What story will it tell? As part of the Smithsonian, the museum bears the burden of being the “official” — that is, the government’s — version of black history, but it will also carry the hopes and aspirations of African-Americans. Will its tale be primarily one of pain, focused on America’s history of slavery and racial oppression, and memorializing black suffering? Or will it emphasize the uplifting part of the story, highlighting the richness of African-American culture, celebrating the bravery of civil rights heroes and documenting black “firsts” in fields like music, art, science and sports? Will the story end with the country’s having overcome its shameful history and approaching a state of racial harmony and equality? Or will the museum argue that the legacy of racism is still dominant — and, if so, how will it make that case?The museum's director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, had this to say:
This is not being built as a museum by African-Americans for African-Americans. The notion that is so important here is that African-American culture is used as a lens to understand what it means to be an American . . . We want to make sure people see this is not an ancillary story, but it’s really the central story of the American experience.
In which case, as Taylor asks, why have a separate museum walled off from the National Museum of American History down the street?
I have to say that I am dubious about this effort. I know the scholars involved want to take on the problem of race in America, with all the ugliness, conflict, and misunderstanding that would involve, but this is going to run smack into political pressure: the pressure to extol black achievement, to shove intense racism as far into the past as possible, to paint slavery as an unmitigated evil, to tell an uplifting story of escape from bondage, and to get lots of visitors so as to compete better for funds with other very crowded museums. I fear a bland mishmash.