National Museum of African American History & Culture: A Rave Review

The National Museum of African American History & Culture is one of those museums that pulls you in and keeps pulling you in. From the outside, it stands out, strikingly different from all of the other museums, monuments, and buildings on the National Mall, creating a welcome visual focal point. Entering feels like going into a sacred space. The museum is chock full of artifacts that bring stories to life. It was one of my favorite museum experiences ever (and I’ve had a lot). Many have written about why this museum is important and how it came to be. Below is my experience visiting the museum as a white museum professional. It did not disappoint on a professional or personal level and all of its hype is well deserved.

Note on Tickets & Logistics

When my husband and I began planning our trip to DC to visit my brother, one of the first things decided on (after the concert that sparked the conversation) was that I had to go to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The NMAAHC opened in 2016 to lots of interest, high visitation, and big impact on not only the world of public history & museums, but on so many individuals. I had heard so much good buzz about the museum but hadn’t been able to visit yet so it was high priority on our list.

We knew advance tickets would probably be necessary and we planned to go on the Friday of our trip to help cut down on weekend crowding, but I misunderstood the ticket release system and we missed our opportunity to get advance tickets! 😦 The other option was to try and get day of tickets first thing in the morning when they would be released for the day, but after arriving in DC in the wee hours of the morning we missed that opportunity as well. Walk-ins (without advance tickets) are allowed after 1 pm.

Worried that we would be standing in long lines and concerned about the chances of maybe not being able to get in at all, we decided to spend the morning at the National Air & Space Museum (you can read about our visit here) and then go to the NMAAHC after lunch (we ate in the Pavilion Cafe in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden which you can read about here). Because of hiding out from rain and how busy the Pavilion Cafe was we didn’t get to the NMAAHC until about 2:00pm on a Friday in April. There was absolutely no line and we were able to go right in and get started. The museum was plenty busy but not overcrowded and we were able to maneuver through exhibits with minimal waiting and crowding. The NMAAHC has changed its ticketing policy already in its 3 years and likely will continue to adjust so if you plan to go, check out their website for the latest. We lucked out on being able to easily get in without waiting, but I would still recommend the advance ticketing system so you can get in in the morning and have more time to view the museum. I have to go back as we only grazed the surface of this museum’s impressive exhibits!

The Museum

Upon entering, we picked up a map which advised that in order to make the most of your time (and we were already limited on time having gotten there in the afternoon) you should start at the top and work your way down. We didn’t realize until later that this meant we would miss the museum’s main history exhibits which traces African American history from slavery through the present. These history exhibits are all below ground (where 60% of the museum lies). Where we began was with the museum’s culture exhibits which all come off of a central area called Cultural Expressions. This circular area is so immersive with exhibits around the outside, seating in the middle, and large screens encircling above head with images, video and quotes about various forms of cultural expression including writing, music, dance, sport, film, etc. featuring famous or trailblazing African Americans in their respective fields. We began with the exhibit about music.

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The music exhibit was full of information and artifacts about African American musicians and singers who have made lasting cultural impressions in American popular and musical culture. Jimi Hendrix, Ella Fitzgerald, Celia Cruz, Whitney Houston, James Brown, Louis Armstrong, and more well-known artists were represented, but so were lesser-known names and contributions to American music including black country and bluegrass artists. The exhibit included an interactive “record store” room in which you could flip through “albums” and learn more about artists and select music on a digital touch screen. It was a rich visual experience with so much to take in.

The next exhibit was all about acting, from the stage to the screen. The final exhibit we toured in full was about sports. All of these exhibits showcased the cultural contributions of African Americans to American culture, highlighting inequalities overcome, civil rights advanced, and culture enriched. Black history and culture is American history and culture and these exhibits make that clear by focusing on how African Americans have been a part of it all by focusing on these overarching categories of music, film, sport, relatable categories for people of all backgrounds. 

I wish we could have stayed longer but tired brains and feet won out. We skipped the rest of the regular exhibits in favor of checking out the educational area which has a large digital, interactive kiosk of touch screens from which you can browse the museum’s collection. You can select items based on a wide variety of intersectional topics. This was a truly impressive digital resource that had information on so many artifacts both on exhibit and not.

