My trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. was a poignant one. The visit started with an elevator ride down to the building’s lowest level. “1968” … “1954” … “1948” … “1865” — the years on the wall counted down as the elevator descended. I knew each year must’ve been picked for a significant event that occurred — the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1968 or the end of the Civil War in 1865 — but for many of the years (especially the older ones), I didn’t know what specifically was being referenced. “1808”… “1776” … “1565.” Finally, the elevator stopped and the door opened. The wall read “1400”.
According to my most conservative estimates, 1400 is a good two centuries before any of my past American history courses began. As a result, I didn’t know exactly what I’d encounter, but I predicted it wouldn’t be positive. My hunch was correct.
Immediately, I was greeted with information and beautiful artifacts from pre-Columbian Africa, but it didn’t take long before I was shown the horrors of the Middle Passage and slave-life in Colonial America. The next section focused on slave-life in the Antebellum South (which was marked by the same savage treatment received by the slaves who came before) and life in the Jim Crow South. Finally, as I worked my way back up to the top of the museum, I walked through the exhibit about modern Black life in America. As “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five played in the background — a song my parents frequently played during my childhood — I read about the crack epidemic, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina and education inequalities.
There was no happy ending. As a Black American, that wasn’t comforting — but it also wasn’t surprising. I went in knowing there’s still much work left to be done, and I didn’t leave any more optimistic for the future.
As I exited the exhibits, I entered the “Contemplative Court." Earlier in the morning, the guide on the elevator told us about this room. In fact, she recommended spending some time there to reflect on what we were about to see and learn. In the center of the room sat a large, circular pool. Water rained down around the perimeter, and the drops lit up as they hit the water below. To me — and to many people, as I learned after conducting more research once I returned home — those drops symbolized the tears of those who came before me. The tears were from the people who suffered during the Middle Passage, the slave families separated on the auction block and the Black students who were denied an equal shot at education. However, as their tears hit the water, the light symbolized the progress made possible by their sacrifices — they didn’t suffer in vain.
As I looked up from the fountain, ready to leave the room, the quote on the wall caught my eye. Across from me, the wall read, “A change is gonna come” — a line from the chorus of Sam Cooke’s 1964 song with the same name. With the negative mood left by the museum, I was particularly affected, almost relieved, by that line. While the exhibits offered little solace, the “Contemplative Court” and Sam Cooke’s quote gave me optimism for the future. While I can’t go back to undo the suffering of the past, I can fight for a more just future — the only way to truly ensure that those tears weren’t cried in vain.