Like a great poem, a powerful museum can change how we see and experience the world. For me, I am particularly vulnerable to both great poems and powerful museums. I lose all my normal defenses. I become wonderfully reckless and irresponsible! These are the places where there are shocking insights and surprises lurking at every turn and in every moment. I let my ravenous appetite for what’s real and my intense curiosities run rampant. I want to know why it happened that way? The feeling? The reason? The context? The legacy?
These are the questions that guide me, as I taste the tang of possibility. But like finding a huge table filled with desserts, or a new poem chocked full of fresh sounds, images, and meanings, where to start? Anywhere your reckless heart nudges!
For me, it was the National African American History and Culture Museum in DC where I recently spent an entire day barely scratching the surface. Once inside, the first stop was hundreds of feet beneath the earth’s surface. Actually 60% of the entire museum is below ground, providing the emotional context and feel needed to understand a wildly complex and wrenching story that every citizen of our country and the world needs to experience.
The narratives, the pictures, the artifacts, the soul of the place itself all provide a sense of the horrors of this uniquely systematic and industrialized form of slavery from it’s beginning. A system supported by custom, culture, commerce, law, and many of the religions of the day. “We must tell the unvarnished truth” is one of the first quotes encountered just outside the elevator doors, all those many feet below the ground’s surface.
Was it all loss and pain? No. There were great triumphs as well. There were amazing acts of resilience, brilliance, courage, and skill. There were countless feats of success in all manner of life, work, literature, sports, and the arts. The sheer will to freedom while trapped inside such impossible circumstances was deeply inspiring. As Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”
Now! Was their also poetry? Of course, there was. Brilliant, powerful poetry. For example, these amazing lines excerpted from a Langston Hughes Poem: Beaumont to Detroit (1943)
You tell me that hitler
Is a mighty bad man.
I guess he took lessons
From the ku klux klan.
You tell me mussolini’s
Got an evil heart.
Well, it mus-a been in Beaumont
That he had his start –
Cause everything that hitler
And mussolini do
Negroes get the same
Treatment from you
I ask you this question
Cause I want to know
How long I got to fight
BOTH HITLER – AND JIM CROW.
How inspiring and fortuitous my trip to Washington just before the 4th of July. How wonderful to have both powerful poetry and museums to help us all. Let me end with this quote by John Burnside.
“When the purveyors of bottom-line thinking call a mountain or a lake a “natural resource”, something to be merely exploited and used up, poetry reminds us that lakes and mountains are more than items on a spreadsheet; when a dictatorship imprisons and tortures its citizens, people write poems because the rhythms of poetry and the way it uses language to celebrate and to honor, rather than to denigrate and abuse, is akin to the rhythms and attentiveness of justice.”
Poetry has always been a kindred spirit with freedom and truth telling.
Happy 4th of July!