This week was a microcosm of modern African American history. When I wrote this, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) just opened its doors in Washington, D.C. A testament to years of hard work in getting the museum funded, the NMAAHC has already received considerable media coverage. It is also part of the Smithsonian’s system of museums–more than likely “the last great museum on the (National) Mall.” Intellectual historians will have plenty of time to consider the “civil religious” ramifications of a museum devoted exclusively to the Black experience (although it should not be limited to within the United States). But events to the south and west of Washington, D.C. put into stark relief the continuing irony of African American history.
Shootings of civilians by police officers caught on camera phone in Charlotte, North Carolina and Tulsa, Oklahoma have galvanized the Black Lives Matter and returned to the media forefront the eternal questions of race and citizenship in our nation. These are old questions—especially those related to police brutality. I have spent the week talking to others about police brutality. On Monday I was lucky enough to serve on a panel discussion about police-community relations hosted by Benedict College, a Historically Black college in Columbia, South Carolina. There, everyone expressed frustration with police brutality, including police officers serving on the panel. None of us had heard about what happened in Charlotte until after the event was over.
I teach a course on the New South, and on Tuesday night found myself a little emotional talking about African Americans keeping alive the memory of emancipation during the rise of Jim Crow segregation. Borrowing from David Blight’s Race and Reunion (sections of which my students had to read for class Tuesday) I explained black resistance to Lost Cause mythology. Then I stopped, looked around the room, and said to my students: “My parents grew up during the end of Jim Crow segregation. They remember what it was like to use separate lunch counters and segregated schools. They never let me forget it.” I like to think my students, a bright and precocious bunch, understood my argument that the building of memory of the past is an ongoing process, especially relevant for today. I also like to think they did not notice the slight crack in my voice as I said that.
During times of modern crisis, I find myself looking to history to provide some loose guide to what can be done today. Perhaps I draw some strange comfort from the fact that my great grandparents dealt with some of the same issues in their day. “If they could make it,” I ruefully tell myself, “then, maybe, I can too.” And so it is with police brutality. I did a brief scan of some of my favorite archival sources—the Google Books archives of The Crisis magazine (the organ of the NAACP) and Ebony and Jet magazines. I found police brutality stories from 1936 in The Crisis (the earliest I have found, so far) and an eye-opening piece from Ebony on what to do if you’re black and pulled over by the police.
History cannot offer a salve for the pain of current events. But it does offer context. So in that sense, the timing is perfect for the opening of the NMAAHC. Reflecting on the endurance of African Americans in the face of slavery, segregation, housing discrimination, and yes police brutality, is especially needed now. To borrow from Howard Brick’s book on the 1960s, we live in an age of racial contradictions. Since January 20, 2009, the United States—a nation built on slavery, time and again shown to be a hypocrite on matters of race and democracy—has been run by an African American man. Racism against a wide range of Americans has been a tragic hallmark of the Obama years. Not that it had disappeared after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the racism of the last eight years offered a photo negative of the kind of America we hoped the 2008 election ushered in—a so-called “post-racial” era.
W.E.B. Du Bois wrote over a century ago, “How does it feel to be a problem?” His words, as always, remind us of just how old these problems are. I am asked, as an African American, to still think of myself as a “problem” by the rest of American society. The NMAAHC reminds everyone that African Americans are much more than that. But the crisis in Charlotte, the shooting in Tulsa, and the ugliness of modern politics reminds us that the “problems” of race and democracy will long be with us. History alone cannot fix them. But, perhaps, history can prod us to ask the right questions.