I am always inspired whenever I visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. – one of my favourite museums which never fails to move me at the lows and highs of humanity to which I belong. The museum is significant because it reflects the complex face of America – one that is self-reflective and penitent. While the museum reveals the dark side of human beings – of slavery, of dehumanization and of humiliation, it also gives space for mourning, understanding, and for positive, self-critical reflection. The museum is a testament to the human spirit of not giving up the good fight – the fight for equality, liberty and acceptance.
Architecturally, the African American Museum has brown chains around the large building situated on Constitution Avenue and the story of “African Americans” starts in the lowest floor basement with low ceilings and dark coloured walls meant to give the effect of the lower deck of a slave boat. It is a somber, sometimes claustrophobic, environment, not only because of the tightness of space but also because of the realization of what one race of humans can do to another. As a visitor, you first get to see an array of illustrated life expressions in Africa, particularly in West Africa from where shockingly 12 million people were enslaved as property, and brought to America in inhumane conditions. Some of the people – children, women, and men – many of them merchants, chiefs, imams, chief’s sons and so forth were picked up at gun point by European slave traders. Much to the shock of the people captured, they were forcefully “enslaved” and treated as a commodity: Africans were separated from their children by force, washed, oiled, inspected, sold and bought. Once bought in “Negro Marts” enslaved people were physically burned with the mark of the purchaser to keep track of their “inventory”.
Many of the enslaved people, including children and women, did not survive the process of “seasoning” which included a “brutal work routine” with very little food or clothing. The museum tells us, “Under slave owners’ violent control, Africans were forced to speak European languages and to control behavior and emotions. Enslaved people were then put to work, usually for the rest of their lives, clearing land, cultivating cash crops, and serving their slave owners.” Disobedience called for strict and violent punishments of women, men, and children by whipping and flogging. An observer stated, “whips cut at every lash and crack like a pistol.” One slave owner in 1763 noted his view on the use of force, “A slave must move by the will of another, hence the necessity of terror to coerce his obedience.” “The Scourged Back” (1863) is a horrific image of an African man with his back so badly lacerated it looks deformed.
The museum tells us that “the transition to slavery was traumatic”. This is because with each step of the process of slavery, Africans who were enslaved experienced “immense physical and psychological strain. They were marched hundreds of miles from the interior and crammed into barracoons, or slave barracks, for an average of three months.” They left their homelands and loved ones as they were boarded onto tightly packed hulls of slave ships in which even sitting was impossible. Forced across the Atlantic, children, women and men faced extreme violence at sea: they sat chained in heavy metal in terrible inhumane and horrific conditions in their own urine and excrement; African women were raped and all of them faced the risk of disease. Those who became sick were thrown overboard to be devoured by sharks; while others found escape in suicide. 30% of the enslaved people died before they arrived in present-day U.S. “Those who survived carried forward their cultures, faiths, and the value of freedom.”
The story of two enslaved people in particular that struck me were that of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo and Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua. Ayuba Suleiman Diallo was given the slave name of Job Ben Solomon. He was hafiz-e-Quran and had memorized the entire Quran by heart. He was enslaved but we are told at the African American museum that his “devotion to daily prayers impressed his slave owner so much that he permitted his freedom and passage home”. Because Ayuba himself experienced the horrors of slavery, he returned to his home in Gambia and became an agent for Royal African Company in order to ransom fellow Muslims bought for sale.
The second story is that of Mahommah Gardo Baquaqua who was sold into slavery in Brazil. After long and strenuous experiences as a slave, Mahommah was brought to New York where he escaped to freedom. He attained education in Boston and settled in Canada. In 1854, Mahommah recorded his life experiences in which he exposed the horrors of slavery and his nightmarish experiences.
One of the museum titles with information on “Enslaved African Muslims in America” tells us that “Enslaved Muslims continued practicing their faith in America. It represented hope and a mental escape from their enslavement. They “prayed on the bead”, on what we call the taaweez facing east towards the qibla to “call upon Allah”. Others, we are interestingly told by the museum, used Quranic verses to challenge slavery, as Quranic philosophy teaches two important points: that all human beings are completely equal, as equal as the teeth of a comb, and that mercy is and must be cultivated as an essential quality of human behaviour. Other slaves hid their faith and places of worship to practice their faith in secret while openly adopting the faith and faith names of their slave owners.
The horrific stories of painful separation, of violation of human dignity, of dehumanization and of profound pain and hurt, not least of stories such as 14-year-old Emmett Till who was accused of whistling to a white woman and then mutilated and beaten to death violently in 1955, made me cry at the madness of hateful human actions every time I visited this museum.
In a story of “reconstruction”, “African Americans fought hard to reconstruct America, pushing the nation to live up to its founding promise of human equality.” Although the earlier governments were hesitant about providing political rights to African Americans, southern America continued to terrorize and loot African Americans after electing former Confederates. Congress finally supported the rights of African Americans.
The floors above in the museum celebrate the continued fight for freedom and many successes of amazing African Americans in music, arts and sports. The life of Mohammad Ali, an icon of African America, is explored and illustrated and his coming home full circle of his discovery of his Muslim roots and embracing that identity is striking. The life of so many others is celebrated including W.D. Mohammed and Oprah Winfrey.
