Anthony Johnson was the first slave owner

We are different - we are the same

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in Washington in September. What does the institution that has already sparked debates offer visitors?

The tour begins far below, at a depth of almost 30 meters, before the visitor can move up several floors to lighter heights. It is meant to descend in the truest sense of the word to the deepest levels of American history. There he encounters neck irons and ankle cuffs as well as several dark, cylindrical elements whose function is not apparent at first glance. They are iron ballast bodies that the sea only recently released: They belonged on a Portuguese slave ship that sank with its human cargo not far from Cape Town in 1794 and the wreck was only examined by archaeologists last year.

Nation at odds

The people who did not perish on the passage - from shipwreck, malnutrition, or epidemics that could spread rapidly on the overcrowded tween decks as a result of the terrible hygienic conditions - expected hard work in cotton and tobacco fields and a life in primitive log huts. Two of these dwellings, which come from former plantations in South Carolina and Maryland, are also part of the holdings of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which - after 13 years of preparation - will open in Washington in September.

All of these exhibits bear testimony to the long and painful history of slavery - in a nation whose founding document Thomas Jefferson stated that “all human beings are created equal” and are endowed with inalienable rights: the right to life, freedom and striving for happiness. The same Jefferson who wrote these lines of the Declaration of Independence kept around 600 slaves during his lifetime. Of the first twelve Presidents of the United States (of which Jefferson was the third) ten were slave owners; only John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams were not among them.

Slavery, which gained a foothold in today's USA soon after the first colony was founded in Virginia and ended with the Civil War in 1865, is a focus of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, segregation, racial segregation and discrimination , is another. The largest exhibit is a railroad car from the 1920s, in which colored travelers were strictly separated from white travelers, according to the maxim "separate, but equal", which applies especially in the south. But neither the compartments in the car, nor the toilets or hotel rooms intended for African Americans (if the latter existed; even famous jazz musicians had problems finding accommodation while traveling) were in terms of standard even approximately the same or similar to those for white Americans.

A long cherished dream

Activists and civil rights activists have dreamed of a museum for the culture and history of African Americans for around a hundred years. Time and again, plans failed due to a lack of funds and a dispute over the location. They first looked for this near the Capitol before deciding on a place on America's most important museum mile: on the Mall in Washington, near the National Museum of American History and the Washington Monument.

With President George W. Bush's signature in 2003, the project finally got a boost; half of the total cost of $ 540 million was to come from federal funds and half through fundraising. Soon after the building, designed by the architecture firm Freelon Adjaye Bond / SmithGroup, had grown in height over the past two years, it sparked controversy: It was about the design, in which even the left-wing liberal Washington Post discovered deficiencies.

The three floors above the ground are each surrounded by a "corona", a light metal cover that was originally supposed to be made of bronze and reflect the warmth of the African earth. For cost reasons, however, a decision was made in favor of aluminum panels sprayed with paint, which in the local discussion were described by some as an insult to the eye, but by others as being particularly cool. In any case, the building represents a contrast to the classic museum buildings made of marble or limestone along the mall - which aptly symbolizes the exclusion, the otherness of an entire segment of the US population that has been propagated for centuries, regardless of all aesthetic doubts.

The interest in the museum, from whose collection of now almost 40,000 objects, has already been variously shown in exhibitions in other houses, is great in Washington and nationally; numerous representatives of African American communities, black politicians and artists have been promoting the project for a long time. It can be considered certain that it will be a crowd puller not only immediately after President Barack Obama's inauguration on September 24th, but also continuously.

Sufferings and triumphs

The last major national museum to open under the umbrella of the Smithsonian Institution in the capital was the National Museum of the American Indian in 2004. At that time, indigenous spokesmen expressed the need to present testimonies to Indian culture and identity and yourself do not want to represent in a permanent victim role. Indeed, one has to look in this - only moderately visited - museum for evidence of what white conquerors did to these peoples. There will be no such subtlety in the African American Museum, and the so often lamented gap between the ethnic groups of American society emerged in many debates long before the opening: with vehement defense of the concept here, with the warning of politically correct sacrifice cult there .

Of course, the history of suffering stretches from the days of slavery to the Black Lives Matter movement today. But numerous departments of the museum, which wants to invite all visitors to linger and reflect with the “Contemplative Court”, a light-filled forum with a water feature, are also dedicated to success stories, announcing great moments that took place despite all odds.

This is what the dress of the opera singer Marian Anderson stands for. She was not allowed to sing in the DAR Constitution Hall on Easter Sunday 1939 and instead performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial - at the same place where, 24 years later, Martin Luther King gave his famous speech "I Have a Dream". Chuck Berry's huge Cadillac is evidence of the commercial success of black artists, while gymnast Gabby Douglas' jersey is evidence of her triumph at the 2012 Olympic Games, where she was the first African American woman to win gold in this discipline - and two medals at the same time.

An extensive chapter of African American history is dedicated to the military service to the nation, which is always highly valued in the USA. At the very beginning there is the powder horn of a private named Prince Simbo, who, like many other colored people, fought for the new nation and against the previous motherland England in the American War of Independence. More than a million African Americans were under arms during World War II. Paradoxically, the US armed forces fighting the murderous racism of the Nazis and the Japanese military were segregated - a state that President Harry Truman ended in 1948. A Tuskegee Airmen training aircraft represents the first all-black unit of fighter pilots who received numerous awards for their work in the skies over Europe and North Africa from 1943 to 1945.

Of course, a large space is also dedicated to the first American president with African roots. Barack Obama was there at the laying of the foundation stone in 2012, and he will be pleased to see that his reign is echoed here as positively as is usually only the case in the presidential libraries (the one Obamas will be in Chicago).

The first slave owner

Whether the new institution will be a specialty museum or a treasure trove honored by all population and visitor groups also depends on how honest and differentiated the curators are with the details that are inconvenient and do not fit into the big narrative. For example, will the name of Anthony Johnson be found, will the visitors learn anything about his life? Johnson was a real pioneer. He prospered around the middle of the 17th century thanks to his tobacco plantation and is considered to be the first owner of a large number of slaves in what would later become the US territory. His original homeland was Angola. The first slave owner was black.