When I was a small girl, my father and I would crowd around the TV every weekday to see the new episode of The Oprah Show. He would lie on the couch, gazing at the TV screen as if it was a throne made of the most precious gold. He would shush me whenever I spoke too loudly or something interesting was happening. My father couldn’t get enough of Oprah.
I imagine he saw her as a positive role model, someone I could look up to, so I would know for sure that anything I wanted to do in life was possible.
Fast-forward to my college years. You’ll see that no, I am no multi-millionaire and I have never made my way onto a tan sofa like Oprah’s that wasn’t the sofa in the living room of my parents’ house. But maybe I don’t have to be like Oprah to be significant.
Recently, my family and I traveled to Washington, D.C., to visit the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. I had been twice before on the occasion of President Obama’s inaugurations. However, this time was different.
Because the hotels weren’t overbooked, we stayed closer to the city. We didn’t need to board a subway at 5:30 a.m. to avoid large crowds. It was nice to seek shelter inside cozy areas within the museum when the temperatures dropped too low, instead of relying on puffy winter coats and mittens.
The day we arrived, I knew right away this museum was different. It wasn’t old or rustic and there were no plantation lands or homes. It was a four-level building, glossy and new with brown-tinted glass windows and a upside down trapezoidal architectural design. Windows, polished marble and wide, open spaces made up the inside of the building.
“Is this it?” I asked, turning to my mother. “What type of museum is this?”
My parents explained that the building chronicled the life of African Americans in the United States. Part of me felt wary of retracing my roots, not because I wasn’t interested, but because I already knew a lot about the history of my race. The other part of me felt curious to see the museum layout. How would African American history be portrayed in the museum? What makes this museum so unique?
To get to the floors of the museum, we entered two elevators; the first one transported us to a second elevator which lead us to historical galleries. The galleries were divided into three showcases: “Slavery and Freedom,” “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom” and “A Changing America.” Ramps lead to each gallery.
The first two showcases, “Slavery and Freedom” and “Defending Freedom and Defining Freedom,” spanned from the years of 1400 to 1877 and 1876 to 1968. They chronicled the history of slavery, its abolition, segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. I was familiar with most of the historical events on these levels. Taking the time to really see the artifacts in front of me helped me to appreciate them more.
A sight to behold, The Edisto Slave Cabin, was made up of dark wood. A brick fireplace was visible from inside the cabin’s entrance which had no door. The museum notes described the cabin as a gathering place for slaves on the plantation. In the second gallery, I saw a model of the Southern Rail Company train. Its exterior was a bluish green, with fabric seats and hard polished metals. Beside it were photos that showed the way passengers would have been separated during segregation.
Moving through the last gallery, “A Changing America,” I began to see images that were familiar, but also were pictures and artifacts I never really thought of being tied to African American history. The first natural hair movement from the 1970s, the accomplishments of musicians such as the Jackson Five, and the emergence of 90s Hiphop and R&B, the growth of Oprah’s Harpo Studios and OWN network and President Obama’s election are just some of the modern-day accomplishments featured in the showcase.
It was nice to see a Public Enemy Poster, Michelle Obama’s famous flower dress and Oprah’s tan couch in the same building that housed artifacts representing years of black oppression like the slave cabin and segregated train. The museum focused on the progression of black people beyond what is considered a normal part of our history.
History isn’t bound by a certain number of years. History depends on the choices we as ordinary people make every day that lead to these extraordinary events and periods in time. Again, I may not be an Oprah, but I do play a significant part in my history.