By Kristina Valdez
For our annual Valdez summer vacation, my family took a trip to Washington D.C. We stood at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial, rested a hand on the Martin Luther King Jr. statue and walked through the dozens of museums in the capital of the United States. It took me six hours to walk through the only national museum solely dedicated to the history and culture of African-Americans in the United States: the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In that time, I stepped into history and realized that I am a part of this history.
Lines and Lineage
The lines were long everywhere. The museum opened at 10 a.m., but my family and I had been waiting outside in the sun for an hour wondering how it could possibly be so hot so early in the morning.
There are six levels of the museum. As we rode in an elevator with two glass sides, we watched as time rolled backward from 2017 to 1500;he air thickened and my throat squeezed.
It is impossible to recount all the wonders and treasures I saw that day, but I will share some moments that meant the most to me.
With careful steps, my family and I walked the lowest underground level of the museum. Rich history that soaks our country in a past as dark as our skin covered each wall, but the strongest piece of history preserved for us was a structure — the cabin.
I read about the cabin weeks before I strolled upon it. Sturdy and well-worn, the cabin from the Point of Pines Plantation in Edisto Island, S.C. challenged the air around me. I timidly approached the cabin, afraid of what it would reveal about the years it has seen. I could walk inside, but only on the glass that preserved it. My mother could only peek her head in before her heart wrenched her away. I, however, sat trying to memorize the lines of the wood and imagine the lives that this cabin cradled. If I had been born in the 1800s, this life could have been mine. I could have been a slave girl in this cabin. Sorrow sank into me, but hope rose. From the scars of whips and chains, to triumph that can only be God-sent, I, an African-American and Mexican young woman from Texas stood there admiring a slave cabin.
A bar stool
I wept at the bar stools that commemorated the protests of the civil rights movements. Giant screens played the beatings and abuses of silent protesters–black and white–on buses and in restaurants. Could I have been brave or strong enough to endure hatred of that kind?
I sat there for the longest time, losing my family in the crowd as I sniffled and wiped away tears that fell against the counter tops.
At one point in our history, African-Americans were not considered fully human – but at a bar stool where I sat, there had been a movement that fought for rights now extended to me.
Emmett Till’s Memorial
The line to view the murdered 14-year-old’s memorial wrapped around a section of the museum that housed a restored train. My family and I waited in line for 40 minutes to make the two-minute walk through the memorial. Security stood at the entrance and signs told us to put our phones away.
Inside there are pictures of Emmett Till smiling in his youth and being held by his mother as a baby. His coffin was the center of the memorial. My father and I read all the plaques in the memorial, sliding our eyes to my brothers, praying that this time of hate has ended, but knowing that hate will never die.
We watched Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till, speak about his murder and funeral on a monitor – her grief froze us in place. I visited the museum months after a professor from Duke University interviewed Carolyn Bryant Donham, the white woman who accused Emmett Till of flirting with her. In the interview, she admitted that she had lied about the very accusation that got him brutally killed. I left the memorial angry.
The rest of the museum dedicated itself to the accomplishments of black people in medicine, politics, entertainment and athletics. I could only feel pride, not pity, for my race. When we left the museum, the sky was a sharp blue and the wind eased the sun’s rays. I have fallen deeper in love with my cultures, African American and Hispanic.
“Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.”
Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise”