Slavery was central to the country’s formation: its economy, its government, its identity, its entire way of life. Without a systemized, entrenched slave trade, America would not have grown to the extent it did. During the past 400 years, the fault lines created in our foundation by a fundamentally dehumanizing system have periodically cracked wide-open.
Three years ago, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture debuted on the Mall. As its founding director, I realized that when we opened the museum, it would have to paint a comprehensive picture of the American story through the lens of the African American experience, one with all its facets and contradictions, not only tragedies but also triumphs; not merely injustices but also inspirations. I felt strongly that it also needed to foster a national conversation using its experts, objects, exhibitions and programs. No one could anticipate how desperately needed that conversation would become, though.
Less than a year after the museum’s opening, someone placed a noose — a notorious symbol of violent white supremacy meant to intimidate and terrorize — inside an exhibition. A few months later, a self-avowed neo-Nazi rammed his car into protesters as white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville; he was later convicted of murder in the death of civil rights activist Heather Heyer. Openly racist and violent incidents like these have continued, horrifying people across the country.
When I eventually went to work at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in the 1990s, we had an opportunity to acquire the section of counter and seats where the Greensboro Four had sat all those years ago. Displaying that piece of civil rights history and telling its story showed in a tangible way the sacrifices people have made and continue to make. Millions of museumgoers see it, put themselves in the shoes of those brave college students, think about their own place in history and contemplate the long struggle for equality that still endures.
Today, the mission at the National Museum of African American History and Culture is to build on that tradition. Museums and other cultural institutions are indispensable tools in confronting difficult truths and breaking down invented pasts. If America aspires to live up to the democratic ideals written into its founding documents, hoping to build a more perfect union in which everyone is granted full access, we must let go of the myths that obscure the whole truth about who we are as a nation.