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.


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.

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.

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…

“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.

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.


Happy #WorldTeachersDay! Here’s how you can help Nicaragua’s Hope Bilingual Academy.

Happy #WorldTeachersDay! Here’s how you can help Nicaragua’s Hope Bilingual Academy.

Happy #WorldTeachersDay!

As part of the Writer’s Academy I completed, my final assignment was to write about a piece for the GoAbroad Foundation‘s blog. I pitched to write about the Hope Bilingual Academy because of the amazing work Patricia Shronce has done with her retirement money to fund an entire school public school.

Read all about what makes Patricia a one woman army and how you can help here!

It’s no wonder she’s the Philanthropist of the Month. Corey Haynes, TEFL 64, invited me to come write about the school months ago, and I’ve continued to write about it because I haven’t found any other schools quite like it. Hope is the Go Abroad Foundation’s Pledge Beneficiary of October, which means any donations that go through this blog post will go to the school. We’ve all have amazing teachers we haven’t thanked enough, and here’s a chance to help out an amazing teacher, principal, mother, and more! Anything is appreciated! Thank you ❤

No Child Left Behind and The Importance of Student Relationships

Image Above: A Mural of the late Tejana Singer Selena Quintanilla in San Antonio, Texas. I tutored at Burbank Public High School from 2012-2013. Photo by Flickr user John Fisch

President Obama recently made headlines, saying that before leaving office, the Department of Education is to start phasing out President Bush’s 2002 “No Child Left Behind” Act.

The act mandated yearly math and reading tests to ensure proficiency, but states were falling behind. The Department of Education is to only offer “high-quality” tests and to minimize test taking to only 2% of class time.

This shift from standardized testing to focusing on student relationships reminds me of my “Philosophy of Teaching” Reflection I wrote before teaching English in Nicaragua:

August, 2014.

How do I feel about being a TEFL teacher in Nicaragua? I chose teaching because I enjoy being challenged and I enjoy inspiring others to take ownership of their learning. As the daughter of working-class Mexican immigrants, I was privileged enough to grow up in a household that fostered a safe learning environment. My parents never stopped stressing the importance of learning, and we would often spend weeknights watching educational programming on PBS and on the Discovery Channel. I have fond memories of learning about the human body’s resilience in fighting viruses and about just how dangerous it would be for an astronaut to take off their helmet on Pluto, thanks to “The Magic School Bus”.

Looking back, it just made the most sense for me to become an educator later on. Being a teacher fits my identity as an intellectually curious Latina Woman, because from an early age, I was empowered with the idea that I could go anywhere I wanted to in life, as long as I retained my thirst for learning. In order to grow as a fair, inspiring teacher, I will continue to focus on my abilities as an authoritative, clear, and consistent educator.

While I appreciate my upbringing now, I took it for granted most of my life. I tutored at-risk high schoolers with City Year in the working-class, Latin@ southside in racially segregated San Antonio, Texas.

Then, I realized that although my family did not have much money, I was very lucky to grow up with a love of learning.

Many of my high schoolers didn’t live in households that promoted learning in safe ways. My students were more occupied with maybe eating breakfast and helping raise their siblings, instead of focusing on how to pass standardized tests that held few real-world implications for them. It makes sense.

Several of them were homeless, had parents in jail, and lived off of unhealthy meals. I remember asking one of my students, Lisa, who always wore bright red lipstick and a bright red jacket, who she was writing a letter to in class. “I’m writing to my dad. He’s in jail”, she said, her eyes downcast, but with a matter-a-fact tone. Who could blame her for eating hot cheetos first thing in the morning? It was the cheapest, most satisfying snack she could find.

This public health issue of denying students their basic nutrition could not be blamed on anyone in particular, but I knew it was wrong.

Working in San Antonio Public Schools taught me that education is also a public health issue.
Eating a cheap, satisfying meal when your dad’s in jail? Or focusing on passing standardized tests that mean little to you at the moment? 

I could not control the environment they went home to at night, but realized that I could control my relationships with them.

As I’ve worked in education, I’ve realized that building trust in my students is the priority. I’ve learned to capitalize on my influence within the classroom. A classroom is a students’ second home, and students must be made to feel safe enough in this home to learn. Without buy-in from students, very little learning can be done. Only the self-motivated students will succeed if the teacher depends on them to initiate teacher-student relationships. As a teacher, I have grown increasingly conscious of my area of influence and I have become proactive in building my students’ trust. Not all students have the skills and confidence needed to build relationships with adults, therefore I must consistently model these skills for them. They will adopt these characteristics in time.

I have spend hundreds of hours with my students in Boston, and I know exactly when they are focused on their work, or when they are having a rough day. In Nicaragua, I must be aware of how my students are feeling and how I can best support them in order to achieve the most learning. Students have responded best when they receive private redirections and when I have calmly asked them to step outside of the classroom to discuss any negative behaviors.

The biggest mistake I made as a novice teacher was to make all redirections public, and to only approach students when they were not following directions. Now, I have seen drastic improvements in my students’ behavior after observing other positive teacher-student relationships in my school. Students are open to redirections, as long as a. they’re done respectfully and b. the teacher follows through with positive feedback throughout the school year. I will avoid any redirections that will make my students feel embarrassed and unsafe in the classroom. Every student matters, and I will never avoid or embarrass any of my students. If they are present in the classroom, that means that they care enough about their education. I will assume the best of my students, and I will provide a safe learning environment by making my expectations clear from the start.

When adapting and setting my classroom expectations in Nicaragua, I will turn to my teaching toolkit. A main component of this toolkit will be composed of notes on teacher observations. As a newcomer to the school, I must be proactive in observing the teachers’ relationships with students, as well as their classroom management styles. My counterpart will be an especially helpful resource to as I learn to navigate the culture of my school in Nicaragua. How do teachers build relationships with students outside of the classroom? How consistent are teacher to parent relationships? What do students respond well to in terms of trusting adults? How clear are teachers in setting their expectations? These are questions that I will ask myself when I arrive, and I will continue to push for answers from other teachers, not just from my counterpart. I will also continue to welcome feedback from my counterpart in terms of my own classroom management and how to best build relationships with my students.

Teaching English in Nicaragua will be challenging without a doubt, but that is why I’m doing this work in the first place.

Teaching is an art form that can never be perfected. There are so many aspects to teaching that can affect how students learn and how they respond to teachers. While a teacher can be completely authoritative after having built trust, they must always think of new ways to be clear and consistent educators.

There is no such thing as a “perfect teaching style”, but my job is to consistently strive to improve and maintain a positive outlook. By being self-aware, reflective, and seeking feedback from my counterpart and fellow teachers, I will be on the right path to making a difference in students’ lives.

By building their trust, I can inspire them to love learning. I am excited to see the ways in which they will re-inspire me to love teaching and learning as well!