I can’t wait to return to this museum and tour more of the exhibits. The importance of this museum for celebrating African American history and culture, for educating the public on the history of systemic racism, for educating the public on the history of black Americans, and for showcasing the important role African Americans have and continue to play in the development of culture in America cannot be overstated. I highly recommend visiting, taking your time, and taking it all in.

#MusicMonday: The 1992 Los Angeles Riots

On this day in 1992 the Los Angeles riots broke out in response to two specific incidents in the city and general mounting racial tensions. Just over a year prior an African American man, Rodney King, was beaten and tasered by police during a traffic stop/chase resulting in the officers involved being charged with excessive force.

Rodney King

Also around the same time a teenage African American girl, Latasha Harlins, was shot in a convenience store when the Korean-American shopkeeper accused the girl of trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. The shopkeeper grabbed the girl who hit the woman in order to break free. As the girl walked away the shopkeeper shot her in the back of the head. The girl was holding 2 dollars in one hand when her body was found by investigators. The 51-year-old woman who shot her was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and only ordered to pay a $500 fine and served no prison time.

On April 29, 1992 the officers in the Rodney King trial were acquitted of excessive force and assault charges based on blurry footage at the beginning of a tape showing the beating in which King tried to run away toward an officer.

The acquittal of these officers on top of the light sentencing of the shopkeeper in the death of Latasha Harlins caused many in the black community to further increase their distrust of the criminal justice system after years of accusations of excessive force by the LAPD against African Americans.

The racial tension between blacks and Koreans in LA had also long been brewing due to perceived slights on both sides. Many African Americans viewed the migrants as newcomers who were profiting off of the black community while simultaneously mistreating, stereotyping, and disrespecting them. Cultural differences and language barriers exacerbated the problem as well as economic difficulties facing the area.

All of these tensions came to a head when news of the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King reached South Central Los Angeles. Riots and looting broke out that lasted for days and resulted in 55 deaths, over 2,000 injuries, and more than $1 billion of damage. The National Guard was called in and the riots lasted for 6 days. More than 12,000 people were arrested. 65% of looted stores were Korean owned, but black and Latino-owned stores were also looted.

The events leading up to the riots, the riots themselves, and the aftermath all inspired and prompted responses from musicians of many genres, especially hip hop and rap artists. Here are 5 songs that came out of the Los Angeles riots.

  • “Hellrazor” – Tupac, 1997 (posthumous release)tupac

Lyrics that reference Latasha Harlins’ death: “Dear Lord if ya hear me, tell me why
Little girl like LaTasha, had to die
She never got to see the bullet, just heard the shot
Her little body couldn’t take it, it shook and dropped”

Tupac also made mention of Latasha in several of his other songs including “Something 2 Die 4,” “Thugz Mansion,” and “I Wonder if Heaven Got a Ghetto,” in which he raps, “Tell me what’s a black life worth/A bottle of juice is no excuse, the truth hurts.” He also dedicated “Keep Ya Head Up” to Latasha.

  • “Black Korea” – Ice Cube, 1991

Released after Latasha Harlins’ death but before the riots, this song was accused of inciting violence against Asian Americans and encouraging racism against them by African Americans. The song sheds light on the tensions between the two groups in South Central Los Angeles.

“Thinkin’ every brother in the world’s out to take
So they watch every damn move that I make
They hope I don’t pull out a gat and try to rob
They funky little store, but, b****, I got a job.”

  • “Livin’ on the Edge”- Aerosmith, 1993

Aerosmith has said that this song was inspired by the LA riots, but the lyrics do not specifically state anything that directly links back to the riots. Critics of the song argued it was a half-hearted attempt at social commentary.

“There’s somethin’ wrong with the world today
I don’t know what it is
Something’s wrong with our eyes
We’re seein’ things in a different way
And God knows it ain’t his
It sure ain’t no surprise”
  • “Free Your Mind” – En Vogue, 1992freeyourmind
The female group took a more positive approach and encouraged unity and discouraged stereotyping, prejudice, and racism.
“Why oh why must it be this way
Before you can read me you gotta learn how to see me, I said
Free your mind and the rest will follow
Be colour blind, don’t be so shallow.”
  • “Black Tie, White Noise” – David Bowie, 1993
In Los Angeles with his new wife, model Iman, Bowie witnessed the riots firsthand. This experience inspired “Black Tie, White Noise.” Bowie said of the riots: “It was awesome and numbing and it was the most apocalyptic experience I’ve been through in my life. It was a feeling of the irreconcilable differences that seem to have been fabricated in America and how hard it will be to reconcile those differences, to heal the wound, which is quite gaping.”
“Getting my facts from a Benneton ad
I’m lookin’ through African eyes
Lit by the glare of an L.A. fire
I’ve got a face, not just my race.”

