“The hardest part is seeing all these parents with their children.”
Gloria folded her arms and nodded. “Yes, but there is no other way. The children have to know.”
My eyes scanned the crowd, looking over a veritable sea of African Americans of all ages and sizes. In front of a large display of a man being lynched, a mother clutched her son tightly. I saw her place her hand over his eyes initially as if to shield him, then she slowly took it away and leaned down to explain why this had happened. I heard two ten year old boys near her debating whether or not the man in that photo had escaped his noose. A bit earlier, I had heard a boy of 12 brag to his teacher that “My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was a slave who fought in the Revolutionary War!” Although he had a few too many ‘greats’ tacked on, I was both thrilled and saddened that he knows his family heritage. I watched a mother hold hands with her two daughters, one on each side, reading a display about a black woman who was raped by policemen, men who were later acquitted of the crime, and wondered how she felt.
I looked back at Gloria. “I was never sure I wanted children,” she said. “And then I had my daughter, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. She changed my whole life. And I learned that I couldn’t raise a black daughter without her knowing her history. Thing is, you can’t hide from history, and you can’t make the mistake of not teaching it.”
I nod, sullen. “I’m a dad, too. I try to teach my sons the things they need to know. I taught them about Martin Luther King, and they just can’t understand why another man would try to kill someone who stood for something so good.”
“I know. But our children go on to do amazing things. We teach them right, we raise them right, and then they surprise us.” A proud look came over Gloria’s face. “My daughter, she works in the White House now. That’s why I’m here in D.C. from my home in Atlanta, to attend some events with her. Just the other day, I got to meet President Obama, and let me tell you, he was the nicest man.”
“He has surely been our finest president.” We shared a smile.
And that had been the very best part of being in this museum, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. It had been an hours-long wait to get in. A large crowd of us had been lead into the deep basement level, where we learned about black history in the Americas from 1400 on. Beautiful and stirring displays, with perfect music and ambience and light and shadow, showed peaceful industrious families in African villages being kidnapped and forced on to slave ships. Those who survived the journeys were then owned for life, whipped and raped and beaten and killed and worked, for generations. Displays told stories of poets and statesmen, soldiers and teachers and martyrs throughout the sordid and violent history, through the Civil War and into freedom, through poverty and segregation, through the fight for Civil Rights to mass imprisonment. A woman on the ground floor had told me it would take a full 22 hours to go through the entire museum, reading everything. I had been here for 3, and my brain and heart were in a spiral. Yet at the top, I got to see black families standing in front of pictures of the Obamas, in a massive hall lined with black celebrities and powerful figures from history. I could feel the pride emanating there.
I confided in Gloria a bit, as her friends stood near her. “I can understand all of this, but only on my own level. I am a gay father to two sons. They are amazing and wonderful and individual, but they are growing up with a gay dad. It sets my family apart, gives us difficulties. My own family doesn’t always understand me, and I’ve faced discrimination. But my skin is white. I could never understand what it is like in this country to face all of this. And I cant imagine how it feels now that Trump has been elected. To go from seeing the first black couple in the White House to seeing a candidate endorsed by the KKK.”
Gloria put a hand on my arm, less to console me and more to get my attention. “Look. You understand more than you think you do. People are people and should be treated as people. It’s 2016 and this museum is just now getting built. It should have been here years ago.”
My eyes lit up. “I can’t believe it is as close to the Washington Monument and the White House as it is!”
She kept on topic. “As far as Trump’s election goes, I fully believe that everything happens for a reason. We are going to learn the lessons we need to learn, and we are going to keep on going on, because what else can we do? We have to, and that is just the way it is.”
I nodded in agreement, but I couldn’t help but think of how different this place would be in a few weeks. Now it felt celebratory. Would it be like this after the White House was staffed with nearly all white millionaires? I sighed.
The line shifted forward. I was glad it had moved slowly, because I wouldn’t have met Gloria otherwise. We finally entered the room where Emmett Till’s coffin was on display, with no body inside it. Emmett had been 13 when he had allegedly whistled at a white woman. A group of white men had kidnapped him and savagely beaten him before tossing his mutilated body in a river, where it was later found. Emmett’s mother, Mamie, had allowed the bloated body to be put on display for the public to witness the atrocity. The murderers were put on trial and all exonerated in the courtroom. Being here now, feeling this now, 1955 didn’t feel all that long ago. I could still feel the outrage.
A quote from Mamie Till on the wall brought me to tears. “Two months ago I had a nice AnAn ouapartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to the Negroes in the South I said, ‘That’s their business, not mine.’ Now I know how wrong I was.”
An hour later, I walked away from the museum, after hours inside, contemplative and deeply moved. Images of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass and Bayard Rustin and Harriet Tubman and Barack Obama and Shirley Chisholm and Martin Luther King and Crispus Attucks and, most of all, Gloria, ran through my head. I thought of the real American history, and legacy, and the present, and the future.
I looked at the gorgeous architecture of the museum behind me. And then I looked at the placement of my feet on the ground beneath me. And then I looked up at the skyline ahead.