Barry Saunders

A museum that every American needs to see – Saunders

Ten Decembers ago, a friend from Seattle visited me in Durham.

She had never been on the East Coast, and there were several monuments she wasn’t going to leave without seeing. Among her must-see destinations were the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and that huge outlet shopping mall right outside of Washington – yep, the same one you can’t drive past without stopping in, too.

The main thing she wanted to see, though, was the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. We went, and it was a spiritual, powerful, poignant and enlightening experience. I thanked her afterward for convincing me to go.

I just wish she hadn’t convinced me to go two days before Christmas, because my soul was heavy-laden throughout the remainder of the holidays and for weeks thereafter.

Really, who feels like singing about jolly ol’ St. Nick or watching “It’s A Wonderful Life” 17 times in a row after seeing the examples of inhumanity that we saw, that millions of human beings experienced?

For days I was, to use the scientific term, a mess.

I asked Joseph Glatthaar, history professor, history buff and consultant to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, if I would also be a mess after visiting that museum, which opened last week.

“No, no,” he assured me. “I was exhilarated. In fact, I was bouncing off the walls. When I came out, I knew I had just seen something that I felt every American should see, something that would really turn people’s heads.”

Glatthaar, the Stephenson Distinguished Professor of History at UNC-Chapel Hill and president of the Society for Military History, was a consultant to the museum’s military section. “One of my areas of expertise is black soldiers in the Civil War and black military history, and they called me in,” he said.

Sure, Glatthaar said, the museum starts off “rough,” with difficult elements of history. “When you go in, you want to start at the bottom” where there are slave quarters and parts of a slave ship, among other memorabilia of the peculiar institution.

“It’s really historical in its orientation, and it cuts the heart right out of your chest. My wife, a sociologist and historian, was almost in tears,” he said. “Then you go to the second floor, and what you start seeing is the black community and its ability to persevere and penetrate certain occupations. ... The part on the military is really exhilarating.

“Then you go to the top floor and it’s phenomenal. You see the artists, the athletes, the musicians, the actors, people who are extraordinary achievers. ... When you go through that museum, you’ll say, ‘My God. They went through all of that, and they’re still here and they still believe in this country!’ I was so inspired. ... Don’t get me wrong. There’ll be moments when you’re really bothered, but the exhilarating moments so overshadow those moments. I think it’s just marvelous.”

Glatthaar stopped, apparently catching himself, and tried to tamp down his effusiveness. “I don’t want to prejudice you,” he said, “with my enthusiasm.”

Too late.

The principal architect of the museum, Phil Freelon of Durham, said the design of the bronze-colored structure was related to the works of New Orleans ironworkers, but it was inspired most by designs in West Africa.

“I am proud of the way that the building and exhibits are integrated,” Freelon said. “Visitors get a sense of the importance of this museum as they approach the grounds and move through the entry sequence. Of course, the content of the galleries is quite powerful. My hope is that people will be moved and changed in a positive way as a result of experiencing this museum.”

I was, and I haven’t even been inside it yet. Just driving past it was astonishing. It doesn’t look like any other monument on the Mall, and it did to my heart what seeing the Washington Monument did the first time I saw it as a whippersnapper. I searched and searched for another description besides “breathtaking,” which is so overused, but there isn’t one. The edifice is breathtaking.

“We were hired by the Smithsonian to do the pre-design study in 2007,” Freelon told me when I asked how a dude from Durham got to design such a magnitudinous monument on the National Mall. “In 2003, George W. Bush appointed a commission to study the possibility of building such a museum even before there was a board, before there was a director, before there was a site. I heard about that, so I would come up to D.C. quarterly to observe the commission discussions.”

Freelon teamed with the late Max Bond, an internationally acclaimed architect, to win the preliminary design contract, and those two formed an alliance with David Adjaye to win an international design competition in 2009 to build the museum.

Freelon laughed at me – I deserved it, too – when asked what may have been the dumbest question he’s ever been asked: Was the museum just another project for him, or does it hold special meaning?

“Come on, Barry. You know better than that. It was an incredible privilege and honor. ... As an African-American man, I feel a great sense of pride in helping to showcase the history, struggles and more importantly the contributions and achievements that are such an important part of our nation’s history. I’m proud to build what will be the last monument on the Mall.”

There were actually some people who insisted there was no need for another museum in Washington, certainly not one recognizing the travails, travels and triumphs of African-Americans. To them, I simply say, “Watch ‘Jeopardy!’ any weekday night,” and the need for a museum on black history will become self-evident when you see the smartest white people in America – people who can without hesitation tell you the name of Alexander the Great’s favorite horse – get stymied by questions on black history that my pals and I literally learned the answers to in Mrs. Greene’s third-grade class.

So, by all means, go, not only so that the next time you’re on “Jeopardy!” you can confidently say, “I’ll take African-Americans for $1,000, Alex,” but because, frankly, there is no way to know American history without knowing African-American history.

You can probably even go two days before Christmas.

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