Now that you’ve gone through the chronological history of African Americans in the United States in Part I at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAACH), you probably couldn’t help but feel a bit sad. It can’t be easy to read about the histories of slavery and segregation in America, but as you make your way towards the modern era, have a bit of hope considering some of the progress they’ve made thus far. African Americans have since been declared free, gained the right to vote and greatly contributed to the makeup of today’s America. The influence of African American culture in the USA is especially prevalent in music, film, literature and in sports as well.
African American Culture in the USA
In order to appreciate the African American culture in the USA, visitors to the new Smithsonian should proceed to the other side of NMAACH where you’ll find exhibits depicting the impact of African American culture in the realms of music, film and literature. There is also a dedicated exhibition honoring some of the greatest African American sports legend, from Arthur Ashe to Michael Jordan.
When you think about music in America, it’s hard to pinpoint a genre where African Americans did not have any influence whatsoever. From gospel music to rock and roll, jazz to hip-hop, you can hear their cultural influence all throughout. And the NMAACH did a really good job showcasing this section of African American culture in the USA.
Begin your introduction to the African American legends in music right at Chuck Berry’s iconic red Cadillac. Then proceed your way into early jazz, with fascinating narratives about the likes of Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Soon enough, you’ll enter the realm of rock and disco where you’ll come across artifacts belonging to some of the legendary musicians of that period like Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and the Temptations.
As you pass by the “Mothership,” an out of this world concert prop that George Clinton had at the beginning of his Parliament Funkadelic show in 1976, you’ll recognize a handful of displays donated by some of the most influential artists of this era: Prince and his funky guitar, Michael Jackson’s autographed shirt from his 1984 Victory Tour.
As you circle your way back to the front, make sure you stop by the room where you get to be your own DJ and experience what it’s like to produce your own record.
Film and Television
If you thought that the music section of the museum contained a fascinating preview of African American culture in the USA, then you’re in for an even more visual experience as you peruse the halls containing the highlights of African American influence in film and television.
As you enter, you’ll be welcomed with a rolling film containing some of the best movie clips starring African American artists.
There’s Hattie McDaniel in her Oscar-winning role as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind,” Sidney Poitier as the talented handyman in “Lilies of the Field,” and Whoopi Goldberg in “Ghost.” There are also segments from more recent films like the “Color Purple,” “Selma” and the highly controversial “12 Years a Slave.”
Reading through the narratives of the film and television sections, you’ll get a grasp of how hard colored folks had to work just to get a role in the traditionally white Hollywood. And though controversies often followed them in stride, you simply can’t deny the lasting influence their comedy and their work had in the current generation of actors, actresses and comedians.
One of the most visited areas of this part of the museum is the wall that talks about “The Cosby Show.”
The history of African Americans in the United States is well documented, primarily by the same people of color themselves who experienced racial discrimination first hand. This slightly smaller, but not in any way less powerful exhibition of Black literature in America will have you tearing up on some instances. Read excerpts from the writings of James Baldwin, the moving poetry of Langston Hughes and the personal stories of the prolific writer and novelist Maya Angelou or, simply absorb the emotions emanated by the writings from diaries of civil rights activists.
You cannot possibly talk about African American culture in the USA without mentioning sports. Legends like Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Arthur Ashe and Tiger Woods, all of whom forever raised the bar in their respective sports, are just a handful of the folks you’ll read about when you visit the section dedicated to African American athletes.
See the headgear “The Greatest” wore during his later fights, the Olympic gold medals won by Jesse Owens at the unforgettable 1936 Berlin Olympics and the wooden tennis racket Althea Gibson used when she won her first Wimbledon championship.
Don’t expect to see both the history and the cultural sections of the NMAAHC because it’s impossible to do in just one visit. If you find yourself staying in Washington, DC for an extended period, its better to divide your trip into two parts in order to make the most out of your visit to the New Smithsonian.