My first (and only) visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture almost didn’t happen. My wife and I drove to Washington, D.C., after biking from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md., on a four-day and 150-mile trek that I still plan to write about eventually, but remain too traumatized by to write about yet.
We arrived Saturday evening, went out and stayed the night with the friends we made the bike trip with, and had all of Sunday in D.C. before flying back to Pittsburgh Monday morning. We decided to try to visit “the Blacksonian” since neither of us had been.
But, as we quickly learned, if you’re not on any waiting lists (and we weren’t), the only way to get same-day tickets is to get up at the butt crack of dawn and check online (which we didn’t do). Plus, it was the Sunday before Labor Day, which meant the National Mall would be even busier than usual, and any chance of scoring walk-up tickets would be scarce.
Running out of options, I made a Facebook status about our predicament and asked if anyway knew of any other way. Luckily, one of my friends messaged me that veterans can get into Smithsonian museums whenever they want, and since her dad is a vet, he’d meet us there and get us in.
I connected with her dad and agreed to meet him in front of the museum at 3 p.m. When I asked how we’d know it was him, he replied in a typical 75-year-old black-man way: “You won’t miss me. I’ll be the handsomest man there.”
Of course, he was right. We saw him near the entrance where we agreed to meet. Decked out in an exquisitely tailored charcoal-gray suit, black-and-gray oxfords and a burgundy bowtie, he immediately reminded me of Ossie Davis.
We introduced ourselves, shook his hand and thanked him, and he replied, “Not a problem. It’s my pleasure.”
We spoke for a couple more minutes, and we learned that he’d just left church and post-church brunch with his family—which is probably why he was so extra-super sharp—and that he fulfills this request for people frequently. When we apologized for interrupting his day, he corrected us: “No. I consider this a duty.”
When you enter the Blacksonian, the guides suggest that you start at the basement (which is where the time spanning the trans-Atlantic slave trade is documented and displayed) and work your way back up to the top floor. The museum was packed, so we had to wait in line to get on an elevator that would take us down there. There were a few dozen people in front of us, but the line moved swiftly and efficiently, and we were on the elevator within 10 minutes.
The basement was everything you’d expect an entire floor devoted to the hundreds of years that black people were in bondage in America would be. It was fucking heavy. And hard. And scary. And sad. Even now, six months after I was on that floor, the thought of it heats and wells my eyes. Some people were crying. Others just staring, silent and blank and sad and seething, at the exhibits. Some of those who brought young children were attempting to educate them while also visibly fighting the urge not to be overcome by emotion. And everyone was respectful of the weight and the temperature of that room.
Well, mostly everyone.
The crowd was maybe 70 percent percent black. And those who didn’t happen to be black appeared to be just as moved by what was being experienced. But there was one 40-something white man there who, on at least three separate occasions, bumped into other museumgoers while he was attempting to take pictures and text.
They weren’t egregious or violent bumps; he didn’t knock anyone off balance. But they were the type of bumps where you’d look up after being bumped because you’d expect that person to stop what he was doing and apologize. Which is exactly what each person did after being bumped.
No apology came, however, as this guy was too transfixed with his phone to even notice. In a different environment, this type of social faux pas around black people would have induced at least a couple of “Um. Excuse you”s. Instead, he was just met by head shakes and looks of disgust. They weren’t going to let him ruin their experience.
On Saturday afternoon, I joined my friend Deesha Philyaw onstage at the Summit Against Racism for a talk titled, “How Not to Be a Racist Shithead.” For 45 minutes, we addressed the predominantly white audience of 300, and basically just spent our time finding different ways to say, “White people, you need to do better.”
Toward the end of our talk, I brought up the idea that white people need to learn how to be guests. If you are in someone else’s house and they ask you to take off your shoes before stepping onto their floor, you take off your shoes. And if you are the type of person who usually wears shoes without socks, do your research and put some fucking socks on before you leave your house.
It’s a concept many white people seem to struggle with. That not all things are theirs. And that some things will never have owners because they cannot be owned. And some things belong to other people. And whether those things are dialects or music or histories or actual bodies, that a proper reverence for them must be possessed before engaging with them.
When thinking about this, I can’t help thinking about that day at the Blacksonian. And all of the things we had to do that day just to get tickets. And that beautiful man helping us out, as he’s helped others, because he knows how important it is for that space to be witnessed and experienced. And the rows of (mostly black) people, waiting patiently and anxiously to be taken to a floor displaying the horrors our ancestors were forced through. And the faces of the people engaging with those exhibits. The sadness and the anger and the shock.
And then this white guy, either oblivious to or just not giving a shit about his surroundings, bumping into people. And not giving enough of a shit to notice.