The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture

Earlier this month we had the chance to pass through Washington D.C. for a couple of days, and we managed to visit the latest addition to the Smithsonian museums: the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Opened in 2016, it has a very central position in the National Mall, being right in front of the Washington monument and at a stone’s throw to the White House. This is already enough to signal the ambition the museum has in terms of symbolism and impact. The actual inside of the museum reinforced this impression.

It turns out that a good half of the museum is below ground, where the visit is supposed to begin. Everyone is forced to take an elevator, which acts as a time machine; when the doors open is the end of the 15th century, and a suffocating dungeon takes the visitors through the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade. The exit of the dungeon offers some relief, but you find yourself still at the bottom of a very large open pit with dark walls. The declaration of independence is presented with big box letters, but its ambiguity (“all men are created equal”) towards the very large part of the US population still considered nothing more than a slave is clearly stated. Jefferson himself is a statue whose expression is masked by shadows.

The visitors can then slowly ascend through a series of ramps, each one presenting a chapter in the struggle towards emancipation and equality. The symbolism of having to walk all the way up from the bottom of a pit is perhaps an obvious symbolism but it really gives an uplifting feeling. The last turn of the ramps, just exiting the dark pit and out of the “time machine” reserves one last uplifting surprise, and a strong message. A writing on the wall, until then invisible, that states: “I, too, am America”.

The rest of the museum is above ground, separated from the pit and its horrors by two floors. The closer to the top, the more the contribution of african-americans to the military, society, sports and culture is celebrated.

This journey to hell and return has been very strong emotionally, even on someone like me who has little to no relationship with colonialism and racial tensions. The little colonialism my country has ever imposed had been related to fascism, and as a country we considered that amended with the civil war that contributed in freeing Italy from the axes. Recent reports of slave practices in Libya, whose government is strongly supported by Italy in the hope of stopping migratory fluxes from reaching Europe, is however casting a shadow on my country as a whole, and on the government and opposition forces alike.

Italy (2017)