Sharon Gang, Featured Collaborator
Born in the 1950s, Sharon Anderson remembers the whites-only waiting room at the bus station in Pensacola, Florida, where she grew up. She remembers the segregated movie theaters; she could only sit in the balcony and the water fountains for “colored people.”
In Chevy Chase, Maryland, where I grew up at about the same time, I remember there was one black girl in my class in elementary school. We weren’t friends, but I remember her name – it was Brenda.
One of the tenets of the new Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, is an exploration of what it means to be an American.
I visited the museum for the first time (during a preview) before its official opening on September 24, 2016. My exploration left me feeling empty of patriotism. My internal examination of what it meant to be an American produced shame of my white skin. I felt uncomfortable.
Another tenet of the museum is that it tells America’s story and that it is a museum for all Americans.
I’ve been back to the museum, to see if my thoughts and feelings would change when I toured the lower floors with Sharon. What did she feel, I wondered when she looked at these exhibits of slavery, lynchings, and other cruelties that showcased man’s inhumanity to man. Here’s what Sharon said:
“The museum is putting on the table history that has been overlooked – positive and negative. This history includes the kinds of things that we are all part of – you can’t separate the history of Japanese, Chinese, Native Americans, or any immigrants – because all of these people have made contributions and had a stake in this country. The opening of this museum says to folks that this is the context of who we are” It may be painful, it may not be easy to look at, but this is how things happened. Trying to be in denial doesn’t erase what occurred. We’ve got to face what happened in order to not let it happen again.”
When Sharon was growing up, her parents admitted that things weren’t right. “This,” they said, “is how it is now, but efforts are underway to correct these injustices.” Sharon couldn’t see any Disney movies because the theater that showed Disney movies didn’t have a balcony for black patrons. As educators, Sharon’s parents emphasized the importance of education which, they promised, would help her navigate stressful and challenging situations.
My parents stressed education, as well. But, in my ethnic background as a Jew, a piece of advice from my father stands out. From when I was little, he exhorted me to marry a Jewish man. “If the Holocaust happens again – this time in our country – you want someone who will always be by your side,” he said.
Sharon feels that the museum shakes you out of your complacency and forces you to look at issues and events that make you wonder, “is this who we are as a country?” Indeed, that happened to me when I toured the museum. What had I done to push back against injustice? What am I doing now to counter unfairness and inequality?
I photographed a panel with a poem, “Beaumont to Detroit: 1943,” by Langston Hughes that included this line:
“…everything that hitler/And mussolini do/Negroes get the same/Treatment from you…”
It was on that panel that I understood how the African American History Museum was about my history too.
The next museum that Sharon and I will tour together is the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which sits a block away from this museum. Sharon hasn’t visited the Holocaust Museum; so, we are looking to share another experience of America’s story.
To visit the Museum of African American History and Culture, you should try to get advance free timed passes via their website, www.nmaahc.si.edu. There is a wealth of information about the museum’s collection and exhibits on the Website, so definitely take a look before your visit.
Sharon Gang is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. Prior to her current career, Sharon worked on Capitol Hill in a variety of capacities for several different members of Congress, and also worked as a press secretary to Washington, DC Mayor, Anthony A. Williams.