In December, I was in Washington D.C. co-leading a peace-building project with one of our Smithsonian Institution partners. I’ve been visiting D.C. since I was 12 years old. I also knew it from TV, the movies, and music, and as an adult I also saw it as both a temporary student resident and as an alien resident worker. I enjoyed being just one of the millions of city commuters with a Metro card, taking the subway to work.
On my last full day there before catching my flight back to East Tennessee, I carved out some alone time to walk through this great city that I’ve come to appreciate in so many different ways. I passed Latino rights activists and a veteran peace demonstration converged outside the White House. I met a group of Indian tourists and helped them with directions. (Made me feel like quite a local.) Shortly after that an eastern European gentleman stopped me to ask
for directions to a vintage bookstore. All I knew was that he was in the wrong part of town. Looking back I guess I should have looked it up on my phone, but it was far too cold to stand around.
It was quickly getting dark, and was going from just being cold to being way too cold to be outside. But before moving to my final destination that evening—dinner with some friends in a cozy restaurant—I took a moment to stand still on the Washington Monument hill, with the Lincoln Memorial behind me and Capitol Hill way out in front. Streams of airplane dust lined the sky and made me feel a little dizzy as I bent my neck backwards to get in the view of the emerging night sky. I waited there until the sun began to set over these magnificent historic buildings, another day like thousands of other days of life and love this city has been witness to.
Standing there, still and cold, I looked out at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is currently under construction. I thought back to 2004, when I got to hear its founder, Lonnie Bunch, give an inspiring speech at a museum conference in Scotland. He talked about the value of using museums and other cultural spaces to help society unpack and wrestle with the history of slavery.
As we try to make sense of our world and our place in it. I think this new museum could just be one of the most important buildings to be built this decade—maybe this century. I hope it will help us understand and tackle the injustice and inequality that exists within our institutions and across society, and work towards building a better world. The National Museum of African American History and Culture will open in 2016; meanwhile, it was well worth the visit just to witness history in the making.