Towards an Honest History

I always think the name is "Crispus Attucks Finch" then say, no, no that can't be right.

Pictured: American History

We’re getting a new Smithsonian here in Washington, DC.  They broke ground on the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in 2012, and in 2015 it’s supposed to be completed.  And while I’m sure it will be a great museum, with many worthwhile and fascinating exhibits, I don’t think that it should be.

The problem with an African-American History and Culture museum is that it is going to stand separately from the American History museum, but these are not separate things.  African-American history is history, and it is at best a mistake and and worst a lie to pretend that it is otherwise.

The American History museum looks at scholarly history and important moments in our nations’s history; it looks at “slices of life” Americans of different generations, socio-economic classes, and regions; it includes exhibits on pop culture, sports, and more highbrow culture as we.. In every one of those categories, there is no such thing as “American History” that is separate from “African-American History.”

The history of the founding of our country includes the history of the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans, which is why we have a large African-American population.  It also includes freemen like Crispus Attucks, the first to die in the Boston Massacre.  Are we going to exclude him from the American History museum?  Can we even begin to talk about the Civil War, a pretty big deal in our nation’s history, without talking about African American history?  How can we have exhibits on American  culture without having exhibits on the birth of jazz?  The Harlem Renaissance?  Porgy and Bess?  Even if we sprint up to the present, in the American History museum now there’s an exhibit on Gabby Douglas.  Where does that go now?

I understand and am sympathetic to the need to have a special class/month/organization to highlight and support marginalized groups.  Our society tends to highlight and support the work of white, Christian guys with money and we sometimes need to have a special, concerted focus on other groups (women, racial or religious minorities, LGBT, etc.)  I’m not at all against that as a way to begin evening things out.  But this museum is run by the same people–they’re both part of the Smithsonian.  Surely any tendency to under-represent African-American history in the regular American history museum could be corrected by putting whatever exhibits are going in the new building in the existing one?  Perhaps making it larger, or even rotating out some of the exhibits about us white people.

The museum’s mission and vision state that this is an opportunity for those that care about African-American culture to have a place to really deeply explore that, but it also says that “equally important is the opportunity to help all American see just how central African American history is for all of us. …. Additionally, the museum will use African American culture as a means to help all American see how their stories, their histories and their cultures are shaped and informed international considerations….”  See, it’s those missions I think the museum is failing at by not including these exhibits in the ones for “all Americans.”  And let’s face it, the people who really need to see how central African American history is to our shared history and culture are not going to go to this museum.  But they might accidentally see the exhibits at the American History one.

There might be very good arguments for this museum that this white girl is missing, and I’d be very interested to learn what they are.  But right now, this just seems like a mistake, and separating things that should not be separate.*

*Since you asked, yes, I also feel this way about the National Museum for the Women in the Arts.  Since you’re the same institution, maybe just put some of that art in the main museum so everyone gets to see how awesome women artists are?  Sound good?


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