Thursday, November 28, 2019

Black is Beautiful in the Smithsonian's Newest Museum

Thanksgiving is, of course, a time for gratitude. I just returned from our nation’s capital full to the brim with a sense of well-being. No, I can’t say I’m grateful for the quagmire aspects of contemporary politics. The recent impeachment hearings have certainly not lacked for entertainment value, but I take no pleasure in contemplating the blows afflicting our venerable system of checks and balances. So while I was in Washington D.C., I tried to avoid thinking too hard about what was going on in the White House, and on Capitol Hill.

But if you strip Washington of its political dynamics, there’s a great deal to enjoy. One of the city’s treasures is the multi-branched Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian, founded by a philanthropic Englishman in 1846, now encompasses some nineteen museums, not to mention the National Zoo. I’m particularly grateful that admission to all these locales is completely free, so you can dip into the various collections at your leisure, without worrying about shelling out a lot of hard-earned cash.. The Smithsonian’s museums, most of them housed in imposing buildings rimming the National Mall, cover such diverse areas as American history, natural history, Native American culture, and the history of air and space exploration. But it took until 2016 for the Smithsonian to open its newest branch, the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is still so new that visitors must line up to enter (and on weekends still need to reserve their spots in advance). Housed in a strikingly cantilevered building whose outer skin manages to look like basketry, it occupies a prime spot not far from the Washington Monument. Naturally, the heart of the museum is its sobering history section, which lays out how black slaves oh-so-gradually evolved into full-fledged citizens. It’s an evolution that has often stalled, needless to say. I’ll only mention here the painful and eerie corner devoted to the memory of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who in 1955 was brutally murdered for apparently whistling  at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi.. Here’s one place where video footage has the power to smack us between the eyes, as we realize what cruelty was visited upon the fresh-faced young boy from Chicago.

Upstairs, for a complete change of pace, there are exuberant galleries celebrating the highlights of African-American achievement in sports, in music, in popular culture, and in the entertainment field. In the area of television, I enjoyed the tribute to the late Diahann Carroll, who by way of the gentle sitcom called Julia showed that a black woman could be a full-fledged part of middle-class family life. (Carroll later, in Dynasty, got to be an All-American vixen.) The museum addresses the more problematic history of African-Americans in movies by acknowledging the bad old days when “colored folk” were automatically considered sex-crazed villains (Birth of a Nation) or loyal retainers (Gone With the Wind.) But the vast majority of film clips on display feature black performers in power roles, up to and including Pam Grier as a tough vigilante in Coffy. Sidney Poitier, revered in mid-century films for making nice to white men (and women) in such box-office hits as The Defiant Ones, Lilies of the Field, A Patch of Blue, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, is instead shown in a powerhouse scene from A Raisin in the Sun. The one love scene on display features two gorgeous black performers, Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones. And  even Hattie McDaniel, “Mammy” herself, is seen showing a white soldier who’s boss.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

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