Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Thunder at Twilight, Again?

So already, I just finished reading Thunder at Twilight by Frederic Morton.* When I first started blogging some years back, a So Already reader and respondent suggested I read this book about Vienna in 1913 and 1914. With its storied culture and traditions, the city is as much a character in the book as it is its subject and setting. The central "event" of the book is the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which gives a number of European warmongers the occasion to go to war, something "the people" seem to embrace and "the leaders" seem to accept as inevitable if undesirable. More than anything, though, Thunder at Twilight is a book about people: what lulls them, excites them, mobilizes them, makes them feel alive. And what makes you feel alive can kill you.

It's been eerie to read this book during this time of downed drones and seized British tankers in the Persian Gulf, of seemingly "tolerated" North Korean missile tests, of an American July 4 celebration centered on a display of military might, and of an American president's assertion that chants of "Send her back" are patriotic. 

I began writing this post on the day that Robert Mueller testified before Congress in a proceeding that proved beyond doubt that partisan politics matter more than Russian election interference and democracy. Since that day, I've been wondering how many of my fellow American citizens are resigned to manipulated vote counts. Maybe too many of the Viennese were similarly resigned to disenfranchisement and decline in 1914.

Please know this: I'm one of those "well-educated" people who understands much too little world history to deserve the well-educated label, so my historical interpretations deserve skepticism. But I am continually interested in human behavior, and especially in human inaction, especially my own. When does it reflect fatalism? hopelessness? laziness? exhaustion? privilege? temporary overload? authentic confusion about what to do and how best to do it? These are very different possible explanations for the same observable phenomenon.

Of late, I've been interested in the degree to which people embrace or avoid collective--as opposed to individual--action. Influencing my thinking have been a book about Quaker community practices** and an article about how the belief in a God who rescues the religiously good from worldly danger and destruction can lead some Christian groups not to take action to reverse climate change: the good need not fear its consequences.***

But while I was contemplating what motivates, facilitates, and hinders people's acting together, Morton's book reminded me not to forget the dark side of collective action and raised the following two questions: what if the only course of action that has both individual and mass appeal is killing one's "enemies"? Under what circumstances would such mass enthusiasm develop? Whereas I would have expected to address such questions in relation to Nazi Germany, I hadn't expected to confront them in relation to Austria in 1914.

A Viking River Cruise on the Danube****
So why the war and killing fervor in Vienna? I can honestly say that there was so much wry, deceptive, contrived, and precious in the Austria of Thunder at Twilight that I scarcely know where the "what's wrong" began. In its last stages, the heads of nations and empires, concerned most with the preservation of the personal and political status quo and inconvenienced and fatigued by the demands of leadership, were easily managed by those beneath them who encouraged them to take their usual summer vacations, despite the recent assassination of Franz Ferdinand: they went off convinced that there would be the time and opportunity upon their returns to exact a serious but not world-order-changing price from Serbia for its crime against Austria. 

While these heads of nations and empires and the ministers beneath them kept to their summer plans, their industrious underlings busily moved the world closer to war.***** As Morton explains, 
"Power had drained from the thrones and chancelleries into the offices of Chiefs of Staff,"****** "the Chiefs drew their true prerogative from an unofficial but tremendous power,"****** and "The new power had divided the world into Allies-until-Victory and Enemies-unto-Death."*******
Morton's book reminded me of how often I wonder who really is the architect of current American foreign policy. I already know which presidential appointees and advisors are more apt to advocate military solutions, which economic solutions, and which diplomatic solutions to conflict. But I'm not sure who listens to whom, who manipulates whom, and who really decides.

While his portrayal of failures of leadership makes me think of present-day America, I am also haunted by the way Morton describes the reactions of Austrian citizens to the imminence of war in 1914, especially those of the middle class citizens. Like most relatively ignorant students of history, I expected Austrians who did not share in the prosperity of their fellow citizens to welcome the chance to rebel. To my surprise, however, the prosperous middle classes were equally enthusiastic about the prospect of war:
High Steaks at the Bristol Restaurant & Bar********
But the poor weren't the only ones grateful for the zest provided by the crisis. The middle classes, too, felt exhausted and baffled. Progress had fed them well. Yet the more meat on the table, the less tang was there to each morsel, the more intolerable the superior cut of somebody else's steak. No doubt they were dining well. Were they still eating together? . . . Their mansions brimmed, but they did not feel sheltered. They promenaded in spats and top hats--where from? To what end?*********
According to Morton, people can get excited about going to war just because they're tired of being tired. Frankly, I think I understand that on some level: some people live such orderly, sensible, generally admired lives that it's easy to imagine their periodic yearnings for spontaneity, for unexpected joy, for breaking out of their respectable molds. But in general, the middle classes avoid the unexpected whenever they possibly can. So I really can't say I understand their lust for war in 1914. 

