The hottest ticket in Washington, D.C., is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the newest of the Smithsonian Institution museums. I never thought I would be among the first members of the public to tour the museum, and I certainly did not anticipate the experience to be so profound.
Since opening Sept. 24, the museum is averaging 6,000 visitors daily on weekdays and 8,000- 8,500 on weekends. All reserve tickets have been spoken for through March 2017. Hundreds of people line up daily for the few same-day tickets available. Many have to settle for gazing at the majestic facade, which was inspired in part by a carved wooden sculpture by the Yoruba artist Olowe of Ise. Inside the museum, a figure of a king wears a headdress with the same three-level, inverted-pyramid silhouette.
For those who make it inside, 36,000 artifacts in 420,000 square feet of interior space tell the distinctive story of African-American history and culture, from the origins and history of the slave trade to the modern African-American experience.
Two weeks after the museum opened, I screened my documentary film, the fly in the buttermilk, at the Harbor Institute’s 7th Annual Roadtrip! leadership conference in Washington for members of culturally based fraternities and sororities. the fly in the buttermilk, which I completed in April, examines the experiences of black Greek letter organizations on predominantly white campuses.
Rasheed Ali Cromwell, founder of Harbor Institute, organizes trips for conference participants to cultural exhibitions in Washington to explore the bigger picture of social responsibility. Our destination was the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
I had watched televised coverage of the grand opening ceremony. My family and I cheered from our couch in Jackson during President Obama’s dedication speech. I read celebrities on social media raving about their journey through the exhibits.
But, honestly, I did not know know what to expect once I walked in.
Navigating through the museum, I met many people from different parts of the country, different ages and different professional backgrounds. One thing they all had in common was an instant look of sympathy on their faces after I mentioned that I was from Mississippi.
Walking from exhibit to exhibit, often times I became frustrated and sad. But ultimately, I felt empowered by the many successes of African-American men and women who were black, proud and loud in the streets of Mississippi. Artifacts from my biggest role models, Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer and Medgar Evers, motivated me to continue in the direction of fairness, civility and service to all mankind.
The museum also challenged the idea and definition of my ancestry. In an old journal displayed behind a glass wall, many names of married slave couples were scripted. Seeing them, I instantly wondered about my personal African-American lineage. Beyond what I learned in the oral histories of my great-grandparents, what did I know about my family’s heritage? Where did home begin for my ancestors?
I discovered a sense of home at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Now I begin my search for my forebears’ home.