I’ve just returned to Joburg after two weeks in the United States. I spent most of the trip trying to stay warm (this was my first dose of American East Coast winter since 2010), running errands, and spending time with family and close friends.
I didn’t have much time for cultural pursuits, but I did achieve one major Washington D.C. tourism goal — a visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture (I’ll call it the African American Museum for short), located prominently on Constitution Avenue right beside the Washington Monument. The museum opened in September 2016. Read more about the museum’s award-winning architecture here.
I feel it’s important for me to write a post about this museum, as it links the two halves of my life together in a couple of ways.
First, the African American Museum was designed by acclaimed British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, who also designed the Hallmark House building in downtown Johannesburg. I stood in the same room with David at the Hallmark House media launch a few years ago but was too shy to talk to him. I regret that now, as I’d like to be able to say I met the guy who designed one of America’s most iconic and historically significant museums.
Second, the African American Museum provides a profound link between the histories and cultures of my two homes: Africa and America. I can’t overstate the significance of it. The history of African Americans is much more than the history of one particular cultural or ethnic group; it emcompasses the history of the entire world.
My Visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture
I visited the African American Museum with my dad, on a weekday afternoon in mid-January. Unlike the other Smithsonian museums, you cannot simply walk into the African American Museum — there are some rules to be followed about how and when to go. I’ll provide more information at the end of this post.
Dad and I spent four hours at the museum and managed to see a little less than half of it. There is no way to see the entire museum in one day, and we knew this. We decided to focus our time in two sections: The Culture Galleries on the top floor, and the Slavery and Freedom section of the History Galleries — covering the years 1400 to 1877 — on the lower floors. (View a map of the African American Museum here.)
We didn’t even make it all the way through the Slavery and Freedom section, as we ran out of time (and energy) around the Civil War period.
The Culture Galleries
This is the “fun” section of the museum, covering the history of African American culture, including music, dance, art, sports, and film. Dad, who grew up in the rock-and-roll era and loves African American music and dance, was most excited about this section. So we went there first.
Chubby Checker’s Cadillac. Chubby is best known for doing the Twist.
Dad shoots photos of a Diana Ross film costume. The museum provided an occasion for Dad to tell (several times over) his all-time favorite story — of how he wandered into a San Francisco nightclub in 1969 and caught a live performance of Ike and Tina Turner with the Ikettes. He was just inches from the stage, he claims, and may have caught a few of Ike Turner’s sweat beads.
The collection of costumes from famous musicians blew me away. Highlights included James Brown‘s spandex jumpsuit with “SEX” in huge letters across the mid-section, a rainbow suit worn by Jermaine Jackson of the Jackson 5, Little Richard‘s sequined baby-blue jacket, and an elegant red ballgown featured in En Vogue’s “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” music video.
A glimpse of the musician costumes. The maroon suit in the middle is from Gladys Knight and the Pips. The Jackson 5 suit is just to the right.
The Slavery and Freedom Galleries
The Slavery and Freedom Galleries are accessible via a massive elevator, which takes visitors underground on a literal journey through time and space to pre-colonial Africa.
I didn’t take any photos in this part of the museum. It’s dark down there, which I think is intentional — the history of slavery is very dark indeed. Photographs were allowed but I felt too sombre to take any.
I’d read quite a lot about slavery before this visit. But the African American Museum cast this horrible institution in a whole new light for me.
What struck me most was the realization that the institution of slavery created the concept of race. In the 1400s there was no such thing as race in the world. There were simply people with different colored skins from different parts of the earth, doing business with each other (and fighting each other) as relative equals. Slavery existed but it was usually a byproduct of war and had little to do with skin color. Also, enslavement was generally temporary.
That changed when Europeans and Africans began trading in human lives, buying and selling human beings in exchange for currency. The slave trade was the dominant economic force in the world for centuries. Slavery became a hereditary state, passed down from parent to child, based on skin color.
And that’s how race was born.
Tips for Visiting the African American Museum
Tickets: Although admission is free, you need a ticket to visit the African American Museum. Tickets can be difficult to obtain, especially during the summer and on weekends and holidays, so it’s important to plan ahead. The different ways of procuring tickets are listed here.
Dad and I got our tickets as weekday walkups. We arrived at the museum at 1:00 p.m. (the appointed walkup time) on a weekday and were granted immediate entry. This method is not 100% reliable; if you happen to show up on a busy day then there might not be any walkup tickets available. We happened to go on a very cold weekday in the middle of January, when crowds were light. I’ll probably use the same strategy next time.
Visiting: As I mentioned before, don’t expect to see the whole museum in one day. It’s impossible, both physically and psychologically. Pick a few sections that look interesting to you and save the rest for another day. Ask advice from the museum staff, who are all extremely friendly and helpful.
Walking: This museum is HUGE and there aren’t enough places to sit in my opinion. Wear very comfortable shoes, bring a bottle of water, and be prepared to walk a lot. Pick up a map at the information desk because you’ll probably get lost.
Eating: Allow time for lunch at Sweet Home Café, the cafeteria at the African American Museum. Sweet Home Café offers African-American-inspired dishes from various regions of the United States. I can personally vouch for the fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. Note the food isn’t cheap — a generously portioned main dish with two sides costs about $20.