And on the other hand, maybe I do. I did teach Hesse's Demian often during my teaching career. The novel's title character explains this shared sense of meaninglessness, of emptiness seeking transformation:
"'For a hundred years or more, Europe has done nothing but study and build factories! They know exactly how many ounces of powder it takes to kill a man, but they don't know how to pray to God, they don't even know how to be happy for a contented hour. . . . The world, as it is now, wants to die, wants to perish--and it will.'"**********
"Successful" inhabitants of rotting worlds may be tempted by death if they can't imagine renewal without it. But what type of renewal is being envisioned and sought in present-day America? It's that question that again brings to my mind the last two lines of Yeats' "The Second Coming": "And what rough beast, its hour come at last,/ Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?"************


There's a lot of trouble in America these days. Strong, tolerated messages that some people are ruining the country and the world and that excluding, humiliating, punishing, and even killing them is acceptable behavior--even virtuous behavior from some perspectives. As for those of us who don't share these views, we're not all the same: some of us see what's happening and worry about it, some of us see what's happening and get busy doing something that we hope will counteract it, and some of us see what's happening and look away as quickly as we can. Meanwhile, August, the month when so many can and will go off on vacation, is practically here. Thunder at Twilight has me worrying about what can happen when people with power are away on vacation. But wait: Thunder at Twilight has me worrying what can happen when people with power are not on vacation. It's a perilous moment for sure.

* Morton, F. (1989). Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company.
** Check out Martin, M. (2016). Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey. San Francisco, CA: Inner Light Books.
*** Check out Ford, R. Q. (2019). The Parable of the Unjust Judge, the Book of Revelation, and the Denial of Climate Breakdown (Part Two). The Fourth R, 32-3 (May-June), 9--13, 20.
**** https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&id=E41BF4B38E34ABE98D4DAD2DCD8A778CC00D8676&thid=OIP.OrUdv0hGw7jtg2DZyoKqDAHaE8&mediaurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.travelyourself.ca%2Fwp-content%2Fuploads%2F2015%2F03%2FThe-picturesque-Danube-river-between-Melk-and-Vienna-Austria-A-Viking-River-Cruise-on-the-Danube-Through-Europe.jpg&exph=427&expw=640&q=Vienna+River+cruises&selectedindex=4&ajaxhist=0&vt=0&eim=1,2,6
****Morton, p. 310.
***** Morton, p. 311, 315.
*(6) Morton, p. 316.
*(7) Morton, p. 317.
*(8) https://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&id=77C736FBEFA9F710A53C949F968320694BF571F2&thid=OIP.5J4VOIJyYNlJVazvPVzp-AHaHa&exph=590&expw=590&q=Four+Seasons+Hotel+Boston+Bristol&selectedindex=9&ajaxhist=0&vt=0&eim=1,2,6 
*(9) Morton, p. 21.
*(10) Hesse, H. (1989). Demian (pp. 140-141). New York: Harper & Row.
*(11) Yeats, W. B. (n.d.). "The Second Coming". In The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989). Retrieved July 31, 2019, from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43290/the-second-coming.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

"The Power of Passionate and Determined Individuals Working Together": Judith Frieze Wright's Acts of Resistance

So already, Judith Frieze Wright might not have written Acts of Resistance: A Freedom Rider Looks Back on the Civil Rights Movement had her own adult children not encouraged her to tell her story. I'm so glad that they did--and not just for the sake of her grandchildren who, as a result, will always have a record of her participation in the Civil Rights Movement.

