I spent yesterday at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Months ago, when the museum opened, my mother-in-law, Claire, got two tickets, and although I'm sorry my father-in-law wasn't able to join her, I feel awfully lucky I got to take his place.
It is an incredible place in many ways. The sheer number of artifacts housed there is astounding. Even if you simply looked at everything and ignored all placards, you'd need days to get through. But you would never want to do that because the enormous amount of written information enriches and gives context to those treasures. As do the interactive displays and videos. And the museum shop which has a deep, library-like book selection that I felt I only scratched the surface of.
Claire and I spent a good two hours, maybe more, on just the bottom three floors which starts a couple hundred years prior to the Atlantic slave trade. The museum does a phenomenal job of educating visitors about when slavery shifted from being something that affected people of many colors and faiths and was often a temporary status to a thoroughly racialized commodity exchange of black bodies to white hands. The concept of whiteness developed and in a depraved effort to continue profiting and gaining power off the backs of black slaves, white slave owners and sympathetic members of the government enacted increasingly repressive laws banning education, religious practice, the ability to move from place to place and so on. The rights to safety, privacy, personhood were completely stripped away.
In 1705, the Chesapeake region made it legal to dismember any unruly slave and passed a law stating that "all negro, mulatto, and Indian slaves are considered real estate."
In 1730, Humphrey Morice, Governor of the Bank of England, said, "Negroes...are a perishable Commodity, when you have an opportunity, dispose of them for gold."
Evidence of slavery's vast dehumanization efforts is, of course, prolific in the museum, and being surrounded by quotes and slave-for-sale signs and pictures of children being ripped from their mothers' arms and men branded and hung is deeply upsetting and moving, which is at it should be. The museum felt almost holy to me in some ways. I say that not from a religious perspective but from a spiritual one of profound sorrow and sadness and humility.
In many ways, the hardest things for me to handle were the sentiments and efforts to dehumanize and criminalize that were current hundreds of years ago and still feel awfully present today. We continue, in too many ways, to perpetrate entirely-too-similar ills on Black Americans now as we once did.
It is unconscionable and deeply shameful.
In 1864, Spottswood Rice said, "Whether freeman or slaves the colored race in this country have always looked to the United States as the Promised Land of Universal freedom." He must have been so hopeful then, just after the Emancipation Proclamation (EP) had passed. And yet, Reconstruction brought with it the Southern "black codes" and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and ferocious backlash after ferocious backlash.
In 1876, Frederick Douglass said, "You say you have emancipated us. You have and I thank you for it. But what is your emancipation? Bue when You turned us loose, you gave us no acres. You turned us loose to the sky, to the storm, to the whirlwind, and, worst, of all you turned us loose to the wrath of our infuriated masters."
As you know, it wasn't until 1965, a hundred years AFTER Lincoln's EP that Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act giving Black Americans the right to vote. Their attempts to register and act on that right were often threatened and repressed and made impossible. And in 2013, the Supreme Court (the majority view expressed and written by Chief Justice Roberts) voted to strip huge parts of that Voting Rights Act because "our country has changed." But has it?
Three years later, "our country" in some ways* voted in an unfit bigot with zero political experience and lawsuits of fraud and sexual assault hanging over him because they wanted to "take our country back to its former greatness."
You can't not see how all this fits together. How we are not remotely post-racial. How in fact we are still a racist place that believes the myth of racial inequality created by white Europeans and Americans centuries ago. Race is a social construct and as it was once used to oppress some for the benefit of others, it way too often still is.
Sure, it's often couched differently, it might simmer rather than boil. Trump and the whitelash he inspired are eerily reminiscent of the rise of Jim Crow and the KKK following emancipation. Racism isn't the only reason Trump "won," but it's a big factor.
When I hear Trump talk of forcing Muslims to register, and then I go to the NMAAHC and see Freedom Papers for which free Blacks had to register every two years and carry at all times, I shake in a seriously uncomfortable way.
When I heard Trump supporters scream about Civil War were Hillary to have been elected and scream about locking her up so that they could "take their country back" and then I read Douglass' words of having been turned loose to face the wrath of infuriated masters," I shake some more.
When I read that more than 50% of every 100 slaves taken from Africa died before "being placed" and then I look at the outrageously imbalanced numbers of Black Americans now incarcerated, I continue to tremble.
We all should. It is time to rise the fuck up and own our history, America. It is time to figure out how to stamp out the insidious scourge of racism that bedevils and weakens us. Racism is not the only issue facing America. But it is a big one. We need to be and do better. NOW.
*I say "in some ways" because Trump lost the popular vote by a landslide, by nearly 2.7 million votes at last count.