DIVIDED AMERICA? MAYBE NOT SO MUCH AS THE MEDIA WOULD HAVE US BELIEVE

THE MYSTERY OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY AND CULTURE

You might not be aware of it, but here in your nation’s capital one of the seasons – if not the decade’s – most anticipated event is not an inauguration, or a massive protest demonstration on the Mall or the birth of a new panda at the National Zoo.  No, none of these historically massive pubic events is on tap.  For months now it seems as if folks are breathlessly awaiting the opening of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAH?).  While the name of the museum is one of, if not the, longest moniker for a Smithsonian national museum, apparently the buzz surrounding the museum’s dedication on Saturday has reached an over-the-top crescendo that threatens to push Trump off the Breaking Breathless News broadcasts for at least a day. (Now that IS news!)

We here in D.C. have watched the construction of the new museum at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 14th Street on the last available site on the National Mall for three or four years now.  As I passed on my way out to Virginia to Grand Market (a Korean owned, multi-cultural cornucopia of Caribbean, African, Latin, Middle Eastern and Asian grocery offerings replete with multi-cultural occasionally irritating shopping cart drivers since different cultures apparently have different unwritten rules about shopping cart navigation) and I have to say that at first I wasn’t impressed.  True, the building is like no other national mall museum – it’s not clad in marble or granite, it’s upside down – and sticks out like a sore thumb amidst all the adjacent Federal buildings.  As the first tiers of the cascading “bronze” skirting began to enclose the real inner building itself, it had a kind of trashy, inelegant look and feel to it that wasn’t all that appealing.  I was not impressed.

But – and I’ve had to re-learn this lesson time after time - one Saturday, on my way once again to Grand Market, all the ribbons of bronze had been installed and all the construction debris removed and I gasped.  Luckily, for once, I felt glad to have to wait at the red light at 14th and Constitution and as I drank in the ephemeral image before my eyes and realized that architects David Adjaye and Philip Freelon had created a supremely sublime vision in a building.  One that evoked the waving grasses of the African plains and connected the African American experience to its historical roots hundreds of years in the past and thousands of miles and lives away.   It’s rare that a building is so uniquely designed as to stun the eyes into submission and even rarer that a building can evoke such an emotional response, at least in me.  The only other building that has the same effect on me is I.M. Pei’s triangular East Wing of the National Gallery, one of the most iconic pieces of magnificent architecture in the entire world.

But – and get this – the upside-down pyramid structure of the NMAAH and its thatched roofed skirting, half buried in the green swath of the Mall, seems to cement the deep-rooted, profound and permanent relationship between the African American experience and its essential transforming impacts on our history and on American culture.   This is what great architecture is all about. 

But even after the museum opens on Saturday, I won’t be able to visit it for more than a month.  Why?  Well, apparently the museum has sparked such national interest (CBS This Morning did a broadcast from the museum a week ago) that the Smithsonian has instituted a pass system for visitors and I, in my ignorance, did not put in my visit bid.  Passes are gone until December.  Then too, there are all the preparations for the Saturday grand opening – street closings, re-routed traffic, curb side parking bans, local police, the National Park Service police and the Secret Service standing guard duty, beefed up security (the Obama’s and the Bush’s will be in attendance as will the Supreme Court Justices), with the expectation of crowds the Mall hasn’t seen since the 2008 inauguration of Barak Obama and Pope Fancies’ visit to Washington a couple of years ago.  This, folks, is a BIG DEAL!

So what to make of a museum that celebrates an American minority group’s story and contributions – African Americans make up only about 12% of our population – and is starting to feel like the Second Coming?  For me, since it’s unlikely that the months long wait to enter this building has been caused solely by African American patrons, it looks as if the rest of us are very much interested in this telling of a vital part of our history and what it means to be an American.   I’m not sure if the Smithsonian has been caught off-guard by this enormous interest, but I was.  And it seems to me that, given the extraordinary, outsized interest in the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the national buzz this weekend’s opening is generating, maybe the media is wrong.  Maybe we are not so fearful of “others,” not so divided and divisive as the Breaking News Headlines and rattle-brained media pundits would have us all believe. 

Maybe, just maybe that out here in the real world where the rest of us live, we actually welcome diversity, enjoy multi-culturalism, appreciate the contributions different cultures have made and continue to make to the patchwork quilt that is America.   And maybe, just maybe our current conditions are not so dire and terrible and awful as one of our Presidential candidates proclaims, and perhaps our future as an America that welcomes, celebrates, honors and embraces all the “others” among us and what they bring to keep America vibrant, evolving and alive is not only the the right direction but the one we are headed towards.


Have A Great Day Folks!

PS: Photos and videos really don't capture the magnificence of this building.  

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