Highways, hills, and houses fly past, drowned by sunlight into indiscernible shapes, colorful blurs in my vision, which struggles to work at optimum capacity before 9 a.m. The only reason why I would ever get up this early, aside from anxiously skimming my poor forgotten readings, is if I were given the opportunity to travel. So when I saw the email from the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding about a day trip that would allow me to step foot in Washington, D.C., for the first time, I begrudgingly set my alarm for 6 a.m. on Sunday morning.
And, here I was, on this bus, listening to the drumming of rain in my lavender headphones, a staple of my sleep routine; I lazily gazed out the window, wondering what awaited me in my nation’s great capital.
I was also trying to convince myself to conveniently forget that I needed to have read the entirety of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” for my English seminar on Tuesday, and I was only on the second chapter. So I closed my eyes, immersed my mind in the rhythm of raindrops, and did not return back to the real world until the bus was five minutes away from dropping off my little cohort at the museum.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is just one of 23 attractions under the umbrella of the acclaimed Smithsonian Institution, and it was the destination of the Fields Center’s weekend excursion, an event to celebrate Black History Month. I was allotted five hours — from the moment of entry into the museum until it was time to reboard the bus — to explore the building to my heart’s content, but my friends (Jemima Williams ’23 and Andrea Mejia ’23) and I wanted to see what little parts of the city we could in such a short amount of time, and thus we only stayed in the museum for three hours.
I saw enough in those 180 minutes to ramble for hours.
As I try to summarize my thoughts on the museum and my overall impressions of the city, I realize that I took on five different personas in response to the bright new sights. Allow me to expand:
I feel like this one is a given. As an 18-year-old girl in a big city for the first time, I was bound to scour the area for the most Instagram-worthy photo opportunity. I was very fortunate that the museum was only a skip away from the Washington Monument, so I was able to capture precious moments of time under the cold sun and post them on social media to assure my loved ones back home that I was alive and well.
I followed my impromptu photoshoot with a rapid lunch, as Jes Norman, who works in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and organized this trip, had informed the group that no food or drinks were allowed in the museum. I scarfed down my lackluster teriyaki shrimp noodles and guzzled my ginger ale in three gulps. I also managed to snap a pic of a sticker on one of the dozen food trucks depicting a zen sloth who told me to “Let that [redacted] go.” I will, Mr. Sloth. Until I return to campus, and I have to let all of the [redacted] come back.
Now, I needed an excuse to spend the entirety of my Sunday off campus, time that could have been used to catch up on my readings, in order to not feel guilty. I decided to file going to the museum under “experiential learning.” For context, this semester I am enrolled in ENG 204: Historical Fiction / Fictional History (hence the assigning of “Beloved”) and AAS 366/HIS 386: African American History to 1863, so I have been learning a lot about slavery. A lot.
So, obviously, going on this trip was essential for me to contribute meaningful outside perspectives in my classroom discussions. I embarked through the grand foyer with my notepad and pen in hand, and made my way with Jemima and Andrea down the dark spiral case until we saw the letters “Oprah Winfrey Theater” adorning a cobalt wall. Alas, we did not venture inside, for we had already decided to walk through the museum chronologically. Which meant we had to start with, you guessed it, slavery.
We entered the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibit and were immediately ushered to the elevator, which would time travel us back to the year 1400 the further we descended. I was ready to learn, to absorb all that I could. The riders in the elevator were then informed by the elevator attendant to not take any photos at the Emmett Till exhibit, out of respect for his family. It was then that the gravity of what I had just walked into settled deep within my core.
I made my way through the decades of oppression and dehumanization with one of my best friends on campus, Jemima, a fellow first-year and Wilsonian (I refuse to claim “Wilsonite”). Jemima’s home is “across the pond” in London, so she does not have the same knowledge of African-American history as those who grew up with the United States social studies curriculum.
I had to explain to her the gruesome acts committed against Emmett Till to provide context as to why pictures were not allowed, and I could see the disgust further etch the corners of her lips, deepen the furrow in her brow. We arrived at a display encasing a sugar bowl, and the caption on the glass read, “Sugar — sweetener, more powerful, and more deadly than gold. Unlike gold, sugar could be grown; it provided the possibility of unlimited wealth.” Jemima was very vocal in her distaste.
“When you look at this, it’s just greed!” she said. “Pure greed, pure desire for money and wealth!” As she walked away with a shake of her head, I could not help but agree. What else could drive one group of people to be so cruel to another?
