Reflections on the National Museum of African American History: Visit One

Reflections on the National Museum of African American History: Visit One

I hope this works. I hope this works!

I held up my Smithsonian contractor badge to the National Museum of African American History’s guards, expecting to be turned down. I passed through the staff entrance, and the second guard waved me in to go ahead.

FINALLY.

I was glowing.  Washington, D.C. has been my home for two months, but I still couldn’t get a ticket. I was allowed to be inside, at last! How competitive is it to get into this museum that opened in in September of 2016?

Well, here’s part of their “things to know” part of their website:

“Same-day, timed passes are available online only, beginning at 6:30 a.m. daily.  A limited number of walk-up passes are available at the Museum on weekdays, beginning at 1 p.m.”

I’ve heard friends mention how lucky they were not only go be able to get a timed ticket, but to be able to take time off work in order to do so. Tour buses load people here every day, and I can only imagine how much in advance they must reserve their tickets.

So, how did I get in? Since I’m giving walking tours at the American History Museum, I have a Smithsonian employee badge that grants me employee access (and a sweet discount at the gift shops and food courts!).

I’d finally made it after weeks of cycling past with my bike tours, only being able to explain the NMAAHC’s design from the outside. Tourists cannot help but wonder what this building is, its corona-like, multilevel design and brown color standing in stark contrast to the white monuments. Even the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial is made up of a Chinese, white stone (of hope).

Sir David F. Adjaye, a Ghanaian British Architect, modeled The NMAAHC’ after crowns worn by the people of the Yoruban culture. Step closer, and it looks as if each panel is carved in the most intricate way. It reminded me of the intricate design that gates have in Mexico. They are ornate and functional.

The museum closes at 5:30 daily, and since I’d just gotten off work, I only had two hours. I began my visit at the the amazing Sweet Home Café, and as I expected, I had to wait in line. This museum is still so crowded that they can only let in a few folks at a time. Luckily, the menu was waiting outside with me as I decided what to get. There was regional food from places like the Creole Coast: Gulf Shrimp & Anson Mills Stone Ground Grits – featuring the premier corn-product from popular Columbia, S.C.-based Anson Mills alongside smoked tomato butter, caramelized leeks and crispy Tasso. There was corn bread and there were collard greens.

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I went with The Agricultural South’s BBQ pork sandwich, slaw, pickled okra, baked mac & cheese, and a lemon bar.

I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be alone for long. I walked my tray over to a table in the middle of the huge cafeteria. As I bit into my mac and cheese, Franklin E. McCain’s piercing gaze met mine. His seriousness under his thick, black rimmed glasses reminded me that while yes, I was here to enjoy the food, that I shouldn’t take my decision to sit wherever I wanted to for granted.

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Franklin was one of four African American college students who, in 1960, sat down at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for service, but after being rejected, they didn’t budge. Their passive resistance sparked a youth-led movement to challenge racial inequality throughout the South-and the world.

Soon enough, an older African American couple with hot dogs and orange Fantas on their trays sat down with me. I was frustrated by the fact that while this café had a variety of Southern comfort foods on display, hot dogs were the most affordable, filling items on the menu for them. The older woman and I started talking about the prices. She said “Can you believe it costs $7 for two sodas? Do you know how many sodas I could buy at the grocery store with that?”

I felt comfortable yet unsure of just exactly how accessible this museum really was. Maybe they have to offset the costs because this is a free museum, after all. One reason I love the Smithsonian Institute is that their initial endowment was given with the assurance that they would continue the dissemination of knowledge and that this would be free to the public-forever.

Soon enough, the granddaughter, who was in town for an interview, came and sat with us. I told her this was my first time here, and she mentioned the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, which is also one of the country’s 19 Smithsonian museums. Her mom rolled grandma up on her wheelchair and offered everyone yams, green beans, and fried fish on little plates. They were from North Carolina, D.C., all over. I could relate to them on that level.

It was nice to sit and chat with a family while enjoying rich, stick-to-your ribs food. “Who wants some potato salad?” Mom said, as she looked at me, and only me, knowing I’d accept. I giggled and spooned some on my plate, mentioning that I was not on a diet.

