TO ENTER THE main history galleries of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), you have to descend. A glass elevator carries you down through six centuries of history, dates written on walls like exposed strata in the earth. The past, we are reminded, lies not behind us but beneath us.
The weight of your passage and what lies ahead does not hit you until you step out of the elevator and emerge to the 1400s. You have arrived in a trans-Atlantic world as yet unmade, a geography not yet drawn by greed, suffering, and death. You will return to the surface and the present slowly, and only by walking the mile-and-a-half-long exhibition corridor on a winding route through slavery to an unsecured freedom.
No matter how many times I take this journey, it never becomes familiar.
The emotional shock of history is too great, contained in the thousands of everyday items on display: tiny, child-sized shackles; pieces of an excavated slave ship; an entire slave cabin, transplanted from South Carolina; a small silver box that held one man’s treasured possession, his free papers; Harriet Tubman’s lace shawl, given to her by Queen Victoria. Emmett Till’s casket.
NMAAHC, or the “Blacksonian,” as I like to call it, makes explicit what is sometimes only gestured to by other institutions: the sacredness of history.