Betsy Ross & the Myth of the First American Flag

Many elementary school children have heard of Betsy Ross, one of the few female figures of the Revolutionary War period of early American history that receives attention in classrooms. She is commonly known as the seamstress that created the first American flag. However, historical evidence actually does not exist to support this well-known “fact.”

The claim that Betsy Ross created the first American flag didn’t actually come up until the 1870s, about 100 years after her supposed accomplishment and when the nation was on the brink of celebrating its centennial of independence.

The story goes that George Washington himself, along with signers of the Declaration of Independence Robert Morris and George Ross (a relative of Betsy’s), went to Betsy Ross’s home in Philadelphia in June 1776 to discuss the need for a flag for the soon-to-be-declared independent United States. Ross looked at their design and suggested a change from a 6-pointed star to a 5-pointed star because it would be easier to sew and accepted the job of making the first flag. End of story? Not so much. 

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However, there are no written records of this meeting, of Betsy’s accepting the job, or of her completing the first American flag. Only oral tradition exists. The first time the public heard tale of Betsy Ross was when her grandson William Canby made a presentation in 1870 to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania claiming that his grandmother “made with her hands the first flag” of the United States. His source was another relative, making it simply family oral tradition without proof. 

Myths are often rooted in some truth and Betsy Ross was indeed an upholsterer (not a seamstress, but a related trade) and she did make flags for the burgeoning United States during the Revolutionary War, specifically for the Pennsylvania navy. But her role in the creation of the first American flag is contested.

Those who argue that the story isn’t true point to the lack of archival evidence–no letters, meeting minutes, resolutions, receipts, etc.–and to the fact that the first time it was brought up was 100 years after it supposedly happened. In the 1870s the public was quick to believe the story as patriotism geared up in honor of the nation’s centennial celebration in 1876 and looked for heroes and heroines of the Revolution to honor and revere. Also, there were many upholsterers in Philadelphia that could have made the flag.

However, those that argue its truth have several interesting points as well, as outlined by the Betsy Ross House house museum’s website. Betsy’s relation to George Ross through her marriage could mean that she would have been selected to work on the flag over the many other upholsterers in Philadelphia. Betsy and her husband John had made bed hangings for George Washington in 1774, making him familiar with her work. Also, Betsy made other flags for the United States and had many government contracts over the years, well into the 19th century.

At the end of the day, one must decide for themselves. It remains a historical question that simply cannot be answered. It has not been proven true nor false. 

BetsyRossBicentennial-1952

The attention placed on Betsy Ross has meant that much about her life is known and preserved, which regardless of her role in the creation of the first flag, is important historical information about women’s lives during the Revolution and the early years of the new nation. She certainly led an interesting life. A few quick facts about Betsy Ross:

  1. She was born into a Quaker family, but was expelled from the Quaker church (and cut off from her family) when she married John Ross, a son of a revered of the Church of England. The two fell in love when they were both apprenticed to the same upholsterer and they eloped.
  2. They were married just a few short years before John died, possibly in a gunpowder explosion in his role as a member of the local militia.
  3. Her second husband, Jacob Ashburn, also died just a few years after their marriage–he died while imprisoned for treason in a British jail.
  4. She married for a third time – John Claypoole – and had several children, but all the while she continued the upholstery business.
  5. Her business efforts supported the Continental Army for which she made and mended uniforms, tents, blankets, etc. Acts that were technically treason against Britain.

Read more about her:

From the Betsy Ross House: http://historicphiladelphia.org/betsy-ross-house/woman/ 

From Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: http://www.common-place-archives.org/vol-08/no-01/ulrich/

Ulrich’s Review of Marla Miller’s biography of Betsy Ross (which I also recommend): https://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/books/review/Ulrich-t.html

Marla Miller’s book Betsy Ross and the Making of America: https://www.amazon.com/Betsy-Making-America-Marla-Miller/dp/B00BFQCIDA

What do you think? Truth or myth?