Just got back from Washington DC, where the mood among friends and family is decidedly gloomy these days. The cold wind blowing past the White House, through the Mall and up to the Capitol Building seemed more like a metaphor than a weather phenomenon.
We were on our way to the National Musem of African-American History and Culture, which turned out to be truly extraordinary. The average time spent there is apparently two hours, but in that span we were unable to view all of the History portion below ground, let alone the Culture section in the floors above. The history of slavery in America is worth exploring, no matter how much you think you already know about it: the displays were eye-opening, from a human, moral/spiritual and economic perspective. It goes without saying that colonialism’s exploitations left deep scars in the Middle East, Asia, South America and Africa, where regional conflicts persist in a post-colonial world. And all the European nations with empires and colonies participated in slavery, which might be seen as a sort of imported colonialism, where the exploited masses were forcibly removed from their home countries.
You’ve probably heard this benighted argument: slavery in America ended 150 years ago, so how can the problems faced by African-Americans today still be blamed on slavery? Just move on, get over it, right? Wow. Of course slavery’s effects didn’t end with emancipation: Jim Crow laws, segregation, lynchings, economic discrimination and the myriad forms of racism did not magically go away in 1865. For example, laws made it easier to arrest and imprison blacks than whites in the South, and the prisoners could be leased as labor, the profits going to the state. That sounds like slavery didn’t vanish at all! The Voting Rights Act, Brown vs Board of Education, the Selma marches (in which my personal hero, William Sloane Coffin, participated), the Civil Rights movement, Black Panthers and so much else, all appeared side-by-side, giving me a brand-new perspective on current events, for example, Black Lives Matter. The glib response, “All lives matter,” seems all the more hollow and callous in this context.
Then seeing it through the eyes of so many African-Americans (schoolchildren as well as the elderly who may well have marched with Martin Luther King) in the museum made this history more real and more powerful than all my previous reading could ever do.
In my novel Fourth World, and especially in the sequel (almost finished!), colonialism is harsh and cruel. But this is real: don’t miss this museum!