Tuesday, July 12, 2011

We've Come a Long Way . . . But Only Part Way

The lunch counter in question at the Museum of American History

On our recent trip to the mainland we spent two whirlwind days during which we saw more or less every single inch of the National Mall in Washington DC. We saw the monuments. We saw the political buildings. And boy did we see the museums. Lots of museums. During our second day in DC we saw the Holocaust Museum, the Museum of Natural History, the National Archives, and the Museum of American History (along with most of the monuments … can you say footsore?). Within the Museum of American History, there is a wing dedicated to African American history (highlighting a small portion of the collection that will go into the new National Museum of African American History and Culture set to open on the National Mall in 2015).

Outside of the display sits a portion of the lunch counter that was at the center of the protests in Goldsboro, North Carolina. If you don’t know the story, the first thing you should do is write your American history teacher from high school a nasty note using the phrase “you have inadequately prepared me to function in society.” The second thing you should do is look it up. I’ll wait …

It is a give-me-goose-bumps type of story if you really imagine what it would have been like to be one of those young men. Seeing a part of the actual counter was a great experience, and Michelle proclaimed to be the coolest thing in the museum.

After the lunch counter, we proceeded through the displays, which were centered to a large extent on the Civil Rights Movement. It was one of the great moments of our trip for me, as I huddled with my children in front of a picture of a group of young African American men, each holding a sign that simply read “I am a man.” We looked at the sober figures as they gazed into the camera with all the dignity of anonymous heroes, and we talked about what the terse phase “I am a man” means. We talked about why in the world it would be so necessary for them to get a message across that should have been, in the words of a group of rather well-know philosophers and statesmen, self-evident.

And then we started talking about how far we have come as a country. I assured my kids that while we were not perfect, the levels of racism in our country have, indeed, fallen. I told them that things are better now. And they are.

But then I looked around, and I noticed something that put a serious damper on the experience for me. As far as I could tell, we were the only white people in the whole wing of the museum. What does it mean that, while most of the white people at the Smithsonian that day would not consider themselves racists (I hope) and had never committed an overt act of hate against another person because of color, somewhere in the deep recesses of their minds they had decided that the African American wing of the museum was simply not interesting. Not applicable. Not to them.

Or maybe too difficult to face.