Judy Wright's book does a number of things: it reflects on life decisions, their motivations and impacts, in and beyond the decision-making moment; it continues a personal tradition of political activism that aims tirelessly at justice for all; it chronicles a deepening understanding of white privilege and its consequences; and it makes concrete the day-to-day realities of chipping away at the unjust status quo. Twice during the 1960s, a desire to do something personally meaningful and "right" for others led Judy to Mississippi, where she bravely, quietly, and consistently collaborated with others to eradicate racial inequality and injustice. It mattered then, it mattered to Judy personally and to the country going forward from then, and it still matters--which is why it's so important that Judy wrote this book.

I've known Judy and her husband Sib for a long time, have heard parts of her story from her and others over the years, have even come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of some parts of her story in the past few years. But I hadn't known the whole story--all of its chapters, its chronology, and its intertwined underpinnings and crucial motivations.

Meridian, Mississippi*
Judy's book consists primarily of one long "Civil Rights" story and a series of shorter ones separated by an account of the reflective "back home" interlude between them. The long story chronicles Judy's experiences as a Freedom Rider; the shorter ones relate her voter registration efforts in and around Meridian, Mississippi and her experiences as part of assembled crowds, especially in churches and court rooms.

In many instances, Judy quotes others at length, providing us with the opportunity to be as moved, inspired, and/or deflated by their words as she was. As long as I've known Judy, she's always made space for other people to be and speak their truest selves.** In quoting extensively--for example, from mothers grieving for lost sons and individuals thwarted in their attempts to register to vote--Judy signals that words and the powerful messages they yield truly belong to those who speak them. Such messages need only to be shared, not embellished or explained.

Therein lies Judy's humility, which permeates this book--and which is so deeply part of who she is. Judy's writing of this book is not an exercise in "virtue signaling"; there is nothing here that says, "Look at me and what I did" or "Check out my enlightened perception of this moment or event"; if anything, Judy directs our attention away from herself and toward individuals she recalls vividly. Generally, she presents herself as a member of groups: freedom riders, voter registration activists, courtroom audiences, funeral attendees. She further emphasizes her lack of individual importance when she refers to Acts of Resistance on its back cover as a "little book" and categorizes her own story as "just one of the hundreds that could be told . . .."  
Judith Frieze Wright as seen on amazon.com

But the truth is that the big stories of the Civil Rights era couldn't have been written without the many smaller stories such as Judy's. The writers of those smaller stories reinforced one another's courage and commitment; trained together to persevere through fear and violent confrontation; and then acted, knowing always that they were putting their bodies, and thus their lives, on the line. In an era in which celebrity and greatness are often equated, in which people regularly strive to stand out from the pack, and in which people regularly abandon principle for the sake of "safety" and "success," Judy's and others' small stories and "little books" are much needed.

For that reason, I'm especially excited that Acts of Resistance is such an accessible book, emotionally and intellectually. Judy's writing is both clear and heartfelt. We understand exactly what Judy is feeling at critical junctures, be it fear, grief, frustration, confusion, and/or hope; we marvel at how she manages to persist even in highly discouraging and sometimes dangerous situations. 

We also always understand what's happening and why. Judy provides just enough background information and context so that the events she describes make sense to readers of various ages and levels of "Civil Rights Movement" knowledge. We're told what "COFO" stands for; we're provided with some African American voter registration statistics so that we can grasp the seriousness of the situation that Judy and others are working to change. Regardless of who we are, we're not left out. My ninety-four-year-old father-in-law just read and loved this book--so much so that he chose to write to Judy after he read it. I can easily imagine high school students being engaged by it, too--a very important thing, given that they are coming of age in an era in which inclusive notions of "We the people" are sorely under siege. In fact, Judy speaks about this directly in her epilogue: the need for activism--especially collective, organized activism--continues, she asserts gently but firmly. As she says on the book's back cover, "We must never forget, especially in these times, the power of passionate and determined individuals working together to make change."

"Voices"
On the afternoon of the day my husband and I were driving from Gettysburg to Pittsburgh to visit my father-in-law, we came upon signs indicating that the Flight 93 National Memorial was just a few miles up ahead. And so we stopped to visit "Voices," the tower of wind chimes that memorializes those who died on that Shanksville, Pennsylvania field on September 11, 2001 as result of a deliberate, collective act. We can know their names, as we can know the names of the individual Freedom Riders, but both groups will always be known first and foremost collectively rather than individually--and that's as it should be. 

