"The New African American Museum:
We've Come This Far by Faith"
I am excited about this weekend's opening of the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The museum's inaugural theme is "A People's Journey and a Nation's Story." This theme is appropriate because from the very beginning African Americans have been on a journey and have also made bedrock contributions that have shaped modern American as we know it today. What's also clear is that even though the story of faith is not told explicitly in the museum, African Americans have made their journey by faith trusting and depending on God.
The museum has three main galleries: a history gallery; a community gallery and a cultural gallery. The centerpiece of the history gallery and the center piece of the entire museum is an exhibit about Slavery and Freedom. This exhibit, found on the bottom floor of the museum reveals the evil of the Atlantic slave trade, slavery in America and goes through the Civil War.
When one asks the question how is it that African-Americans made it through slavery? Two items in the exhibit make it clear that it was by faith. One item is the great freedom fighter Harriet Tubman's hymnbook. Harriet Tubman made many journeys to free slaves and she sang songs of faith as she did. Indeed, African-Americans as a whole made it through slavery by singing songs of faith. One of my favorite songs during this era says "Over my head, over my head, I hear music in the air, there must be a God somewhere!"
Another item in the Slavery and Freedom Exhibit is Nat Turner's Bible, and even though most slaves were illiterate, they knew the stories of the Bible. They knew about Moses and his going down to Pharaoh to tell him to let God's people go. They knew about Joshua fighting the Battle of Jericho and about the walls that came tumbling down. These stories and songs gave them hope and this hope along with prayers kept them, and sustained until that day when God set them free.
The exhibit on slavery is critical to understanding America today because slavery is America's original sin, and much of the troubles that we currently see in our nation, stem directly from slavery. In fact, Nancy Bercaw the Slavery and Freedom exhibits curator said, "Slavery is not really that distant. Slavery is a living presence that's being passed down - the knowledge of it, the memory of it - from generation to generation."
Also on the bottom levels of the museum, in an exhibit on the Era of Segregation, are Emmett Till's casket and a guard tower from the notorious Angola, LA prison. Till was killed senselessly in 1955 for the supposed crime of looking at a white woman, and the prison exhibit explains how US prisons have become "re-purposed plantations." These objects -- the casket and the prison tower -- speak to us today and the Black Lives Matter movement for there are too many modern-day Emmett Till's including Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and most recently lives taken in Tulsa, OK and Charlotte, NC. There are also too many black men entrapped in the prison industrial complex. The segregation exhibit also chronicles the Civil Rights movement and the stories of great leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose endeavors were grounded in faith and the love Christ for all people.
If I have one disappointment with the museum, it is that it does not tell the story of faith and the central role that the Black Church has played in sustaining it and African American people expressly. However, the story of faith and the Black Church is interwoven throughout the museum. In fact, one of the cultural galleries is even named "Making a Way Out of No Way" and we should all be grateful because God has made a way out of no way for African Americans, and he will do the same for all people who put their faith and trust in him!
Peace and Blessings,
Pastor Kip Banks, Sr.