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: [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.

Saturday, May 11, 2019


Seer and searer,
You were both,
A volcano spewing pain
equal parts grief and rage.

Feet planted firm on burning coals,
You pursed, then parted red lips
To tell a daughter's story,
Pausing now and then to breathe
Because fire needs air.

Beyond the chapel windows, 
Fields bleached beige by winter sun--
Your father's landscape--
Flared red,
Your words spark and kindling,
Lava splash turning stubble to flame.

Oh, we feared for you
Balanced on the volcano's fiery rim,
Light and shadow mottling your face.
But when you leaned forward,
Bent even closer to the seething grief,
We feared for ourselves.

And so you comforted us and yourself,
Promised to keep your door open to us all
So that you might know
The sparks and shards of him
Contained in each of us.

And as you reached out
From flames
Purifying and consuming,
We felt you 
Rising from the ashes 
Even as you blazed. 

Photoshopped screen shot of a portion of a Scott Ketcham "Life Study":

Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Things Teachers Shouldn't Say

So already, I generally speak highly of teachers, and most of them deserve it. But at the moment, I'm not as inclined as the Boston Celtics' Jaylen Brown is to excuse the behavior of one of his high school teachers. 

I'm talking about the teacher who, in 2014 when he was seventeen years old, predicted that he'd be in jail in five years. When he tweeted about it back then, his "Wow" spoke volumes. And it's speaking volumes again because recently his old tweet has gone viral. 

Speaking somewhat reluctantly about it this week, Brown said that while he hasn't forgotten what his teacher said, and probably won't, he definitely moved beyond it a while ago. The various news articles I've read suggest that, with the support of his family, Brown determined not to let his teacher's mean-spirited forecast mess with his head and deter him from pursuing his plans and dreams with confidence.

That's one of the problems: teachers always have more power and authority than students have. So their most negative pronouncements--even the ones students know immediately and instinctively are false, wrong, or somehow off--still pack an emotional punch. And that emotional punch often doesn't lose its sting when students recall it years later, even when they are making great headway toward their dreams.

Brown's not bitter; as a matter fact, he even tries to explain why his teacher might have spoken so cruelly to him:
The Cobb County Jail**
"In Georgia, the education system isn’t the best. So I don’t really put too much blame on the teacher. It is what it is. You got one teacher handling 35 kids in one class. It’s tough and it’s a lot of teachers that go through stuff and take a lot of crap all day, so who knows what had been going through her mind when she said that."*
You're generous, Jaylen, but it's never okay for a teacher to say such stuff, and if one day she does say such stuff because she's simply run out of her store of "good teacher-ness," she ought to offer a really sincere, heartfelt apology the next day for having so harmfully, negatively vented. It's never okay for a teacher of any skin color to decree sarcastically that a student--any student, but especially an African-American male student, given rates of incarceration for African-American men--is destined for prison. Even if the student is being a real jerk. Which happens. And which doesn't change the fact that ultimately teachers have power and authority that makes their words and behaviors stick.

Yes, I'm speaking emphatically. I'm a former teacher. That's why in the last paragraph, I had to start referring to Brown by his first name, as I would any of my own students. I get it that student behavior can be annoying and ugly and teachers can lose it, and that teacher behavior can be annoying and ugly and students can lose it. But how people lose it and what happens after they lose it is incredibly important--and that's true for both teachers and students.  

Is it ever right for a teacher to suggest that prison might be in a student's future? Yes, but such a possibility should be discussed outside of the classroom; should be motivated by fear or concern for the student, even love; and should be accompanied by an offer of some kind of support. Jaylen's teacher's comment reads to me more like a "gotcha," an abuse of her power in a moment of anger and exasperation, perhaps even understandable anger and exasperation. Schools can and must be places where young people can learn constructive ways to express themselves and handle themselves in relation to others, especially in difficult circumstances. As often as possible, teachers must model those ways.

I admire Jaylen Brown. Earlier this season, he went from being a starter to coming off the bench, and he made the adjustment. Meanwhile, he recently became a vice president of the National Basketball Players' Association Executive Committee,*** and he's already said that he hopes to become president of the NBPA one day..**** Jaylen is resilient, self-starting, and self-directed; and he wants to set a good example. And his teacher still shouldn't have said to him what she said to him in 2014.
* Washburn, G. (2019, May 1). Jaylen Brown didn’t want jail tweet to be a story, but it has become one — of motivation. The Boston Globe. Retrieved May 2, 2019, from
** Photograph accompanying this blog post, probably taken by the author: Eddie. (2018, April 24). Cobb County Jail [Web log post]. Retrieved May 02, 2019, from
*** Photograph accompanying this blog post: Grenham, C. (2019, February 18). Jaylen Brown elected as Vice President of the NBPA’s Executive Committee [Web log post]. Retrieved May 02, 2019, from
**** Grenham, C. (2019, February 18). Jaylen Brown elected as Vice President of the NBPA’s Executive Committee [Web log post]. Retrieved May 02, 2019, from