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National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., 2016Preston Keres/AFP via Getty Images
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Universalism and Particularism at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

How to tell the story of a people

Chloe Valdary
April 28, 2020
Preston Keres/AFP via Getty Images
National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., 2016Preston Keres/AFP via Getty Images

It contains over 3,000 objects, covers over 80,000 square feet of exhibition space, and is home to a whopping 1.9 million visitors per year, but when I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., a few months ago, what surprised me the most was not its size but its ethos, the grand narrative the museum chose to tell about the African American experience in the United States.

Unlike other museums, this Smithsonian was not only arranged chronologically but according to a spiritual order as well. The first floor covered the nightmares of the Atlantic slave trade, the failed promise of Reconstruction, the horrors of Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement. The second floor focused on black enterprise, including advances made in education, industry, sports, and the military contributions that black men and women have made in America. The third floor had interactive technology that allowed participants to explore topics of their choosing in greater depth. And the fourth floor was all about the artistic achievements—from music and clothing design to innovations in the written word and styles of dance—of black America.

This, I think, is no mere coincidence but rather a deliberate architectural decision to design the museum according to a spiritually transcendent order. The timing is not only horizontal in the sense that it moves from the past to the present but, perhaps more importantly, the story it tells is spiritually ascendant.

What we all ought to seek is not universalism but transcendence, which cannot be achieved without honoring the particular.

Black America is first born into chaos, ripped from her home in Africa and forced to witness her loved ones killed, maimed, raped, and carted off like cattle all in service of cotton and sugar. This disintegration of life is not merely physical but also spiritual. Yet, such dislocation and mental torture in American purgatory will not last because it cannot last; black America must either rise or perish and so she chooses the former, the expression of which is most viscerally embodied in her artistry. The museum, then, more than being a testament to history, represents the quest for the integrated spirit, beginning in the ashes of slavery and culminating in artistic excellence.

The implications of this moral claim is, I think, a kind of gracious beckoning to America to be all that it claims to want to be, and a guide for how to do so. It is worth noting that focusing only on the black experience in this museum does not obscure the experience of America, but rather illuminates it since there is no such thing as an American history that is separate from or more overarching than the histories of the peoples it contains. It is this paradox that makes spiritual transcendence possible.

Here, I am reminded of W.E.B. Dubois’ mandate to black Americans during World War I, which was highlighted in one of the museum’s exhibits:

Let us, however, never forget that this country belongs to us even more than to those who lynch, disfranchise, and segregate. As our country it rightly demands our whole-hearted defense as well today as when with Crispus Attucks we fought for independence and with 200,000 black soldiers we helped hammer out our own freedom.

This insider-outsider experience of being persecuted by one’s fellow countrymen and defending those same countrymen in a war overseas provided the tension that gave birth to the richness of the African American experience. The story this museum tells makes it different from, say, the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. In an essay titled, “The Problem with Jewish Museums,” Edward Rothstein highlights the major distinctions:

Typically, the contemporary American identity museum tells of a group’s distinctiveness and unity by recounting its multiple attempts to join the nation’s mainstream society. Grievous sufferings are undergone, primarily because of racism and intolerance. But then, after refusing to surrender or assimilate, by fully embracing its own identity and aggressively affirming its rights, the group begins to undermine the rigid prejudices of the surrounding culture and to attain freedom on its own terms—terms that by its lights are truer to American ideals than is America itself …Almost no identity museums veer from this narrative; it is applied to Japanese Americans, Arab Americans, and Hispanic Americans. The one overwhelming exception is the Jewish American museum, and the differences are profound and illuminating. … Jews do not succeed despite America; they succeed because of America—an assertion that would be near-heresy at the typical identity museum.

In other words, while Jewish museums tend to highlight the so-called universal—so-called because there is no universal without its antecedent—most museums, including the African American History and Culture museum highlight the particular.

This is not to say that there is no danger in overdoing a focus on the particular; too much individuality to the exclusion of others leads to atomization and disintegration of the spirit. This is perhaps most strikingly manifested in the Nation of Islam exhibit which is included in the museum’s discussion of the religious traditions of black America. NOI’s inclusion isn’t problematic per se—after all, it is part of our history—but NOI’s theology is entirely antithetical to the spirit of the museum. Rooted in a philosophy of racial pseudoscience, anti-Semitism, and fueled by a bitter hatred of anyone who is not black, the teachings of Elijah Muhammad wholly contradict a museum whose overarching moral claim is spiritual transcendence. To this end, it’s not surprising that the museum makes no mention of the specifics of Muhammad’s teachings. In order to be true to itself though, it ought to be self-critical about this chapter in its history.

Still, by balancing a focus on the particular with an aspiration toward the American vision of equality and freedom, the D.C. museum is far more inclusive than one that overstates the virtues of universalism. Take its relationship with white people, for example. For the most part, they are neither highlighted as a special interest group nor maligned as a monolith. They are players on the world stage, individual and particular; they include Spaniards trafficking in the slave trade and priests marching with Martin. This may seem ironic but is in fact as it should be: When you focus on the particular, you get the individual, not a stereotype.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture should serve as a template and moral vision for others. What we all ought to seek is not universalism but transcendence, which cannot be achieved without honoring the particular. Transcendence cannot come from romanticizing the suffering of a people or by universalizing it—which is ultimately a form of ignoring it. The African American heritage museum isn’t interested in black suffering for its own sake, but rather as a chapter in the story of a people overcoming such suffering; in doing so, it gives expression to the story of what America is and what it must always struggle to become: a more perfect union.

Chloé Simone Valdary is the CEO and director of Theory of Enchantment, a coaching program that provides mentorship and social-emotional training to education, business, and non-profit companies around the world.