Reflections from the capital
During this past Spring Break, several Michigan in Color editors were given the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. to discover forgotten histories in our nation’s capital. From visits to the National Museum of African American History and Culture and National Portrait Gallery to traversing the now-gentrified streets of Chinatown, we were reminded of how dominant narratives in the United States erase the history and contributions of people of color and the resistance necessary to create a more equitable society.
At all of the museums we visited — and especially the National Museum of African American History and Culture — we were impressed by the focus on activists we never learned about before coming to the University of Michigan. While Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ruby Bridges all undoubtedly played monumental roles in the ongoing struggle for racial equality, it was interesting and refreshing to learn about those who risked it all so we could live out their dreams, despite receiving little national recognition. While the aforementioned key organizers had their space in the museum, the NMAAHC also had information about local organizers, students and brave families who had just as much to lose but were seemingly forgotten by history. While learning about larger-than-life figures is important, it’s just as important to remember the Civil Rights Movement — like all other social movements — was powered by individuals who put themselves on the line for the chance of a better future.
We were also impressed by how the museums we visited framed our narratives. Oftentimes, people of color are portrayed as “sidekicks” or passive victims of greater societal events. The museums we visited told another story. In these spaces, POC were centered and portrayed as active agents in their own lives. For example, the National Museum of the American Indian emphasized Native Americans did not just passively agree to leave their land and walk what is now called the Trail of Tears — many fought against the colonizers and negotiated treaties that would’ve been mutually beneficial. Additionally, we learned about many different instances when Native Americans used the American court system to reclaim the land that was stolen from them in the past. These examples highlight that history is not just what is taught to us in school: POC have always been and always will be powerful agents of change. Because our narratives are very rarely front and center in history lessons, visiting these museums — which highlighted the narratives of POC — was especially impactful to see.
One of the only aspects of social movements that we felt wasn’t properly displayed was the role of coalition building and alliances. When we walked through the museums, we struggled to find evidence of the initiatives and impacts of coalitions and allies among different groups of POCs. However, just because the actions of allies were not highlighted, this does not remove their necessity nor their contributions. Coalitions unify individuals and groups interested in a common goal, enabling them to adequately share resources, information and numbers. The call for coalitions is becoming even more significant, and we can see this being carried out on our own campus. Student organizations, such as MuJew, the Black-Asian Coalition and Leaders of Education, Advocacy, and Diversity are formal coalition-building spaces focused on creating community and change across identity lines. Similarly, organizations like La Casa and the Muslim Students Association have made it a priority to facilitate cross-cultural sharing and to strengthen social change networks. Now more than ever, organizations are realizing the power that is made by establishing relationships across our communities.
Most importantly, the trip allowed for plentiful self-reflection. As MiC continues to grow, we strive to remain a platform that accurately showcases the myriad of experiences of POC. To focus on race in isolation — without discussion of how gender, sexuality, ability status and other social identities affect our experience — is to also promote a dominant narrative and forget the histories of students on this campus.