounding names. I could go on – as this famous piece does – but I think I’ve made my point. Even if your ancestors didn’t engage in the racist acts that mine did, the benefits of white privilege afforded to me are also available to you.
African American history is American history. It is. But as white people have historically gotten to write the history books and control the biases there, we have been able to rewrite stories to favor us a bit more. (One reason black homeschooling is on the rise, in fact, is this failure for public schools to teach history through anything but a Euro-centric lens.) For example, one textbook recently raised eyebrows by referring to those brought by the slave trade as immigrant “workers” with the implication that they were paid or came by choice. Even the misunderstandings about slavery’s role in the Civil War can be traced back to textbooks whitewashing our history.
Maybe white pushback to the African American Museum isn’t about black history. It’s about white history and the discomfort we have in owning it all. And maybe it isn’t about history at all. It’s about the current state of racism in our country and our refusal to see how the past has brought us to this point.
Maybe it’s time to clean out our closets and come face to face with some skeletons there. That will be hard, certainly. We might have to admit that the 26% of white people (and 40% of Trump supporters) who believe black people are lazy (leading to their poverty and other societal issues) can only do so by denying a history in which people who look like me oppressed black people by enslaving them with no pay and then confining them to the lowest wages and the worst conditions in housing and school, restricting them from colleges, job training, and welfare programs, and preventing them from positions of political, economic, or social power. We might have to admit that while we’re quick as white people to decry the black crime rate, the ways in which whites oppressed blacks created higher rates of poverty which thereby result in higher rates of crime (and, while we’re at it, higher rates of absent fathers and homelessness and educational difficulties and other symptoms we like to talk about while ignoring the causes). We might have to acknowledge that many of these realities are recent in our history, such that my parents' public schools didn't admit black children and at least one of my grandparents grew up with black servants who, while not slaves, were paid and treated in a less dignifying way than white household workers would have been. We might have to get comfortable with these stories on the lower levels of the museum, the stories of white people treating black people as subhuman, instead of camping out with the stories of those black stars we regard as superhuman in their exceptionality: Gabby Douglas and Ben Carson and Muhammed Ali and more. But maybe it’s time to look at and own the hard parts of our history too.
Maybe it’s past time.
And maybe once we do, the idea of this much-needed National Museum of African American History and Culture will make more sense to us.