I only had an hour to explore, and the suggested I start from the bottom floor (there are two floors below and three above ground) because the journey begins with the slave trade and is, needless to say, an emotional one. I was already feeling so many different emotions just while enjoying a sandwich.

As I walked down the elevator, I saw something I thought I’d never see in this museum: Just another white, teenage boy, wearing a “Make America Great Again” sweatshirt. Other than the sweatshirt, he looked like just another boy on a field trip. What is he doing here? Did his teacher make him come? What is he thinking? I was confused, then relieved, that he was at least in a space like this that would hopefully make him question what the phrase on his sweatshirt even meant, once he’d realize that one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, owned 609 slaves.

As a guard lowered myself and other guests down in an oversized elevator, he dismissed us with “I hope you have a kleenex. You’ll need one!”

And so, the journey began, past the miniature shackles used for children crossing the Atlantic-if they survived at all- and into Brazil, Jamaica, Virginia…

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“I admit I am sickened at the purchase of slaves…but I must be mumm, for how could we do without sugar and rum?” -William Cowper, you just explained Colonialism in a nutshell.

Then came the exhibit on the American Revolution. For the first time, I’d seen an image of Boston King, a former slave turned Loyalist soldier. That’s how both the British and Americans recruited black men–by offering their freedom, if they didn’t die from smallpox or musket fire. It was so powerful to see images of men like Boston and Crispus Attucks (this runaway slave was the first man to die in the Boston Massacre, which partially led to The American Revolution) being represented along with the countless other images of white men serving in the war that we’ve all seen.

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Boston King, a former American slave-turned British Loyalist who, after fighting in the American Revolution, peaced out to Canada then Sierra Leone, where he helped found Freetown.. Painting by John Singleton Copley.

The next room was one of my favorites. It exposed Thomas Jefferson’s faults. While, yes, he was an intelligent white man, inventor, Vice President, writer, and more, he also owned slaves. He wasn’t as enlightened as we think. Presidents would continue to hve had slave ownership up until Ulysses S. Grant. Yes, the general who helped the Union win The Civil War owned a slave at one point in his life. I knew Jefferson had slaves, but I hadn’t known that the children he’d had with one of his slaves (starting when she was 17), all inherited the same title as their mother. All men aren’t created so equal, are they?

As I was processing this, a young black girl stood between her mother and a glass case with shackles for slaves inside of them.

“Those were to make sure that the slaves wouldn’t escape” the mother explained to her little girl. “They even put them around their ankles?” she asked, innocently. “Mmhmm, even around their ankles,” mom said, cooly.

As a white presenting Mexican with a white presenting Mexican mother, I would never have been able to feel that sense of “This could have been me” in the way that this mother and her daughter probably felt and were used to feeling.

I barely made it to the section with Harriet Tubman, who was instrumental in bringing slaves up North through The Underground Railroad, when a guard told us the museum was closing. I hadn’t even made it past this floor before it was time to go. So, just like everyone else, I walked intentionally slowly so that I could savor my final seconds in this revealing place.

Finally, the National Museum of African American History’s was giving me what I needed: Real Talk. Real History. I’ll be back for more.

Featured image of the NMAAH by Flickr user cmfgu.

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Come with me on a Bike and Roll Cherry Blossom Tour!

Bike tours are some of the best ways to get to know a city, especially one as historical as Washington, DC. This Spring we’re offering Cherry Blossom tours, and I’ve enjoyed learning the history about these beautiful trees found in DC.

Cherry Blossoms
I’ve never been much of a watercolor paint fan until I painted this piece. You can’t mention spring in DC without mentioning the cherry blossoms!

 

The Japanese sent about 3,000 trees to DC in 1912 as a diplomatic gift to the U.S. and many of them have lived twice as long as their expected lifespans of forty years! While 3% die each year, saplings with the original trees’ DNA are kept in the National Arboretum. We’ve actually donated trees back to Japan when they lost them due to flooding in the ’50s and ’80s.

I learned all of this as I prep to lead Cherry Blossoms bike tours with Bike and Roll DC -check us out when you’re in town!

