I have another good reason to visit Washington DC, a city I never seem to have enough of. The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which was formally dedicated on September 24 by President Barack Obama, promises to be one of the best attractions among the Smithsonian Institution’s already impressive offerings.
Whereas the idea was first proposed more than a century ago, it was not until 2003 that President George W. Bush signed legislation permitting construction of the museum. Against concerted efforts to locate the museum away from the Washington Mall, President Bush insisted that the NMAAHC be built on that hallowed ground, alongside the monuments that honour America’s most important events and persons.
Until I visit Washington DC, I must content myself with a virtual look using Google Earth. And what a sweet sight it is! The NMAAHC sits right next to the Washington Monument, within clear view of the Jefferson and Lincoln Monuments. Together, the four monuments tell a fascinating story of America that the best scribes would be hard pressed to capture with words. It is a story of tension and contradiction, exemplified by the conflicted lives and words of these three men who consistently rank among the very best presidents of the USA.
George Washington, arguably the greatest American since independence in 1776, was a slave owner. His considerable wealth, his power and his military exploits were largely underwritten by the work of the African slaves that formed the backbone of America.
A visit to Washington’s beautiful home at Mount Vernon, Virginia, yields plentiful evidence of the slaves’ toil and suffering, leaving one uncertain how to feel about this most admirable American hero.
Thomas Jefferson, the man who authored the Declaration of Independence, with the glorious words that all men were created equal, and that they were “endowed by their Creator with Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” was a major slave owner.
Jefferson’s magnificent home at Monticello, Virginia, built, maintained and serviced by numerous African slaves, yields very little trace of their lives. Their dwellings are long gone. However, the visitor is awed by the royal lifestyle that was sustained on their backs.
Abraham Lincoln, who stated that he hated slavery and signed the slave emancipation proclamation in 1863, believed that European-Americans were superior to African-Americans.
So there was sweet irony that the president of the United States who did the honors of dedicating the Museum that tells the story of a people whom Lincoln considered inferior to his tribesmen was an African American.
Barack Obama, a man of superior intellect, used the occasion to emphasize the African American people’s central role in America’s history. One imagined Lincoln shifting in his seat in his monument as he listened to the soaring eloquence of a man of supposedly inferior intellect.
Perhaps Jefferson smiled with relief that the current occupant of the White House had put a symbolic plug into the hollowness of his famous claim that all men were created equal.
To be sure, Washington’s spirit danced over his monument at the sight of Ruth Bonner, the 99-year old daughter of Elijah Odom who had been born a slave in 1859 but had run away to freedom. Ms. Bonner assisted Barack and Michelle Obama to ring the freedom bell as part of the dedication of the new museum.
The single, brief moment that best told the story of how things had changed since 1564 when the first slave ship, called Jesus of Lubeck, arrived in the Americas, was a spontaneous act by Michelle Obama.
Upon her arrival at the podium where the ceremonies were held, Michelle hugged former President George W. Bush, then joined in the applause, tapped him on his left shoulder, before standing at attention for the national anthem. Bush clearly relished the moment, as Laura Bush and Barack Obama clapped.
It was vintage Michelle – a woman of class, endowed with natural civility, demonstrating friendship towards a nominal political opponent. It also showed who was now in charge of the USA, with the duty to put others at ease, including a former president.
It was the message that America needed to read, especially at a time when racial tensions were high, fanned by the reckless rhetoric of Donald Trump, the Republican candidate for president, and the police shootings of African American people as though they were pheasant.
Hers was a subconscious resistance against racist bigotry that is driven by terminal ignorance. Perhaps her hug was also a silent statement that she considered the European-American ex-president to be her brother. Her tap on the shoulder may have been a silent “well-done-my-brother” for fighting hard to get the NMAAHC located where it belonged. Or perhaps she was saying: “it’s alright bro. The bigots will never separate us, for we are America.”
Whatever the reasons, Michelle wrote a chapter in the book of dreams that was started on that very Mall in 1963. It was there that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his great “I have a dream” speech. Michelle’s chapter spoke of her dream of unity of political adversaries, in a shared bond of humanity that said: “we are one!”
It was a beautiful and tender moment that ought to encourage all politicians, no matter their circumstances, to transcend pettiness and personalized politics, putting egos in check and their countries above self.