For more than four centuries, African-Americans have been burdened with a life of toil. Their bodies have been bruised and beaten under discriminatory policies and practices. Today, racial tensions in Charlotte echo hardships of the past. The struggle to triumph over this social evil manifests through protests in Charleston, Ferguson and Charlotte.
Race relations have always been a touchy topic. We tread carefully so as not to offend anyone. We use legal jargon to conceal that part of our nation’s history. But now more than ever, we must be frank in our conversations about race. The mistakes of our past have evolved into a major problem that has left many fearful of the future.
Last weekend, we celebrated African-American achievements with the recent tragic events in Charlotte at the forefront of our minds. On Sept. 24, the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture was opened to the public as an opportunity for visitors to experience history from the African-American perspective. The newly built facility stands out from surrounding historical sites. Its intricate designs are symbolic of the African-American journey from Africa to Southern United States.
British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye designed the building to resemble a sacred space, contrasting patterns of light and dark. In an NPR interview, he describes it as analogous to a tree with shade. The base of the building is dark, retelling the history of slavery. Light emanates from the second and third floors where African-American achievements are displayed. The building “rises through history” with exhibits featuring American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, musician Louis Armstrong, Olympian Jesse Owens, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks, boxing hero Muhammad Ali and President Barack Obama.
I can only imagine the museum’s haunting presence in our nation’s capital. I do not know when I will visit the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture; however, I have been to a few African-American museums including the Levine Museum of the New South — which stands in a city that is redefining its identity around race. I live near Charlotte, but am embarrassed to admit that I am sometimes oblivious to the large economic gap between the rich and the poor. The traumatic events of this weekend have illuminated these systematic problems.
The irony of the museum’s name has deep underpinnings in the transformation of the new south. Each exhibit symbolizes a unique African-American story, starting from slavery then advancing to the integration of Charlotte’s busing system.
Museums are unique because they highlight pitfalls and successes so that we can gain a better understanding of history and learn how to ameliorate the issues people still face. Both the Levine Museum and the National Museum of African-American History and Culture are testaments to the veracity and bravery of those who came before us. The African-American story evolves with every generation of leaders and social activists. Bryan Stevenson, author of the New York Times Bestseller Just Mercy, embodied the African-American story when he spoke at Elon's Common Reading Lecture on Sept. 15. He was emphatic that the narrative should change to solve the problems we are dealing with today.
Stevenson’s words are a poignant reminder that race relations in the United States are based on a system that was structured on racial discrimination, leaving an indelible memory from the past. We are at a crossroads in American history. As I watched the killing of Keith L. Scott unfold, Langston Hughes’ poem ‘I, Too’ replayed in my mind. Hughes’ poem, inscribed outside the Smithsonian, captures the hope of a generation:
“Tomorrow, I will be at the table
when company comes.
Nobody’ll dare say to me,
'Eat in the kitchen,' then.
Besides, They’ll see how beautiful I am
and be ashamed —
I, too, am America.”
I hope that Scott’s family knows that his death was not in vain. It has presented our country an opportunity to learn from its mistakes and treat African-Americans with utmost dignity and fairness. At Elon University, we can build on the African-American story by studying these racial issues and promoting cultural sensitivity among different groups. Upon this, we can seize hold of Hughes message that “I, too, am America.”