As part of the Smithsonian Institution, the newest museum on the National Mall is a place where we can finally understand our complete history as Americans. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is essential to the telling of the American saga and an important correction to the distortions, deceits and denials surrounding the black experience in this country. So much of the story of Africans in America has been hidden, ignored or disputed. Now we can abide by the Sankofa phrase that urges, "Go back and get it."
For centuries, blacks were forbidden by law from learning to read, and later, were not taught about black history. As a young child, I learned about Crispus Attucks, a black soldier who was the first person to die in the Revolutionary War. My older sister helped me to write about it for school, but my teacher dismissed my report, saying she never heard of him, nor was he mentioned in our history book.
During my college years, there was only one course in black literature. But once I became a member of the academy at a New England college in the early 1970s, new efforts were rising to challenge the contents of college curricula, as growing numbers of black scholars began to probe unexplored depths, produce new books and then petition to expand the courses beyond the contributions of dead white men. Many academics retorted that such extraneous content was lower than the prevailing standards of scholarship and represented a movement toward the closing of the American mind. Blacks, they maintained, had neither history nor culture.
In this nation's beginnings the dominant culture defined African Americans as humans without dignity — and often not as humans at all but, primarily, an excellent source of free labor. For the most part, white men saw blacks only as indentured servants whom they soon transformed into slaves. In recent decades, a wider and significant body of scholarship has been unearthed and published: a new story about a "no people" of ebony hue who emerged from nothing but nevertheless made widespread and significant contributions in various spheres.
Twelve million Africans were captured in the first phase of slavery of the Middle Passage. These dark men and women were fettered with chains and brought to a strange land naked, terrified and unable to speak the language. Out of nothing but demeaning experiences of brutality and oppression, the sons and daughters of Africa arrived in America as shackled chattel and became builders of plantations and universities, housemaids, and caregivers to white children and those who were sick, weak and elderly. They planted and picked the cotton, grew the tobacco and cultivated the rice that fueled an economic explosion for the emerging nation. Black men dug the railroad tracks and constructed public squares. All spheres of the new nation's development were augmented by slave labor.
The story of Africans in America is amazing and reflects both tragedies and triumphs. This new museum enables all Americans, whether their ancestors sailed here on the Mayflower or were brought here on a slave ship, to witness that our nation was once deeply divided because of our past of enslavement, segregation, Jim Crow and injustice. Blacks have endured the lingering impact of our oppressive and violent racial past. Yet beyond the suffering and pain, the injustices and cruelty, Africans in American survived and confounded those who sought to oppress them. Now this new place of remembrance not only affirms, but gives increased and solid evidence about, the black role in building America. It is a place that tells a more complete history of our nation because the black experience is the "quintessential American story." It is also a symbol of what we have achieved as millions moved from slavery to freedom. It is a site where we can examine the nation's history from an honest confrontation with the facts and the truth of our past.
Culture has the power to bring people together to share and celebrate the contents of our collective past. This museum represents the full spectrum of the black experience reflected in similar ways that other groups are represented, revered and remembered. Amid today's racial tensions, this museum, which opens to the public Sept. 24, affirms the humanity and contributions of African Americans and enables all Americans to recognize one people and one America: e pluribus unum.
Raymond S. Blanks formerly served as the director of Minority Student Services at The Catholic University of America; he is now retired and resides in Washington, D.C. His email is BRsb20002@aol.com.