It takes a lot of important, courageous little stories to create a heroic big story. In light of this, Judith Frieze Wright's Acts of Resistance: A Freedom Rider Looks Back on the Civil Rights Movement isn't really such a little book at all. I strongly recommend it.

* Photograph accompanying this blog post: Malvaney E. (2015, May 15). Mississippi Streets: 1960s Meridian [Web log post]. Retrieved June 17, 2019, from https://misspreservation.com/2015/05/15/mississippi-streets-1960s-meridian/ 
** Just because Judy listens generously does not mean she doesn't listen astutely: she can differ very lovingly with people. I always admire this in her.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Reconsidering Mary Oliver's Poetry: Part I

So already, I don't adore Mary Oliver's poetry--except when I love it.

But right now, I'm questioning my skepticism--and printing up the article from The New Yorker* that you see pictured here--for two reasons:
  • The first is that when Mary Oliver died recently, a number of my poetry-reading and -writing friends whose taste in poems often guides me well were genuinely heartbroken: for them, the world had truly become a poorer place for lack of Oliver's continued poetic presence.
  • The second is that I loved--didn't just like, but loved--the Oliver poems** we read at the June meeting of the poetry discussion group held monthly at the Scituate Town Library.
So why have I persisted in hanging on to my ambivalence about Mary Oliver's poetry, despite my very positive reactions to a number of her poems? Have too few of them touched me really deeply, struck me as profoundly true, even though I've wanted to embrace them and hold them fast? Take "Wild Geese," for example: it has a releasing, absolving first line; offers multiple apt, sweeping images to the mind's eye and ear; and concludes with final lines that I often quote because they so beautifully communicate the comfort of being and feeling part of Creation. But at one point a few years back, I actually felt the need to revise it to better suit a very complex moment.***

In the past, I've often explained my ambivalence about Oliver's work by pointing to certain poems that simply don't seem as good to me as the others. But couldn't I say exactly the same thing about any other poet's work? Not every William Butler Yeats poem rocks my world the way "The Second Coming" does every time I read it. But somehow I have both more forgiveness and more expectation when it comes to Yeats--and I'm much more apt to wonder how I'm failing the poem rather than how the poem is failing me. Hmmm . . .

Having said that, I don't think it's accidental that I've chosen Yeats to exemplify my struggle. Some of Yeats' poetry is prophetic, and one of my favorite graduate school courses was about the relationship between poetry and prophecy.**** The prophetic books of the Bible, required reading in one of my undergraduate English courses, fascinated me not only because they were beautiful and puzzling, but because they placed great faith in people's imaginative and interpretive abilities. 

The truth of the matter is that I like to wrestle with poems. I like to feel that I'm up to the task of wrestling, if not on my own, then in the company of other interested wrestlers. In addition, I like to feel that the poem and I are both bringing something to the struggle--and the joy--of making meaning. I love it when I find my entry point, my toehold in the glistening and resistant rock face that some poems first present to me. It's almost like I'm both paralyzed and captivated, and then slowly I begin to make my way.

So I was relieved when I read the review of Oliver's Blue Horses***** in which Barbara Berman quoted the poem "What We Want" in its entirety:

In a poem
people want
something fancy,


but even more
they want something
inexplicable
made plain,


easy to swallow-
not unlike a suddenly
harmonic passage


in an otherwise
difficult and sometimes dissonant
symphony-


even if it is only
for the moment
of hearing it.

Right away I realized what, at least in part, my resistance to Oliver's work reflected: I really don't agree with Oliver's ideas about what people want from poetry. Not only that, I feel a bit patronized by her attitude. I might be being condescending when I criticize her for not being more "prophetic," "literary," and "indirect"--maybe she'd call that "fancy"--but I think she's being equally condescending when she assumes my interest is in having the "inexplicable/ made plain" and "easy to swallow." And on the other hand, the "We" in her title includes her among those seeking the relief of illumination, even if it's only temporary.

"Franz Marc's Blue Horses,"****** from the same collection, does not deliver on her poetic promise and principle of the "inexplicable made plain."******* I suspect that's part of why I liked it so much when we read it the other day. Rather than providing certainties, Oliver floats two possibilities in lines beginning with "Maybe," and ends with a question, not an answer. 

