Editor’s Note: This article has been updated.
The year was 2003. The war in Iraq began, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl, and Beyoncé released her debut solo album. And, President George W. Bush approved the construction of a Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, a dream of many conceived over 100 years ago that became a reality, Sept. 24.
The museum features exhibits on the post-Reconstruction struggle against segregation, the quest for equality in sports, African diaspora culture and much more, including over 36,000 artifacts.
Professor Sharon Harley, associate professor and former chair of the African American Studies Department, attended the opening of the museum on Saturday.
She said “I think the opening is just an impressive moment of historic validation.”
In 2003, not only did the museum not yet exist, but neither did the Black Lives Matter movement. Begun in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, #blacklivesmatter is now one of the most famous battle cries of any social justice movement.
Although it began as racially biased policing became more and more visible in the United States, the movement aims to end systemic racism both inside and outside the justice system.
As protests erupted over the past week in both Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Charlotte, North Carolina, over the death of yet more black men at the hands of police officers, it seems particularly poignant that the only national museum to tell the story of African Americans in the U.S. opened at the same time.
The phrase “Black Lives Matter” often draws opposition from those who dislike the lack of inclusivity of the phrase. Some say “All Lives Matter” is a better phrase, implying the usage of “Black Lives” means those in support of Black Lives Matter do not value white, Asian, Hispanic or otherwise non-black lives.
However, at the opening of the museum, President Barack Obama said the museum is “the place to understand how protests and love of country don’t merely coexist but inform each other.”
Professor Harley shared a similar sentiment.
“Black protests and patriotic fervor kind of go hand in hand,” she said. “If you are an American citizen, you have the right and expectation to protest against injustice.”
This concept is closely mirrored by one of the “four pillars” of the museum: “it explores what it means to be an American and share how American values like resiliency, optimism and spirituality are reflected in African American history and culture.”
In more casual terms, the museum intends to show that being African American is just that – American.
“I’m hoping the opening of the museum will get people to understand that African American history is American history,” said Professor Harley.
But, due to the history of African Americans in America, an often painful history, rife with struggle and oppression, a museum that focuses on the African American story, not just the American one, is important to many.
“It’s really good to have the museum opening at this time,” said Kumam Khasar, a sophomore letters and sciences student and a member of the Presidential Cabinet of the Black Student Union. “There’s a lot of ignorance about African American culture.”
Misunderstandings about African American history and culture are a major driver of opposition to Black Lives Matter. In a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in July, 36 percent of Americans say they don’t understand the goals of the movement.
Many hope, however, that the museum will help to close the knowledge gap that causes some of these misunderstandings.
Klarence Simpson, junior operation management and marketing major and vice president of finance for the Black Student Union, said, “I hope when people visit the museum they’re able to engage in our history, our culture, take a glimpse into our world for a second.”
“I think that’s a big step toward working through the differences between races,” he added.
Featured Photo Credit: Featured photo courtesy of Douglas Remley (Smithsonian).
Katrina Schmidt is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at email@example.com.
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