Monday, January 24, 2011

The New Museum on the Mall

Kate Taylor in the Times takes a look at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, soon to begin building on the Mall here in Washington. According to the existing long-range plan, this will be the last building built on the Mall, occupying the last space available for a museum. And what, exactly, is the museum supposed to do?
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.


Unknown said...

What mitigated slavery's evil? Please explain.

John said...

Human resilience. Interpersonal relations. Geography.

To take one example, I have several times encountered the notion that sexual relationships between masters and slaves were always exploitative, and yet there were dozens of cases of men who ruined themselves socially and risked violent retaliation to free and marry slave mistresses they said they loved. I refuse to assume that those relationships were all one-sided and exploitative.

And then there were the slaves who wandered onto the battlefield of Gettysburg after the fighting was over to search for the bodies of their masters, to take home for burial. Are we to assume that none of them felt anything for the young men they may have grown up with and gone off to war with?

I suppose what I am saying is not that slavery was not wrong, but that it did not define the thoughts and feelings of everyone who was a part of the system.

Unknown said...

I thought that was what you meant, since you've remarked on it before, but I wanted to be sure.

What you say is true. Perhaps one should phrase it that slavery, like any huge historical phenomenon, involved millions of people and as such involved the full range of human motives and reactions. Any historical account at any level of detail and penetration has to allow for individual variety.

Household slaves are an interesting example. They included surely some of the most loyal, but most leaders of slave revolts were household slaves too.

That said, the foundation of that system was arbitrary and frequent violence, and, IMHO, individual perceptions or feelings of affection, and other positive aspects, do not mitigate its evil. Of course, violence has been at the heart of systems that bother me much less. But southern slavery's ideological, cultural, and social avatars are still very much part of our world, and I suppose I find it personally threatening in a way that the European aristocracy has never struck me.

John said...

Southern slavery also thrived in a nation allegedly devoted to freedom and equality, which I always thought made it particularly offensive.

Unknown said...

I take your point, though on a societal level I usually find hypocrisy to be less bad than other social ills. In the Civil War, the North could certainly be accused of hypocrisy, in that many were actively hostile to emancipation, and many Republican voters were more motivated by racism (keep blacks away!) than racial egalitarianism. But that does not make North and South morally equivalent.

It also seems to me that hypocrisy can often be the wedge by which a society attacks its own social ills. The very charge you make motivated many white Northerners to oppose slavery, even those who were also fairly racist.

In general, I find sincere fanatics to be more dangerous and noxious than hypocrites. I would rather deal with Churchill's snobbery and occasional anti-semitic remarks than with a mob of brownshirts.