They are among thousands of photographs, writings, video and audio recordings of people –many living, others long gone - who trace their roots to the Caribbean. All make a telling case of pride and power. That they’re displayed at The National Museum of African American History and Culture here is a stunning reminder of the Caribbean’s influence in molding the United States into the model on global show today.
While it took a 2003 Act of the U.S. Congress to kick-start the Smithsonian Institution’s latest museum in the nation’s capital, many believe it was way overdue. The story of a rich culture was often hidden from the full public spotlight as the contributions of the African American experience was underplayed in the U.S. Yet from inventions and art to oratory and cuisine, the impact is undeniable, inescapable and truly breathtaking. With more than 36,000 artifacts spread over five floors, the museum is at once filling history’s holes while making up for lost time.
It officially opened just under two years ago. The aim is to document the life of African Americans, starting with their ancestors’ capture and journey on Trans-Atlantic slave ships, to present day. Many rose from institutionalized abuse to positions of prominence. There are heroes on show at the museum. Villains too.
According to the museum, it offers “nearly 3,000 objects, 12 exhibitions, 13 different interactives with 17 stations, and 183 videos.” It’s an important foundation from which to look back while pondering the path forward.
The Caribbean influence plays a key role in understanding that journey. During a recent visit, a child no more than five spotted a photo of dancehall artiste Tiger. He yelled “Beenie Man!” His mom read the caption and corrected him. “It’s not Beenie Man,” she said. “It’s Tiger, another Jamaican deejay.”
No such identification is needed at the station highlighting Bob Marley, the late Jamaican icon who took reggae music and Rastafari from the Caribbean island and branded it on the world.
The rise of the late Shirley Chisholm, a child of Barbadian and British Guiana parents, to prominence is also told. “Fighting Shirley”, who called herself Barbadian American and battled for gender equality and the end to racial discrimination, became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress. She later ran for president and, in 2015, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously by then President Barack Obama. Chisholm’s roots is explored in the museum’s “Coming To The United States” section called under “From the Caribbean to America: The Chisholm Family”.
Marcus Garvey’s journey from Jamaica to the center of the movement to elevate African Americans is also documented at the museum. So too the Haitian influence in the hip hop group The Fugees and the Jamaica flavor in another rap assemble Salt & Pepa. The late great rap star Notorious B.I.G. also gets a huge shout out. So too Foxy Brown, who also traces her roots to the Caribbean.
The museum, however, is not all entertainment. The horrors faced by African Americans brings sobering reality. The remnants of a slave ship, whips, chains, lynching’s and judicial abuse are all part of the display. The coffin of Emmit Till, the boy who was murdered by whites after being wrongly accused of flirting with a white woman, gets prominent display. So too the life of civil rights heroes Martin Luther King Jr. and Caribbean American Harry Belafonte. In the museum’s basement, a train used during the “Jim Crow” era, when African Americans were deprived of privileges such as the right to sit in the same seats, looms as a grim reminder of times past.
Yet there is plenty to cheer at the museum. A photo of a sound system operating in Trench Town, Jamaica back in the day brings a smile. The words of late Caribbean American poet Claude McKay in “If We Must Die” remain striking, yet soothing all these years later. People of African descent like the Maroons, found in places like Cuba and Jamaica, who fought back against oppression, to preserve their culture, get props.
So too the athletes who ripped up stereotypes which pigeon holed African Americans as inferior.
The museum also tells the stories of common folk whose stories, unintentionally, found their way into the spotlight. Cuban American Charles Z. Smith became the “first African American appointed to the Washington Supreme Court”. St. Croix-born Hubert Henry Harrison founded the Liberty League, a “militant organization devoted to racial equality”.
Jamaican-born Luther Powell came to the U.S. in 1920 and married Maud Ariel McKoy. They had two children. One was Colin, who later became a distinguished military officer and U.S. secretary of state.
The museum will probably need more room as the Caribbean influence in the U.S. grows. Bahamian Deandre Ayton was recently selected first in the National Basketball Association draft. A Grenadian American is running for lieutenant governor of New York. A Trinidadian once held that post in Florida. Political candidates with Caribbean roots are filling up ballots across the U.S. Caribbean Americans are becoming more influential in the census and at the ballot boxes.
Judging from the mix of races exploring its offerings on two recent visits, it appears the museum’s message is catching on.
“It helps all Americans see how their stories, their histories, and their cultures are shaped and informed by global influences,” declares one of the museum’s four pillars.
The Caribbean experience is certainly part of that.
Admission to the museum is free. However, on some days reservation tickets must be obtained online in advance.