I wanted to hold tight to one of those possibilities: "Maybe the desire to make something beautiful/ is the piece of God that is inside each of us." Questions of wanting to make, what to make, and God's relationship to all of this have been much on my mind of late. A few weeks ago in my synagogue, we spent some time talking about the elaborate specifications for, and the artisanship required for the construction of, the Ark of the Covenant. We were also reminded that the people in earlier Torah chapters had made/built some other things that had displeased God: the golden calf and the Tower of Babel. Since then, I've been wondering what these human-made buildings and objects tell us about what it means to be people. What do we as humans need to see and touch, and why? Must our hands keep busy, building--or even writing poems?

There's definitely more than one way and more than one reason to write poetry--or even a single poem. I'll blog again in a couple of weeks after I've read and reread some more Oliver poems. Please send along to me the names of Oliver poems you really think I should be reading in the weeks ahead. Thank you!

* Illustration accompanying the following article: Franklin, R. (2017, November 20). What Mary Oliver's Critics Don't Understand. [Review of the book Devotions, by M. Oliver]. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/11/27/what-mary-olivers-critics-dont-understand
** Poetry discussion group leader Joyce Wilson always does such a great job of bringing this group great poems to read.
*** The revision is in a blog post entitled "Wild Geese in This Season of Return."
**** This course was taught by Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr., editor of Milton and the Line of Vision.
***** Berman, B. (2014, December 3). Blue Horses by Mary Oliver. [Review of Blue Horses, by M. Oliver]. Retrieved from https://therumpus.net/2014/12/blue-horses-by-mary-oliver/ 
*******. . . And not just because I have thing for horses captured in poetry.  
******* This caused me to question the tone of "What We Want."

Monday, May 20, 2019

At the National Museum of African American History and Culture

So already, a few weeks ago, I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAACC). One of my guardian angels who knew from Facebook that I expected to be in Washington DC in the very near future secured me a visitor pass: I would be able to spend the one unscheduled day of my visit at the museum. I was beyond grateful--and still am. 


High Hopes for My Visit
I had been wanting to visit the NMAACC for a long time, especially because in the last few years, courtesy of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School's Kimbrough Scholars Program, I'd increasingly recognized the dangerous deficiencies and biases of my own American history education.* But I was also nervous about going, in much the same way I had been years earlier when I first visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. First of all, I was worried that I'd lack sufficient emotional fortitude to look at, and keep looking at, the images of lynching and other forms of violence a museum of African American history would have to present. Second of all, I really wanted the museum to be terrific.

There was so much I wanted the museum to do successfully. I wanted it to expand and "correct" the historical narrative where needed. I wanted it to lift the lost, nameless, and invisible out of oblivion and to make them visible, respected, and remembered. I wanted it to celebrate and honor the agency and resilience of African Americans--something I had learned so little about in school. I wanted it to stimulate conversations that might lead to transformed understandings, attitudes, and relationships--to freedom and justice for all in the America beyond the walls of the museum.

I know: it was really not fair of me to be asking so much of this museum--especially since I would be visiting it for only one day! How could any one institution be expected to help all Americans share equally, deliberately, and respectfully in being American? .

"America the Beautiful" by David Hammons**
But that was still what I wanted. More specifically, I wanted the NMAACC to exemplify the Vision underlying the Smithsonian's current Strategic Plan: "to engage and to inspire more people, where they are, with greater impact, while catalyzing critical conversation on issues affecting our nation and the world." And I wanted it already to be meeting a "Grand Challenge" the current Strategic Plan aims to meet by 2022: "America is an increasingly diverse society that shares a history, ideals, and an indomitable, innovative spirit. We will use our resources  . . . to explore what it means to be an American and how the disparate experiences of individual groups strengthen the whole, and to share our story with people of all nations."

 Hopes Fulfilled
Yes, my expectations were extremely high. But the museum actually met them--in a very particular way for me personally, and in a much more general way that's even more important.

My Personal Learning Goals Met
In the realm of expanding and "correcting" the historical narrative, the museum's "success" in my personal case built to some degree on my "preparation."

While watching Henry Louis Gates's recently televised documentary Reconstruction: America After the Civil War in the weeks before my visit, I had been struck by how quickly and effectively African Americans had exercised their rights to build schools, run for political office, and otherwise take advantage of the opportunities their freedom presented once the war was over. 

