Last week, the Michigan League for Public Policy staff took a “field trip” to the Museum of African American History in Detroit. It was an amazing afternoon filled with knowledge sharing, delicious food and deep conversations about history and culture. Since this was my first time visiting this museum (and many of you probably haven’t been), I would like to bring you along. Here are some of the lessons and experiences I won’t forget.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
— Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise”
The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is one of the largest museums of its kind in the world. When you step into its lobby, you immediately sense that you are somewhere special. A large, domed ceiling illuminates a beautiful mural in the center of the room, encircled by the names of the trailblazers who made the museum possible. I find Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. alongside dozens of names I don’t recognize. From the very beginning of our tour, I know I have a lot to learn.
The Still We Rise exhibition, named after Maya Angelou’s famous “Still I Rise” poem, explains the history of African colonization, the slave trade, American slavery, the civil rights movement, and more. Our brilliant tour guide, Yolanda, gives us rich and haunting explanations of what it would have been like to be plucked from home, put in chains, and hauled to a new continent to be sold into slavery.
At one point in the tour, we descend into the belly of a slave ship, where hundreds of men and women are packed into bunks. They are chained so close to one another that they cannot move without jostling their neighbors. They are starved, and many have grown ill from sea travel and the unsanitary conditions of the ship itself.
When faced with the actual, physical conditions of enslavement and slavery, I wonder how anyone survived it. It is miraculous not only that people survived generations of enslavement, but that they found ways to disrupt political, social and economic systems in order to demand equality. The sheer strength of will and heart contained within African American history in this country is staggering.
I believe every person living in the U.S. has a responsibility to learn about African American history, especially considering our society’s enduring struggles with institutional racism. Be sure to visit the museum if you are able, and if not, I hope you will find ways to learn about African American history. Check out a book from your local library, watch a Netflix documentary, talk with your friends and neighbors… We learn little in school, and too many of us choose to live in peaceful ignorance of our history. We can do better.
— Jenny Kinne