Social Issues Travel

Visiting the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Frederick Douglass’s cane

Historical objects are interesting to me. I’m interested not only in what they accomplished or who used them, but I’m interested in how they make us feel. During a trip to Washington D.C, I stood in front of Andrew Jackson’s pistol at the National Museum of the American Indian and felt disgusted, angry, and sad. Standing in front of Harriet Tubman’s shawl at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I was in awe. The fabric itself was nothing special, but since it belonged to one of America’s greatest historical figures, it is priceless.

Looking at Harriet Tubman’s shawl, I wished it could tell me its stories. The shawl warmed her shoulders during moments of bravery and fear. It was worn during debates and times of relaxation, if she had them. And it was hers. And standing there in the bottom floor of the museum and being surrounded by a slave cabin, stories of chained Africans in the bottom of ships, Nat Turner’s Bible, Frederick Douglas’s cane, and so many more objects and stories, I was in awe.

Awe, however, comes in different variations at the Museum of African American History and Culture. There is awe, as in being awestruck by a person’s greatness, which is what I was feeling with Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and those champions of freedom, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, John Lewis, and so many more. There is also awe that is the bitter sadness one feels when reading stories of slavery, seeing a shackle that was meant for a baby, and hearing the many stories from the Civil Rights era. There is angry awe while experiencing centuries of injustice. And a self-awareness awe, standing in my white-privileged space thinking about the mistreatment white people had done to others and those white people, like Viola Liuzzo and Rev. James Reeb, who used their privilege to help others, even if it cost them their life.

Angola Prison guard tower
Jesse Owens’ shoes

And there is awe admiring the accomplishments of African Americans and their contributions to sports, music, art, film and television, and community. A visit to the museum starts in the basement of the building in the dark period of colonial slavery, but it ends three stories up with a soaring celebration of Black culture.


(read Raising Fists and Parenting During a Public Enemy Concert)

George Clinton’s Mothership

There was something for everyone at the museum. In addition to the rich history, there was much to entertain the kids. My 2-year-old ran loose and gazed at the costumes and outfits of some of music’s greatest legends. My six-year old son danced away with stomp rhythm and my 13-year-old, who has Jackie Robinson on his wall, stared at his uniform. And my 11-year-old daughter enjoyed the expansive gift shop, which carried everything from clothes and jewelry to Black Panther comic books.

When you visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, (and you need to), give yourself at least 3 hours. I could have easily spent twice that long there. Remember that you need to reserve tickets far in advance, but if you don’t, you may be able to snag some same-day tickets by going on their website at 6:30 a.m. the morning you want to visit.

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