Nothing in my Gone with the Wind-echoing formal education had taught me how poised to be free African Americans had been at this time in history, about how strategic they had been in exercising their freedom as soon as they had it. Frankly, I'd been taught a great deal about enslaved bodies and broken spirits--and virtually nothing about enslaved bodies and nurtured, unbroken spirits and strategic minds. 

So I went into the museum with my own question about the history of African Americans' readiness for freedom. It proved to be a great anchoring question for me, though it didn't guide all of my learning that day. 

Like so many visitors to the museum, I began on the bottom floor, in part of the museum dedicated to the earliest African American history. There, courtesy of the slave ship data*** provided on the museum's walls, I learned that the Portuguese and the Dutch transported the most Africans to the Americas and that Africans being transported on French ships were least likely to survive the Atlantic crossing. Someone wishing to escape from slavery would have the best chance of succeeding if s/he lived in Louisiana and could slip into the relatively impenetrable Bayou. 

Meanwhile laws were being created and revised continually: interchange of all sorts between Africans and Native Americans needed to be discouraged legally to ensure European safety, dominance, and economic viability. Fugitive slave laws were also always in a similar kind of flux with the similar intentions of keeping people of African descent in "lawful" servitude.

This was the thematic story of deliberate oppression that I'd expected to see, and that I would have expected to see on the basis of my late-1960s-early-1970s formal education about African Americans as victims of oppression. But alongside it was the companion story I'd never been taught in school--the story of survival, patience, frustration, desire, and purpose, especially collective survival, patience, frustration, desire, and purpose. 

This community story was just as old as the oppression story. The museum began telling it right away--in the context of describing the different kinds of daily lives enslaved people lived depending where they labored and what kind of work they did. In each of the regions, people routinely gathered, sometimes surreptitiously, for any number of reasons, including to worship, preserve culture, socialize, celebrate, be who they were collectively and individually when they weren't working. 

Given my focus on the ideas of resiliency, organization, and community, I was especially moved by the Community Galleries on Level L3 of the museum, which I visited in the afternoon. I loved the photographs of the members of the various featured societies, organizations, and institutions; I was humbled and inspired by the collective drive and purpose of those who were determined to make and sustain change.

The More Important Way My Hopes for the NMAACC Were Fulfilled
So now that you know what I personally learned and enjoyed at the NMAACC, I must tell you that it was my observations of others that really made me love the museum and think highly of it. Visitors to the museum were so engaged, all in their different ways: some talked about how and why things worked and happened; others looked, read, and listened, almost oblivious to those around them looking silently or conversing softly. All around me, people seemed to be having an intense, important day, a day they would keep thinking about.

I admit it: I often eavesdrop when I'm in a museum. It's a habit I first developed from many years of taking students on field trips and wanting to know what they were paying attention to thinking about. I further developed it during my association with Project Zero's Making Learning Visible Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education: so much learning happens through the exchange of ideas. Therefore, teachers must listen carefully to student talk.


Though I've been out of the classroom for a while, I still listen in on museum conversations--as I did just a couple of years ago when students were discussing Kehinde Wiley's "Sleep" at the Tacoma Art Museum. And I was definitely listening in on museum conversations at the NMAACC--in part because there was more quiet than conversation happening in the history galleries. 

The quiet first took hold as a group of us prepared to enter the history galleries. Having been forewarned by a museum volunteer that we'd be without access to restrooms as we strolled the mile-long ascending path from the earliest parts of the history to the present day, we finally boarded the elevator, standing very close to one another.

We were so many, so different--and so very quiet. Among us were multi-generational family groups, name-tag-wearing students with their teachers, pairs of friends, people in wheelchairs with the friends or family members who were accompanying them, lone individuals like myself. No chatter. All of us waiting to begin. Who knew the many different things our silence signified?

But as we began walking through African American history--some of us taking right turns and then left turns, some of us taking left turns and then taking right turns, some of us gravitating toward the particular objects, videos, and signs that most interested us--those who'd come with others sometimes talked, often in hushed tones. When a pre-teen female student carrying a pink backpack quietly asked her friend carrying an identical pink backpack, "Did we study the Nat Turner Rebellion?" the answer she got was, "Yes, I think in the fourth grade." I wondered what the first girl had just learned about Nat Turner or the rebellion that had stimulated her interest. I wondered if the second girl felt that since they already had "done" Nat Turner, there was little need to think about him further.


