Whose Identity? Which Politics?

02/22/2017 06:55 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2017

In the weeks following the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in late September, a historic presidency ended, and then hundreds of thousands of people converged on the National Mall as another shocking one began. The NMAAHC hosted a widely popular alternative inauguration organized by Busboys and Poets, increasing its symbolic power as a place of resistance and celebration. How can we make sense of the throngs of people still flocking to the Mall to visit that nation’s first black history museum in a political climate openly hostile to so-called identity politics?

The NMAAH is not an identity museum per se. Neither is the National Museum of the American Indian, nor the Latino and Asian Pacific history museums also under consideration. Or, at least they are no more driven by the desire to celebrate identity than the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum or the National Museum of American History, or even the National Air & Space Museum. In fact, all historical products, whether they be national museums or history textbooks, contain facts and fictions about who we are, or dream of being in relation to lives already lived and lost and those still in the making. In effect, they all offer different interpretations of how great America was (or wasn’t) and how we can all do better.

While there is nothing wrong with projects aiming to interpret or represent collective identities, ‘identity-driven’ is a label used to distinguish them from those museums viewed as more objective or less biased. Museums dedicated to representing the lives and cultures of people of color are seen as self-affirming celebrations that some see as divisive and fixated on what makes us different. Critics also charge that these museums offer less historical context and material evidence or artifacts, relying instead on personal testimonies, multimedia displays, and sweeping summaries. In short, they are thought to be touchy-feely. Even when museums like the NMAAHC explore into painful content like racial violence and terrorism, it is seen as delving for the purpose of presenting a resilient identity narrative. And they do. But so does the National Museum of American History in its presentation of Americana, from Dorothy’s ruby red slippers to the two hundred year-old flag from the American Revolution. The relegation of museums like the NMAAHC to the stuff of identity politics neutralizes those driven by white nostalgia.

We also see this tension in battles waged against ethnic studies programs across the country. In 2010, the Arizona state legislature passed House Bill 2281, banning Mexican-American studies, along with other ethnic studies, in any school receiving public funding. At their best, these curricula do more than teach literature, history, and politics from more critical perspectives; they also encourage students of color to identify with the material in a way that they may not otherwise, seeing themselves as subjects rather than objects of history. Former Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, one of the strongest proponents of the ban, deemed these studies as “downers” that encouraged students to see themselves as oppressed and cultivated a culture of anger and victimhood. The protests against the ban and a court decision upholding it actually drew attention to the lack of curricula focused on Chicano literature and history, and triggered efforts to create programs across California and Texas. We can only imagine what further clashes will surface as the politics of schools and schooling intensifies under the current administration.

Like such school curricula, the NMAAHC helps make the invisible visible, shining a light on the absence of people of color from mainstream accounts of national culture and history. The flip side of this revelation is a declaration that the mainstream and its social and cultural institutions are white spaces that overwhelm, minimize, or mischaracterize other people’s experiences. Many, though generally not people of color, have become so habituated to seeing white bodies, histories, and culture on our televisions and in our books that they are viewed as somehow un-raced, their ubiquitous presence treated as unproblematic and neutral. The absence of ‘white’ or ‘white American’ in the title of countless history and art museums does not make them any less racial or identity-driven.

After decades of political maneuvering, fundraising, and development, the NMAAHC opened on September 24, 2016. Televised and streamed online, the extraordinary occasion was marked by heartfelt words from President Obama, Congressperson John Lewis, Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith, and musical performances of Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle and Angélique Kidjo. Even more noteworthy, were the 30,000 ordinary people who visited the first weekend, and the tens of thousands who have followed them. With lines circling the building, the museum has been so popular that timed-passes are still being used to manage crows and to allow more people to traverse the 350,000 square foot museum. The passes available online are booked through June 2017, with a limited number being offered for same-day visitors.

How can we account for such keen interest in the museum, from the millions of dollars raised to the thousands of people clamoring to get inside? It’s as much about an insistence that identity is indeed political, as it is about collective yearnings to see that which has been kept off limits, to venture into those spaces that unsettle official accounts and expose the social fissures we already fully know exist.

This museum is not the first nor the only of its kind. There is a network of black history museums across this country, many of which were created during the 1960s and 1970s in the inner cities of Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and even Washington DC. While these museums were focused on the audiences immediately surrounding the museum, they were no less national in spirit and aim, seeking to empower and reach black audiences, especially youth. These were essentially consciousness-raising projects whereby black audiences could see their lives and culture as worth recording, interpreting, and even memorializing. Ultimately, they did not resist, but complemented the national mythos of collective progress, innovation, and resilience.

The NMAAHC draws far greater crowds and oodles more funding than these earlier museums. Today, with the political climate as polarized as ever, it too has the potential to be a consciousness-raising project on a national scale.

In the absence of any broad-based truth and justice commission like that of South Africa at the end of apartheid, the popularity of such history projects reflect a sense that too much of America’s violent racial past is unknown, that there are still lessons to learn, pain to acknowledge, sins to confess, and present-day iterations to acknowledge. The headlines announcing the grand opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture appeared alongside headlines about the heated protests and fatal police shootings in Charlotte, North Carolina and Tulsa, Oklahoma that came in the wake of the killings of Terence Crutcher and Keith Scott. These competing headlines profoundly spoke to what is at stake in understanding the politics of race and racial identity historically and still today. The museum, if not the star-studded opening ceremony, showcases what is tragically unresolved in American society, that such pain and trauma are as much a part of national story as Dorothy’s sparkling slippers.

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