 

Travel Throwback: Susie’s Travels From Australia to Qatar

I want to learn from women who traveled before my millenial generation took the social media world by storm. Women traveled before people announced their engagements on facebook statuses and used selfie sticks to prove where they’ve been. What were their fears? How did they discover the world and themselves?

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Susie with her daughter, Lauren, at Yosemite National Park.

Here is fellow Wellesley Alum Susie Billings‘ story.

1. Where are you and your family from originally? Where have they been and why?

My dad only ever “lived abroad” when he was stationed in England during WWII. He never got his three day pass to London, as his plane was shot down, and then he was a prisoner of war in Germany. He passed through the Paris rail yards on his return home. When I was 11, we made a trip to London and later to Paris as he wanted to see the places he didn’t get to see. They took me when I was young, as I traveled on a child’s fare on the airplane, and they hoped I would be old enough to remember.

My dad’s family traces its history to the Mayflower and I qualify through his side to be a “daughter of the American Revolution”. My mum was 5th generation Australian – originally from Britain but post convict era. My mum had a major tragedy just before she was 17- her father was murdered and the guy tried to get my mum and her mum too, but was unsuccessful.

I believe this was her major impetus to “get away”.

When she was 20, she had moved to the opposite side of the country, to West Australia (she is from Melbourne), but she came home to celebrate her 21st birthday. A couple years later she and a friend (who is now my mother in law) went to work in New Zealand. A few years after that she moved to London and worked there to find travels around Europe. I know a few of her friends did similar things. It was very common for Australians to travel to the UK and then travel around Europe before returning home to marry and have families. All Australians travelled on British passports until 1967, I think.

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Paris, the Sunday after the November attack. Photo by Susie Billings.

2. Did Wellesley College influence you to travel at all? What was it like going there for you?

Wellesley didn’t influence me to travel as I already had the travel bug. I had grown up in California so the climate of Boston was a big shock, needed a new wardrobe and did call come pretty regularly but really wanted to get away from where I grew up. I had always said I appreciated where I grew up, but it wasn’t somewhere I wanted to live.

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Rice fields of Vietnam. Photo by Susie Billings.

3. What did your loved ones think about your mom traveling? What did they think about you traveling?

I know my mum’s sister moved around Australia due to her husband’s job and my mum was overseas so I know my mum’s mum was sad she was away. I think it was understood that she wasn’t settled anywhere – she didn’t meet my dad or get married until she was 33. She had me at 36.

My parents always encouraged me to travel and they were able to help fund it when I was younger. However, none of my friends traveled, and we were considered very unusual. In fact, we often didn’t say much about our travels as there was some jealously about us traveling. On the other hand, other people had fancy cars and bought bigger houses, fancy TVs, and sound systems. We had second hand cars and stayed in the same subdivision house as our funds went towards travel.

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“We had second hand cars and stayed in the same subdivision house as our funds went toward travel” Photo of Venice by Susie Billings.

4. What was it like staying in touch with loved ones thousands of miles away?

Calls home to my mum’s family when I was a kid were for three minutes at Christmas. The line used to beep so you knew your three minutes were up. Otherwise, we called only for emergencies or major news. Sometimes cassettes would be recorded and sent in the post.

We would get a half hour news reel of what is going on in our loved ones’ lives.

We sent the annual Christmas letter to everyone “back home” so they would know what was going on in our lives. We filled every square inch of airletters – really fine paper that folded over so there was no envelope to make the airmail postage as inexpensive as possible. And we always did gifts and Christmas letters early so they could do the international portion by sea mail. That way, it was much, much cheaper!

My now husband and I have a stack of letters we wrote to each other over 18 months of our long distance relationship. We sometimes wrote four page letters as we knew it would be several weeks between exchanges of letters.

I recently ran across a letter from my mum’s mum to my mum berating her for not keeping up her correspondence!

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Bryce Canyon. Photo by Susie Billings.

5. Some people say that people traveled as much back then as they do now. We just make a bigger deal about it now with social media. How do you think social media has framed how we view travel today?

I don’t think people travelled as much at all. We would save for years and years to travel to Australia for special occasions. Dad would bank his holiday time and we would have to travel with lots and lots of stopovers. We lived in the Sacramento area and we would have to fly first to LA, then to Hawaii, then to Fiji, then to Sydney, and then to Melbourne. It was very time consuming and costly.

