Guest poster Evelyne Martial is a retired attorney. She received her JD from the Cincinnati College of Law. She is currently enrolled in the Gender and Cultural Studies Program at Simmons College.
Early on a cold, frigid morning in Washington, D.C., my husband and I stood at the tail end of a long, winding line to get into the Museum of African American History and Culture. It was too cold to walk around to view the architecture so we hustled over to the entry line as soon as we exited the cab. As we waited, clutching our prized full-page sized passes, we watched a line of yellow school buses deposit kids from elementary, middle, and high schools into the bright frigid air. Their peals of laughter and rambunctious playfulness resisted the cold air. Their faces, hues of browns and tans bundled in colorful puff jackets, were filled with excitement. In line, a group of about six or seven women of African descent stood behind us. This group was from Los Angeles, California and had centered their annual get together around the visit to the Museum. They also were uncomfortably cold yet visibly excited about being here, particularly at this moment of our political lives. I wanted to find out more about them, but because it was so cold or the line was already so long at 10:00 a.m., the Museum staff diverted half of our line to another entryway. We lost contact with them and the children as we sped down the plaza to a much shorter line and before we knew it we were inside the Museum.
I was immediately struck by the size of the building. The main lobby a vast, open space in monotones of grey filled with natural light. The woman at the information desk advised us to begin our tour at the lowest level. She said that Exhibit was the most revelatory and the most sort after by viewers. We decided to forgo planning our tour using the museum map when we saw the length of the line forming for the lower level exhibits. We joined yet another line to get onto the elevator that took us down to the beginning of the African experience in the Americas. Once on the large elevator with clear glass walls, we watched an exterior timeline descend, along with the descending elevator, from 2016 to the 1900s, 1800s, 1700s, the 1600s down to the 1400s. I was so surprised and intrigued by the sensation of moving backward in time, I did not take note of the specific years written in large white numbers against a solid black wall outside the elevator. The overall effect was that we were all traveling deep down into a place that was forbidden. An account that had been kept in the dark and we were about to hear witness testimony. The elevator opens up onto hall that is eerily dim and silent.
When we exited the elevator we were confronted with the lived experience of Africans during the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade in the late fifteenth century. Beyond this moment, I cannot cohesively articulate my experience. I am a consummate museum goer. From the magnificent Uffizi, the Louve, the National Museum, to the intimate Tenement museum in New York, the quirky Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, to the painful Holocaust Museum and the Terezin Concentration Camp. And in number of African American themed museums across the nation such as the Underground Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Holocaust Museum and Terezin Concentration Camp and the Underground Museum left me apoplectic, emotionally and intellectually numb. This MAAHC experience was as profoundly traumatic. The incomprehensible difference is in its scope and its exhaustive chronological reach. The MAAHC captures the beginning of the scope when it lists along the walls the names of the ships that transported enslaved Africans, lists the number of Africans on each ship, the dates of travel from the sixteenth century. Beyond this point the images, descriptions, videos, life size displays, simulations, and the first-hand accounts of enslaved people left me literally stunned. This is what I recall after our seven hour visit.
Above the names of the vessels, embedded in the wall are the paper and coin currencies of various nations connecting the burgeoning wealth of nations to the burgeoning numbers of Africans involuntarily moved from the West and Central regions. There is an immense cauldron of sugar that corners the exhibit on slave labor. As the exhibits wends its way there is a constant sense of being in a tightly confined space. The physical space is compact, dark, with the light focused on the displays. The museum space is filled with bodies. You read over shoulders, you shimmy up close to look at a caption. You wait patiently for someone to leave an open space so you can read a label or description. As the visitors read the museum displays and followed the footsteps of enslaved Africans, there was an eerie silence in such a large volume of people. They, too, are stunned. Shackles, whips, cauldron of sugar, cotton, a nine-foot cotton sack, shoes worn by enslaved men. A bracelet made in payment for free papers all surrounded by paper and coin currencies from European nations. Here is where my mind ceased to intellectually process the information in a rational, cogent manner. There is a display of a swaddling cloth. As I recollect, it is a white cloth, about twelve inches wide by 30 inches long. It is enclosed in glass display slightly lower than eye level. It is lightly stained and has cross-stitched writing on the cloth. The accompanying display tells of an enslaved mother, who knowing she would be sold away from her infant, left a swaddling cloth, a lock of hair and four pecans for the baby to remember her by. That cloth was passed down from one generation to another. Somewhere along the line, in remembrance, someone recorded the mother’s gifts onto the swaddling cloth. That cross stitch, as a work of art and as a narrative, was probably the most powerful exhibit for me. The presence of mind to gift a piece of herself along with spiritual and physical nourishment for her child’s journey in the midst of her catechism was an act of resistance to erasure and the will to live large, beyond survival, if not her than her descendants. The middle passage, the commodification of her body, the attempt to dehumanize her was no match to her determination to pass along the gift of love and hope.
A swaddling cloth, a lock of hair, and four pecans. I wondered how many faces today, online, was the proud descendants of her gift of love and hope. Which faces, filled with excitement and hope, bore her gift to fruition in spite of the cold and frigid air.