The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in September 2016, and I was anxious to visit. It was probably the second hottest ticket to obtain, next to Hamilton, and it’s free. Back in October, I sat in the parking lot of a courthouse with my phone ready to purchase tickets for January 2017. I was able to score two timed passes for a Saturday visit during MLK weekend right when it opened at 10:00 AM.
When the day of our visit came, my mom and I showed up right at 10:00 AM. We did not expect there to be any lines since our timed passes were for when the museum first opened and they also don’t allow walk-ins on the weekend. We were wrong. The line was making it’s way to the street on a cold wet D.C. morning. We stood in line for about 30 minutes, and finally got in. Apparently, the time on one’s ticket means nothing. As long as one has a ticket for that day, he can show up any time he feels like it. So there were people with tickets for 3 pm who arrived right when the museum opened, causing a bit of chaos.
My mom and I headed to the information desk and obtained a map of the museum. The helpful woman manning the desk recommended that we start with the lowest level and make our way up. We took her advice and took the escalator down to the Concourse level to stand in a long line that would take us on an elevator down to the lowest level.
C3: Slavery and Freedom (1400 – 1877)
Concourse 3 is the lowest level of the museum, and begins with the Transatlantic Slave Trade and goes through to the Emancipation Proclamation. My apologies, but I was slaveried out. I spent the latter half of 2016 researching my family history, learning about the Declaration of Independence’s intentional failure to include slaves while I was in Philadelphia, and I visiting a slave plantation a few weeks before I got to NMAAHC.
Add that to the fact that I was overwhelmed with the number of visitors that morning, and I needed a moment to adjust. We breezed through C3 pretty quickly and without paying too much attention to the wealth of information. We did notice some notable displays that included Harriet Tubman’s lace shawl gifted to her by Queen Victoria, Nat Turner’s bible, a cotton gin, and a slave cabin.C2: Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation (1878 – 1968)
At this point, African Americans have obtained freedom, but they aren’t really free. What did it even mean to be free? The struggle continued. They discussed the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the burden of segregation, and derogatory stereotypes. I didn’t realize it until after the fact, but C2 had one of the better displays and we missed it. Emmett Till’s casket is on display at NMAAHC, and it was on my list of must-sees, but I had no idea it was deep in a corner on that floor until I started writing this post. C2 is just loaded with great artifacts. Along with Till’s casket, there is a Tuskegee airplane, segregated railroad car, lunch counter, and a prison guard tower from Angola prison.Angola farm is formally known as Louisiana State Penitentiary, but it was a slave plantation before it became a penal institution.
I’m from Louisiana so I’ve visited Angola before for a school field trip. Let’s just say that it’s still a slave plantation – they just call the slaves prisoners now.
C1: A Changing America (1968 and Beyond)
This was my favorite level, highlighting a time where we got into the Black Power movement and embraced the Black is Beautiful slogan. It featured Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, among others, in a beautifully empowering display.
The main concourse level is where the Sweet Home Cafe is located for dining. We couldn’t have a museum dedicated to African Americans without soul food, now could we?! We stood in line for about 20 minutes before we could even get in. I had shrimp and grits it was okay. My mom had fried fish, mac and cheese, and green beans that she didn’t enjoy. I have accepted that no other place in America can throw down in a kitchen like the state of Louisiana, so I walk into restaurants with low expectations.
L1: Entrance Level
This is where the museum gift shop is located. I was excited about the gift shop, but didn’t buy anything. Nothing really caught my eye at a comfortable price point. This is also where lockers are located. Unfortunately, weren’t nearly enough lockers to meet the demand, so we held on to our coats the entire visit.
L2: Explore More!
This level featured an interactive stepping tutorial. I competed in and won one step show in college with my sorority, so I know a few moves. It was a good time, and a nice addition to the museum. I really think NMAAHC covered everything, and has something to offer everyone of all ages.
There was also an exhibit on this level about the Green Book, an essential guide for black travelers in the mid-20th century that provided information on sundown towns to avoid at night, areas where blacks would be welcomed, and areas to proceed with caution.
L3: Community Galleries
The community galleries focused on sports, church, and organizations. One of the more fascinating displays was the Olympic costume of gold medalist Gabby Douglas. Oh my, I didn’t realize how small she was! The leotard looked like it belonged to a four year old! Now I need to meet her just to see how petite she is with my own eyes.
L4: Culture Galleries
This level had everything from art to music to fashion. It displayed Chuck Berry’s Cadillac, Bootsy Collins’ mothership, New Orleans chef Leah Chase’s red chef jacket, and so much more. One of my favorite finds was Celia Cruz’s dress. I started watching the Celia telenovela on Netflix that is 80 episodes long. I’m on episode 54 now, and I am obsessed! Every time I hear “La Negra Tiene Tumbao” start playing at the beginning of an episode, you can’t tell me my voice doesn’t sound like Celia!
We were at the NMAAHC for five hours, and still missed a lot. Someone could easily spend days thoroughly reading and learning about African Americans at this museum. The one thing that I expected to see, but didn’t, was artwork from Jean-Michel Basquiat. I very well may have missed it, but I was surprised not to find him nor Kehinde Wiley in the Visual Arts section of the museum. Again, perhaps I missed it.
The museum was crowded early and it got worse as the day went on. I wasn’t mentally prepared for it. I expected heavy traffic, but I didn’t expect so many people so early in the day. Because of this, I felt rushed in some areas. The C levels were the busiest because it is the area where first-timers are recommended to explore first. I would love to visit this museum again, but I certainly won’t be going back until the hype dies down a bit. How long will that take? Years?