Journey into the Past

Kasie Abone who visited the Smithsonian African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington D.C., captures the pains and criminality of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

The African American Museum of History and Culture holds some kind of connection with my root. I have heard about this architectural master piece that houses priceless objects that provide visitors with a personal experience of the savagery of the century old Transatlantic Slave Trade. My colleague who had earlier visited the museum during the course of the World Bank/IMF Spring Meetings had shared a chilling experience of the museum which was under construction the last time she visited Washington DC but had since been inaugurated and opened to public. So, I decided it was a must visit after America’s seat of power, the White House.

And so, after our briefing by the Minister of Finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, I made my way to the metro station. Following blue line, I boarded a train to Smithsonian, a place known for hosting most of the world’s popular museums, and where the historic architectural masterpiece was located. Its wall was steeped in history and culture. Deep down the 70 feet bowel lays the story of pain, agony, struggle and freedom of a people once free but put through the horrific Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Locating African American Museum of History and Culture was not difficult. From a distance I observed many blacks, both old and young congregated outside the building; some exiting while others were entering or buying souvenirs. Typical of Africans, the area was abuzz with brisk businesses; mobile ice cream vendors, keepsake sellers, among others. There is no doubt that that former U.S. President Barack Obama is highly respected among his kinsmen as various forms of souvenirs in his honour were on sale.

As a rule, being a weekend, Sunday April 23, precisely, I was supposed to have obtained a time pass online but I didn’t. Arriving 45 minutes to closing time 5.30 p.m. an African American security woman graciously gave me a pass on hearing that I was a visitor from Nigeria and would be leaving the next day.

The museum was opened by Obama on September 24, 2016 some 13 years since President George Bush and parliament authorised its construction. Sitting on a five acre site at the last prime plot of land along the National Mall in Washington DC, the 400,000-square-foot building’s ‘three-tiered shape evokes a traditional Yoruban crown. The exterior corona is made of 3,600 bronze-colored cast-aluminum panels. The distinctive architecture alternatively symbolises hands lifted in prayer, in an expression of faith, hope and resilience.’

The designer, David Adjaye, a London-based, Ghanaian-British architect described it in an interview “The building is classical in its inspiration, with a base and capital, but it’s also not a classical building. It’s a very modern building in how contemporary thinking has been applied to material science and circulation. We wanted a building that wasn’t just about itself, but about its context and about the experience of consuming information in the museum.” According to him, “It is three-tier bronzed aluminum skin, burnished and intricate, rising as if from out of the earth, contrasts with the white marble, concrete and glass palaces telling other chapters in that story.”

The building architecture he said was inspired by the incredible tradition of metalsmithing by freed slaves in Georgia and Charleston.
Its location was symbolic and unique as visitors can view all monuments that define American history and experience, Washington Monument, Arlington National Cemetery, the White House and the National Mall from upper levels.

Inside the world of slavery

As you descend the 70 feet underground, a big sign ‘The Journey Towards Freedom 15th -21st Centuries’ wets a visitors appetite on what to see. The signs further illustrate in chronological order how the museum was curated; Galaxy One: Slavery and Freedom, Galaxy Two: The Era of Segregation and Galaxy Three: A Changing America.
In over 37, 000 photographs, artifacts, films and other historic collections, the striking account of African American history and their contributions to America’s socio economic and political development are showcased.

Galaxy One narrates the horrific journey that starts with the transatlantic savagery of slavery as a visitor descends 70 feet below the ground. The second galaxy tells hair raising stories of their racial operation, police brutality, the mass killing and different forms of operations and their struggles, resistance and freedom.

The third galaxy, strategically located above the ground shifts the narrative to the emancipation through civil rights movements, which stirred independent movements and ends with achievements of contemporary African Americans in music, art, sports, politics, governance, the military and other spheres of life. Heroes like former President Barack Obama, music mega stars Michael Jackson and Prince, basketball legend, Michael Jordan, the Williams sisters, former secretary of state, Miss Rice, boxing revelation, Mohammed Ali among many others were honoured. This floor holds African American’s best moments, their victory over racial oppression and segregation highlighted in video exhibitions.