A group of olive-skinned boys whose names suggested Middle Eastern heritage were more interested in the museum's artifacts than its signs and videos. When one boy, looking at the brick shown in the adjacent photograph, asked his friend, "Why is this here?" his friend replied, "It's history, dummy." When is a brick history, and when is a brick just a brick? It wasn't a dumb question at all.

I wished their teacher had overheard their exchange, but it's possible that she was involved in a conversation with her colleagues. Four separate times during my time on the history floors, I came across groups of teachers**** who were strategizing about how to share what they were seeing and learning with colleagues "back at school" who might never visit the museum. Some of the conversation involved questions about what on the museum web site might stimulate a discussion about revamping parts of the American history curriculum "back home." But some of the talk was about major ideas and concepts in the museum that were nowhere in the curriculum.

Elders too were talking, remembering having seen artifacts in their own pasts, or in family photos that were "somewhere." Sons and daughters were asking parents and grandparents questions about what they knew and when they knew it, if and what they remembered. Just beyond these hushed conversations, the silence dominated, evidence of people's absorption in what they were examining, even when they were part of groups that sometimes talked. Whatever was going on in people's brains and minds, clearly they were deeply engaged. I wondered what/if everyone was learning; I wondered what everyone was feeling.


If the history floors were predominantly quiet, the Sweet Home Cafe and the Culture Galleries were alive with the buzz and occasional yips of excited voices. In the Cafe, over food chosen from the various "African American food tradition" stations, families discussed what they'd seen that was interesting, puzzling, disturbing, needing to be explored further. In the Culture Galleries, especially in the sections featuring musical and other kinds of performance, smiles, laughter, and intense whispering and pointing revealed how much people loved what they were seeing, hearing, and recalling.

There were so many achievements and contributions to celebrate--great entertainment and serious thought and imagination conveyed in all art forms. Something for everyone, I thought--or hoped. All of this made me think of the challenge of curation that the museum as a whole represents. 

A Question of What Perspectives Matter Most
Years ago when I was at the Holocaust Museum, I remembered wondering how non-Jews experienced the museum; I also wondered how their motivations for visiting it compared with my own. I had the same two questions about Jews who'd lost family members in the Holocaust, which I had not. So many visitors with different needs, wishes, and experiences. 

So how successfully is the NMAACC responding to the expectations of its racially and culturally diverse visitors?***** And does this need ever conflict with museum's need to resonate especially with African American perspectives? How much is the museum actually helping visitors to embrace the idea of a diverse inclusive American as a strong, authentic America?


Not at NMAACC, but still in the Smithsonian!
I wouldn't be raising these questions if I didn't think they mattered. But not knowing  the answers to them does not prevent me from thinking the NMAACC is terrific. I love museums that get us thinking and feeling, make us imagine what we couldn't or wouldn't imagine before, lead us to understand more deeply or differently, encourage us to wonder, and help us to recognize and confront the partial and faulty understandings we've long embraced as the whole truth. I also love museums that inspire us through examples of human commitment, persistence, and strength-- and trust our capacities to make meaning. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is definitely one of those museums.

* I had the occasion to write about my eighth grade history class in a blog post I wrote in August 2017.
** David Hammons' painting is part of the "Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975" exhibit currently on View at that Smithsonian American Art Museum.
*** Where did you cry? Crafting Categories, Narratives, and Affect through Exhibit Design - Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-repeating-background-pattern-in-the-Ships-of-the-Trade-section-shown-in-gold-type_fig2_331774953 [accessed 17 May, 2019] 
Figure 3: The repeating background pattern in the 'Ships of the Trade' section, shown in gold type, lists the names of slave ships, their country of origin, voyage date, and the ratio of enslaved who boarded to those who survived the journey. One of several instances of 'massing techniques' used in the History Galleries, this also illustrates the dehumanisation of treating humans as cargo. Photograph by Corinne A. Kratz.
**** I actually stopped and joined the fourth group briefly to tell them that a teacher group across the room was having a conversation similar to their own.
***** I also gave some thought to what Americans would choose never to visit the NMAACC, even if they could visit it.