Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Long Road to Hard Truth: The 100 Year Mission to Create the National Museum of African American History and Culture


I received this ARC free via NetGalley from Proud Legacy Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5 Stars

This is yet another ARC that I had put aside in 2017 when life was crazy hectic and I wish I had not. This book is so important to our nation's history and the specific struggle that our African American brothers and sisters have endured in fighting to be recognized as citizens in their own country. This book needs to be taught in all high school history classes.

In this text Robert L. Wilkins tells the story of how the National Museum of African American History and Culture finally came into being, after decades of starts and stops, permeated by the latent and outright racism of several players in this saga. Judge Wilkins writes not of the museum itself and the numerous artifacts, oral histories, and exhibits, or the celebrities who lent their time to its creation, but of what it took to actually get the museum built in the first place. He has exhaustively searched archives and all possible repositories of knowledge to find every single instance of attempts to create a museum of African American history and the multiple reasons those plans were halted. This became a kind of obsession for Judge Wilkins, first leading him to cut back on his time as a public defender to devote time to his goal of seeing a museum dedicated to the sacrifice and struggle of African Americans and their place in US history. I think Wilkins job as a public defender really helped him realize his greater purpose and it is something the author touches on at various points. He mentions that the majority of his clients are young black and Hispanic men, many of whom he says don't see a future for themselves when he asks where they see themselves in five years. The heartbreaking answer is that some do not even see themselves as being alive in five years. These young men, many still teenage boys, did not care much to know the history of the Civil Rights Movement, how people died for their right to attend proper schools and get the education they deserved. But, Wilkins also discovered something else: when many of these same boys and young men were incarcerated, they started reading because they had nothing else to do. When they truly learned about all that it took to get the access to that education, it opened their eyes to opportunities they had wasted. Wilkins saw the museum as an opportunity not only to showcase the achievements and contributions of African Americans, but to be an inspiration to the young men and women who saw only a bleak future for themselves.

Through this book Judge Wilkins chronicles the attempts by various groups to create a space to honor African American history. it begins with the exclusion of black troops being honored after the Civil War ended. Various excuses were made as to why the troops were not invited, and none were acceptable. To rectify this, on the 50th anniversary of the original Review, again when African American units were excluded, supporters first attempted to create a monument to these men who fought for the Union and were all but erased from history. Through the era of Jim Crow, which saw lynchings become a disgusting sport, these advocates sought to create a national museum. Decades of obstacles followed, including the back and forth on whether the Smithsonian should be involved, should it be located on the Mall, and so on. I was so very disappointed to read of the specific lack of interest from the Smithsonian in the creation of a national museum. As I was reading I did not understand the hesitation, as I hoped that surely such a bastion of culture and knowledge could not also be so deeply entrenched in systematic racism. I was disheartened to see an institution I held in such high esteem could be on the wrong side of history. Yet, it was.

In his quest to see this vision come to fruition, Wilkins was named as a member of the Presidential Commission. The commission was tasked with writing the plan to create the museum, the space to be used, and so on. Wilkins poured over every single document related to the attempts to create a museum in the past, also taking note of what the reasons were for the project not moving forward. All of this culminated in a report that was finally accepted and 100 years after this journey first began, Congress finally authorized the museum. The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in September of 2016.

As I wrote earlier, this is a book that must be taught in high school history classes. Until we as a nation confront the fact that so much of our history is steeped in the horrors of  slavery and discrimination, from the rise of the KKK to Birth of a Nation, and everything beyond, this is a very real part of shaping our nation even today. It took so long for this museum to become a reality, far longer than it should have. Not until a bipartisan effort of both Democrats and Republicans, an effort also supported by George W. Bush, did this happen. This is something important to consider, and is worth reflecting on. Why did it take so long? I think the answer is a hard truth that we don't want to see.

While the text itself is not terribly long, there are extensive notes (12% of the ARC) that highlight the numerous sources the author drew on in his quest to see this project through to the end. I highly recommend this to all.

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