Today you can fly non- stop from San Francisco to Sydney in under 14 hours – the same journey used to take closer to 24. Also, with the advent of much more competition with international flights, frequent flyer programmes, and budget airlines, relative prices are so much cheaper.

In fact, overseas travel was so uncommon that people would hold slide nights at their homes to share their experiences with their friends!

There weren’t web sites to google- only some picture books at a store or library. I have an ongoing project of going through both my parents and grandparents slides. They are labeled in cartridges and I remember pulling down slide projection screens mounted in some people’s homes.

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“Overseas travel was so uncommon that people would hold slide nights at their homes to share their experiences with friends!” Photo of London by Susie Billings.

6. Do you remember your first flight? How did you feel?

I don’t remember my first flight, as I was two. My mum took me to Australia for the first time to meet her family. To save money, my dad didn’t come. My mum was so proud I was “potty trained,” but then when I had to use the airplane bathroom (which makes a VERY loud sucking sound when you flush), apparently all that training went out the window- much to her dismay.

7. Traveling has become pretty normal for you. I’m the first in my immigrant Mexican family to move and live abroad by choice and not necessity. Did you face pushback for leaving home?

Not from my family, since my mother had already done it herself. But, I still have family friends in California asking when will I move back home, even though I left in 1986!

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A balancing act in Vietnam. Photo by Susie Billings.

8. How and why were you able to travel so much?

Initially support from family until I was 20 – for family trips and a religious camp and school trips, then I prioritised savings and lived fairly minimally so could continue to travel. Also, worked for an international company so I took advantage of lots of business travel. Other than my initial self-funded move to Australia after graduation, the rest of the moves have been on a company’s dime. I have stayed in a lot of youth hostels – even now in my late 40’s, I have been known to stay in a hostel from time to time and have a favorite one star hotel in Paris that we have stayed in when we took the Eurostar from London. I believe more in traveling for the experience, than for the luxury. I’ve also developed a broad network of people who host us.

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Scuba diving in The Great Barrier Reef! Photo by Susie Billings.

9. Where are you now? What’s next?

I am kind of in two places at the moment. I have lived with my husband and two kids in Qatar for over 8 years. He has a great job and they are in a good school, but I was treading water. I am now in London for an academic year doing another masters and visiting “home in Qatar” when possible. I also use Skype/FaceTime iMessage to stay in touch with my family’s daily life. We have a bank of air miles (my husband travels a lot for work) so I am hoping to go home once a month. We may be in Qatar for another six years to get our kids through high school, but we never know for sure.We also don’t know for sure where we will end up or where we will go next.

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On Safari with Brett, Lachlan, and Lauren in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Susie Billings.
Traveling (and then working abroad) has been very enriching for us intellectually, socially, financially.

We got one of Hotmail’s first “free” email addresses back in 1996. In those days, you had to have subscriptions with a service provider like AOL. That way, we kept in touch with family and friends while we backpacked around the world for about 9 months in 1997. There were no cell phones to travel with then, and we would drop into Internet cafés every couple of weeks and send a long note to let people know we were still alive.

Given how I hover over my own kids now, and how I want them to text me back immediately, I am amazed at how relaxed my parents were about me traveling like that.

Lastly, I remember in my first job out of college in Melbourne, Australia, where I met colleagues who were originally from England, who had migrated to Australia, and had never returned. Airline travel was really a major expense and families from Melbourne would road trip 16 hours up to Queensland for their holidays with packed lunches. My husband, who is from Australia, didn’t travel on an airplane until he was in his late teens. Most Australians “did Europe” once in their early twenties and then maybe traveled overseas when they retired. Now with cheap airfares tons go to Bali or Hong Kong. Sometimes now it is still cheaper to travel overseas from Australia than to fly within Australia!

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More than just a bird’s eye view of Doha, Qatar. Photo by Susie Billings.

Thanks for sharing your story with us, Susie!

Want to read more “Travel Before Facebook” stories? Check out my Wanderful column! I interview Barbara Bergin, whose grandmother traveled the world on freighters.