Along the way, we stopped by a wall that detailed the Virginia Slave Code of 1662. I told Jemima about the strange loopholes in legislation that perpetuated generational slavery, many of which I had just learned about in African American History. For example, whether a person was a slave was determined by the status of their mother. Most people know this, for this addendum is where the infamous “one-drop rule” originated.
Based on this logic, one might expect that biracial children born to black mothers during this time would have been enslaved, but those born to white mothers would have been free. However, at one point it was decided that no self-respecting white woman would ever lay with a black man, and thus if she did, she would lose personhood, and so her children would also be slaves. How convenient.
On a slightly more positive note, we watched a video about the roles that slaves played in the American Revolution, and Jemima was able to engage with the tales of enslaved Africans who became British Loyalists in order to secure their freedom. Soon we decided, however, that we had enough somber history for one sitting, so we trekked up the ramp lined with a mural of an expansive cotton field with the intent of bringing ourselves up to date. The exhibit itself was breathtaking, a valuable opportunity to physically walk through decades of such a crucial era in American history.
After I stepped on the third upward-bound escalator, I could feel my spirits rise as well. We made it to the cultural exhibit, “A Changing America: 1968 – Now,” and I beamed when the first display I saw was food. There was a black-and-white image of someone baking biscuits, and I immediately thought of Sethe in “Beloved.”
As I traveled the circle of the room, I saw the dances of the ’50s and the dances I grew up with, the section on the politics of hair, the section on colorism, the section on code-switching, and I was so at home. Topics that I could spend lifetimes discussing the reality of — which I often do with Jemima, love that girl — were all condensed in one color-coded space, backgrounded by a video chock-full of inspiration.
I saw Barack Obama throw up a peace sign and a man with the African continent shaved into the back of his head. I was introduced to the captivating poeticism of Jessica Care Moore. A quote from B. Smith said, “Whatever you do, do it with style,” and it encapsulated the energy of that room.
Adjacent to the circle of African-American culture was the crimson room of black artists, in film, in literature, in theater. There, I promised Jemima that I would sit down with her to watch a Tyler Perry film for the first time, and I remembered my ninth-grade idolization of Shonda Rhimes, the mastermind behind “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” who had — and still kind of has — my dream job as a successful screenwriter and showrunner.
Fun fact: I loved Shonda so much that 14-year-old me wrote an essay about how much I wanted to go to Dartmouth College, her alma mater. Blasphemous now, I know. I now and forever will bleed orange and black.
Full disclaimer, this title is in quotations because, while I did snap a lot of photos, they were taken on my less-than-excellent Android camera, and I am not at all skilled in this field. Anyway, once we had our fill of the cultural exhibit, we left the museum, in part because Andrea, a first-year in Rockefeller, needed to go to CVS. After stopping there, I will never take the Princeton CVS’s prices for granted again.
Now we had the whole of D.C. at our feet, and about an hour and a half to explore it. I took a photo with the Washington Post building, and secretly willed that I would be employed there one day. After spending way too much time in McDonald’s, we made our way to the White House, and I found it rather underwhelming. I do not blame the building, however. It was a cold Sunday afternoon, and most of the structure was closed off by a white wall and guarded by a cop. Pedestrians seemed to be more interested in the protestors — I must admit, their displays were rather intricate and attention-grabbing — than the home of the President.
Still, I was able to capture a mediocre photo for my own memory, along with one of the Department of the Treasury, a much more immaculate and inviting building, in my eyes.
So what did these five phases grant me? First, they reveal Washington to me as a possible post-graduation home. It had the vibrancy of a lively city that I have grown to love, without the overwhelming presence of people that I occasionally feel when roaming the streets of New York City.
More specifically, I felt a sense of pride that I could actually demonstrate that I pay attention in class, and I could share what I had learned with one of my closest companions. I loved touring the museum and getting a chance to admire the impressive curatorial decisions therein. The fact that the exhibit on slavery, a dark tragedy that lies at the foundation of American history, lies deep within the bowels of the museum and is illuminated by muted light and solemn monologues is so thoughtful and imaginative.
Even more symbolic is how you physically rise to the present, to see the beauty of contemporary African-American culture, and it is full of bright color and spirited jazz tones. I truly enjoyed my time there, and I am planning on returning for a weekend with Jemima, hopefully to see more of the museum and more of the town.
Until then, I will occupy myself with my more traditionally academic pursuits, and maybe one of these days, I will actually finish a book on time.