At peace with brutality
In the bowel of the underground of this architectural masterpiece bellied the objects, pictures both motion and still and stories of the brutality, horror and inhumanity of slavery, the pains, agony, struggle, freedom, glory, triumph and heroic moments of a people once free men living happily in their local communal enclaves in various parts of Africa, but who were forced by their fellow kinsmen into a life time journey of no return as articles of trade. On every wall was just more than pictures and inscriptions. It was an uncommon story. They were more than pictures. They were memories from peoples past which document precious moments of conflict, confrontation, agony, pain, anguish, pride, joy, celebration and all.

In each photo was embedded deeper meanings and events that shaped the lives they lived today; their cultural behaviours as individuals and groups and communities in a country that once enslaved them but in which most of them have risen beyond their challenges to positions of power, influence, success and authority.
Every space on the walls was emblazoned with quotes that touch the inner recesses of a man’s soul. It made some visitors cry, some shudder, some rooted to the floor with goose bumps visible on their skin, some just shook their heads in awe while some feel totally ashamed of man’s inhumanity to man.

One of the artworks depicted a heart rending picture of a mother forcefully separated from her little toddler by a slave auctioneer. Torn away forcefully from her child, the woman wreathing in agony reaching helplessly for her child, cursing and swearing while the slave master pushing her further away from the child, while the child rents out shrill agonising cry for her mother’s comforting breast. They were separated forever and were forced to face different fate as both mother and child were sold as articles of trade to different soulless masters.

Encounter with my kinsman, Olaudah Equiano
The traditional ruler of Isseke Ancient Kingdom, Ezen in Ihiala Local Government Area of Anambra State, His Majesty, Igwe Emmanuel Nnabuife, had told me the story of a brave son of the soil who was sold into slavery with his sister and who rose beyond his limitations to become the first black author and a successful businessman.

“He was from this my village, Edeke. His name was Olauda Ekwealuo but his captors corrupted his name to Equiano.” He had told me. As I meandered further pushing through equally shocked visitors, with tear dripping eyes and heavy legs, little did I know that I would come face to face with this renowned Igbo man.

Though he passed on in 1797 in Britain where he relocated to having purchased his freedom in 1766 from his last owner, Robert King, an American Quaker merchant, with proceeds from trading, a known Igbo vocation, in just about three years at the age of 14. Equiano not only travelled the world, married a white woman but more importantly left the world a legacy in his autobiography titled ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789)’. This first ever narrative on slavery and the true beginning of African literature, a best seller published in different languages and read across the world helped in creating the Slave Act of 1807 which abolished slave trading in Britain.

It was from this historic masterpiece that the quotes of this great African nay Nigerian of Igbo decent on slavery were culled and emblazoned on the walls of history and time.
“We are torn from our country and friends to toil for your luxury and lust of gain.” At another corner his quote read “O ye nominal Christians! Might not African ask you-Learned you this from your God who says unto you, do unto all men as you would men should do unto you.” I couldn’t help but ‘touch’ his rending heart, his agony. And tears freely flowed.

Other African ex-slaves indelible words of agony also came alive. “I was brought from a state of innocence and freedom, and in a barbarous and cruel manner conveyed to a state of horror and shame.” Ottobah Gutoano. Nothing captured their desire to be home than this quote by one of their tormentors, Captain Thomas Philips of Hannibal CA 1694. “We led about 12 negroes who did willfully drown themselves, and others starved to death; for ‘tis their belief that when they die they return home to their country and their friends.”

By the time a visitor journeys to the last galaxy, a feeling of awe and pride envelopes you. At last there was a great story to tell. As one steps out, you may decide to fill your tummy with some good food and drinks from the exhaustion at Sweet Home Café, shop for variety of souvenirs at the Museum Shop or encounter Oprah at her office. By the time the speaker announced time up, I was deeply satisfied that my 45 minutes was maximally utilised.

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