One of my favourite authors, James Baldwin, talks in his work about the continued struggle of being locked in a fate that has destined African Americans in America to hateful discriminatory ghettoization, simply because of the colour of their skin. In expressive and complex words he talks about the dilemmas and the pain still faced and how even eye contact is avoided with black people. I witnessed this on a train from New York to Princeton after attending a UN conference on religion and ultra-nationalism. Three suited white American businessmen with their briefcases sat in a row talking loudly about Tom Cruise and investing millions of dollars, while an African American sat beside them looking at the ground for most of the journey and yet another – a beggar – came asking for money. I pulled out some dollars for him and this allowed the other women next to me to help him, too – they turned out to be Moroccans on a visit to the U.S.
The museum ends with The Hall of Contemplation on the ground floor. I have sat on the benches close to the circular waterfall a number of times and it helps me reflect and think; like tears, the water comes flowing down to wash away the pain of the past – a collective pain of humanity – the burden of which I carry on my shoulders: the history of slavery is hard to bear for any thinking empathetic human being, especially a mother with children. On the black coloured walls Nelson Mandela’s words thunder,
“I CHERISH MY OWN FREEDOM DEARLY,
BUT I CARE EVEN MORE FOR YOUR FREEDOM.” (1991)
Contrasted with the following words of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper in 1858 who speaks with the dignity of a human being who is trapped and helpless,
“I ASK NO MONUMENT, PROUD AND HIGH,
TO ARREST THE GAZE OF THE PASSERS-BY
ALL THAT MY YEARNING SPIRIT CRAVES,
IS BURY ME NOT IN A LAND OF SLAVES.”
On another wall Sam Cooke’s words stand strong and true,
“A CHANGE IS GONNA COME.” (1964)
“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them” is a quote from Ida B. Wells, written on the grey walls of the museum as you leave for the next level. As you exit, another writing on the wall by Langston Hughes in 1945 says, “I too am America… besides they’ll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed – I, too, am America.”
Yet from around the world, on our TV channels today, in the year 2019, we get a surface-level image of America which is dominated by news of Mr. Trump’s differences, amongst many, with the media, the Mexicans, and the African Americans between his golf holidays on his luxury resorts. Occasional news comes in of the police shooting down African Americans in a constant battle between “whites” and “blacks”. Recently, when I was travelling from Washington, D.C. to Islamabad, I saw a film called the BlacKkKlansman by Spike Lee. The hero, called Ron Stallworth, is the first African American police undercover detective at the Colorado Springs Police Department who is harassed by a few of the other white policemen on a daily basis. In his struggle for black power and basic human rights, Ron disguises himself as a white man, asking his Jewish police colleague to pass as him, when he encounters and gets close to the right wing supremacist leader of the Ku Klux Klan’s Grand Wizard David Duke. Throughout the film Duke and his white supremacist group express their abhorrence for “the Other” – African Americans and Jews are particular targets of their venomous hatred. At the end of the film there is a clip from the real Duke (not the actor) saying, “We are determined to take our country back… We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump… because he said he’s going to take our country back.” In this film Ron’s African American girlfriend is harassed by the police who she calls “pigs”. In the film If Beale Street Could Talk based on the book by James Baldwin, white policemen, from the eye view of African Americans who face the brunt of harassment, are referred to as “the devil” for convicting innocent black people, imprisoning and abusing them in jail.
I want to ask: when we have said “never again” for mistreating and dehumanizaing human beings why do we continue to be selective in our relationships with “the other”? Religious, racial, gender and ethnic discrimination must be made illegal.
As a student-scholar my question is, have scholars failed in their duty to explain and build bridges, particularly those scholars who have fervently promoted ideas of the Clash of Civilizations in which their argument boils down to the white west confronting the Muslim world in a battle? I know for sure, and I have myself been involved in the alternative debate, for “The Dialogue of Civilizations” in which people of all races step back, analyse their past, and move towards understanding and self-reflection for the complete dignity and liberty of all of humanity.
In conclusion, and in answer to white “supremacists” such as the one who claimed in the New Zealand massacre of 50 innocent Muslim worshippers that “white lands” will never belong to “the invaders” “as long as a white man still lives, they will NEVER conquer our lands and they will never replace our people.” Immigrants come to other lands not by choice, but because of wars and extreme poverty.
Without the present African Americans, America is not America. America is a melting pot of all the diverse people who live there today speaking so many languages, from Spanish to Arabic to French and so forth. Yes, this history was traumatic and full of shame, but African Americans have no reason to keep their heads low anymore. They are good people with their challenges. America is a rich land not just because it is white – it is rich because it has a history of inflow and influx of peoples from all nations of the world.
For me, the museums, the impressive libraries, the educational systems, the research centres, and the many diverse peoples are the real and true spirit of the good America. That is the America I see as the real America. America can be great again when all its citizens appreciate the fact that this vast country’s strength and richness lies in its ideals of inclusiveness and justice and equality for all peoples, along with the value of “pursuit of happiness”, for happiness is when people are accepted for what they are and given complete human dignity with empathy and genuine respect.
The writer holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge, UK.
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