The New Smithsonian African-American Museum– Is There a Problem?

Unless you’ve been living in a sound-proof room with no television, internet or other people to converse with, you have heard that the new Smithsonian African-American museum is now open to the public. Last month, the president and a whole host of famous people attended the opening, welcoming the new museum to the fold of commendable museums under the Smithsonian umbrella. Through Facebook, I was impressed to see how many people I knew who had donated to the museum large sums of money entitling them to attend the opening and the fancy soirees the day before and the day of the museum’s opening. I had secured tickets for this month and have not been in the museum yet, but, I am looking forward to visiting and reporting about my visit.   This is a grand occasion, I guess. Finally, after being brought to the country as enslaved people, living through the horror of the Reconstruction, the terror of Jim Crow, lynching and the subsequent Civil Rights law of 1964 and other laws granting Black people rights long denied, a museum has been created in the nation’s capital to showcase the bi-polar positioning of Black folk in the United States. The irony was not lost on me that the day of the opening of the museum also marked another day in protest in North Carolina against police killings of unarmed Black people. There have been many think pieces written about the new museum, mostly glowing acknowledgements of the majesty of the new museum. But, one recent piece I happen to read brought up a discussion about naming that I found inspiring enough to comment on and write this piece about.

The blog post found on literary hub addresses the author’s wariness with learning that the food cafe within the new museum is named “Sweet Home”. A well-read writer it seems, the author of the post, Summer McDonald, found it disconcerting to learn of the name that she automatically connected with the name of the plantation in Toni Morrison’s award-winning book Beloved. Her thesis was,

“I am confused by the news that the SNMAAHC adopted a name that, at the very least, should have sounded a few alarm bells. This name very much has a story.” –Summer McDonald

Morrison, one of my favorite writers, if not the favorite right now, is genius on so many levels. Her ironic humor, confrontational directness and unapologetic presence makes reading her books an experience that I often need weeks to process and reflect on. I believe that her naming of the brutal plantation “Sweet Home” had everything to do with this irony she laces through her work and would guess that she, if given the opportunity to name the cafe, would have chosen something equally as ironic if not that title. My response to McDonald in her comment section was short and simple:

“I love what you have written and, strangely enough, I believe in an odd way that your analysis of the name makes it seem more fitting to me. I was torn when watching the pageantry of the museum’s opening and knowing that within it is a slaveship exhibit and many of the horrors we as Black people have endured and continue to endure amidst significant beautiful innovations we’ve contributed to this country. The duality of our existence in this country– one of horrific terror and one of unadulterated creative contribution– can not be denied. How ironic and perfectly played then to have a cafe offering delectable eats created by Black people, often within the homes of the wretched oppressors who demanded their culinary treats, to be named after a plantation sarcastically named “Sweet Home”. Isn’t America a “sweet home” for Black people within this context?”

You should read the full post for yourself. Very thought-provoking read.

Did you visit the museum yet? What were your thoughts?


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