This is why we learn…

“You have to know the past to understand the present.” -Carl Sagan

Yesterday, I had the exciting opportunity to preview the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). It is the 19th and newest museum of the Smithsonian Institution.  NMAAHC’s celebratory architectural design, precious artifacts, and compelling video footage powerfully showcase the black American experience. Heck, they even have a placard that recognizes Black Twitter! Even before I got through the entire museum, I was fantasizing about future visits. I was taken on an emotional journey from the middle passage to the great migration, and beyond.  The feeling in the air was one of resilience and dignity. To see African American history and culture celebrated by all people, on such a grand scale, was sincerely heart-warming.

While touring a section on the American South, I noticed an elderly woman with a young girl, I assume it was her grandchild. And if you care, they were both white. The youngster looked at an aged water fountain with a photo behind it, which juxtaposed two of Jim Crow’s favorite words WHITE and COLORED.  With a pensive expression, she tilted her head to one side then looked at her grandmother. Museum Grandmother, in a school teacher- like fashion, said, “Remember when we talked about segregation and I showed you the different signs and photos? Now, why is it important that we learn about this stuff from the past?”

NMAAHC stands on four pillars, the first is: To provide an opportunity for those who are interested in African American culture to explore and revel in this history through interactive exhibitions.  I didn’t stick around for the grandbaby’s response, but I was grateful to see the first pillar of the museum come to life right before my eyes. I came home overjoyed and fell asleep with a smile. Unity, teaching, understanding, cross cultural exchange! We are almost there! 

…Then today happened. I woke up, and like a typical millennial, I checked Facebook. A friend’s status read: “I refuse to watch the video.” My heart suddenly plunged to my stomach, and it didn’t feel so warm anymore. According to the third page on CNN’s website (I say that because Branjelina’s split was front and center) an unarmed black man, named Mr. Terence Crutcher, was shot and killed by a law enforcement official in Tulsa, OK.  Tulsa Police Department’s Chief confirmed the man did not have a firearm and his hands were raised.

To answer Museum Grandmother’s question, this is why it is important to learn about stuff from the past.  Just yesterday, I snapped a photo of NMAAHC’s exhibition panel entitled, “Riot and Resilience in Tulsa, Oklahoma.” It commemorates the racially motivated attack that took place in Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood from May 31-June 1, 1921. Approximately 300 African Americans lost their lives over the course of two days. I wonder if all the people weighing in on the death of Mr. Crutcher are aware of what happened in Tulsa, back in 1921. Will the pundits pontificate on race relations in Tulsa without knowledge of the city’s critical history? Let’s fast forward.  How will I explain what transpired today to my children? How far back will I have to go so that they will understand both the victory we’ve achieved and the uncertainty we face?

In order for a people to journey forward, we must respect and understand our past, no matter how grisly or traumatic. Knowledge will help all of us, be a better us, but if my words don’t move you, I recommend reading James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The second verse perfectly explains why we must learn from the past:

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
‘Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

Addendum: Six people in the United States were killed by police yesterday, including Mr. Keith Lamont Scott of Charlotte, N.C.