An Intimate History of America

Arthur Rothstein, Girl at Gee’s Bend, Alabama, 1937. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

As we walked through the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I pushed my grandfather in a wheelchair he had reluctantly agreed to sit in. He is a proud man who also knows that his knees aren’t what they once were—that years of high school and college football had long accelerated the deterioration of his aging joints. We got into an elevator that brought us down to the bottom level of the museum, where visitors begin their journey with displays that outline the earliest years of black life in this country. We made our way through the exhibitions that document the state-sanctioned violence black people experienced over the course of generations, pausing to study the images and take in their explanations: How, even after the Civil War, the Black Codes in South Carolina made it so that grown men had to get written permission from white employers simply to be able to walk down the street in peace. How in Louisiana a black woman’s body, by law, was not her own. How in Mississippi an interracial marriage would put a noose around your neck the moment the vows left your lips. The history of racial violence in our country is both omnipresent and unspoken. It is a smog that surrounds us that few will admit is there. But to walk through these early exhibitions was to be told that the smog is not your imagination—my imagination—that it is real, regardless of how vehemently some will deny it.

With family recently visiting Washington, D.C., from out of town, my wife and I took my parents and my paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather to the museum. I had been there once before and was struck by a single institution’s remarkable ability to capture so much of black America’s complex relationship—tumultuous, inspiring—with this country and how so many of the exhibitions complicated various accounts of American history that are misrepresented in our broader social discourse. Every monument or homage to Thomas Jefferson I have come across, for example, presents him singularly as the nation’s intellectual founding father and as a paragon of our collective ideals. At this museum, his statue stands before towers of bricks, each bearing the name of a person Jefferson enslaved, some of them his own children. In the exhibitions on the civil rights movement, the museum has made a thoughtful and purposeful effort to document the work of women in the crusade for equal rights, many of whom are often erased from discussions of civil rights work in our American-history textbooks. Exhibitions like these invested me in the museum not only because they tell the story of black America but because they insist that the story of black America is indeed the story of America itself. America’s economy cannot be disentangled from the free labor that built it, just as America’s culture cannot be unbound from the black artists who cultivated it. 

My grandfather is eighty-six years old and was born in Monticello, Mississippi. His voice, rich and sonorous, still sings of the Deep South. He is tall, though not as tall as he once was, and laughs vigorously when my six-month-old son grabs his thumb and attempts to chew on it. My grandmother is seventy-eight and was born in West Palm Beach, Florida. Her hair is a luminous silver, and she speaks with the gentle conviction of someone who has experienced several lifetimes in one. Both of their spouses passed away more than a decade ago. With each passing year I have become acutely aware of what it means to think of history not simply in its larger social or political contexts, but in terms of our families’ intimate histories. In an effort to dig into the archives that explain the history of this country, we can forget that the best primary sources are often right next to us.

As we stood before an exhibition documenting the Great Depression, my grandfather told me about his father, who worked as a waiter in a local hotel and was denied access to the benefits of Roosevelt’s New Deal that had been given to his white counterparts. For years he didn’t receive the assistance of Social Security that served as the catalyst of intergenerational wealth for millions of white families across the country. We passed the counters where black college students engaged in sit-ins, and he told me about what it meant to live in a country that would send you off to fight their war but wouldn’t let you eat lunch in their restaurants.

We approached Emmett Till’s casket, its bronze hue radiating under the museum lights. It sat open to show how it would have looked when Emmett’s mother, Mamie, chose to show the world what had been done to her son. I did not need to see the dead boy’s face to remember its tragic contortions. I did not need to listen to anything other than the softly buzzing light above us to hear Mamie Till’s unceasing sobs. My grandfather looked at the casket; his eyes moved unhurriedly across its frame. “He was killed in the next town over from where your grandmother and I lived. Only a few miles away,” he said without looking up.

I think about the history of racism in this country all the time. I think about how quickly we are to espouse notions of progress without accounting for its uncertain and serpentine path. I think of how decades of racial violence shape everything we see, but sometimes I forget its impact on those beside me. I forget that many of the men and women screaming at and spitting on Ruby Bridges in the photo down the hall are still alive. I forget that so many of the people who threw rocks at Dr. King in Chicago in 1966 are still voting in our elections. I forget that, but for the arbitrary nature of circumstance, what happened to Emmett Till could have happened to my grandfather. We tell ourselves that the most nefarious displays of racial violence happened long ago, when they were, in fact, not so long ago at all. These images and videos that appall our twenty-first-century sensibilities are filled with people who are still among us. The woman who officially opened the National Museum of African America History and Culture was the daughter of a man born into slavery.

I do not misunderstand the language of progress, though I realize that I do not yet have all the words to discuss a crime that is still unfolding. I know that spending the day with my grandparents in a museum documenting the systemic and interpersonal violence they witnessed—both the hand that beat them and the laws that said it was okay—was a reminder that there is still much work to do, and that when looking at the long arc of the universe, even the most explicit manifestations of racism happened just a short time ago.

Clint Smith is a writer and a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University whose work has appeared in publications including The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New Republic. He is the author of the poetry collection Counting Descent.

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