President Obama officially opened the National Museum of African American History and Culture Saturday, delivering a moving address on the importance of the newest Smithsonian venue and its role in providing “context for the debates of our times.”
“This national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are,” the president said on the National Mall, where the museum was built just blocks away from the White House. Through it, “we better understand ourselves and each other. It binds us together. It reaffirms that all of us are America. That African-American history is not somehow separate from our American story … it is central to the American story.”
“It is a glorious story,” he said, following speeches by those pivotal to the museum’s opening, including civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, and former President George W. Bush. “The one that’s told here -- it is complicated and it is messy and it is full of contradictions. As all stories are.”
With exhibits on slavery, lynching, and the victims of Jim Crow, the president noted that the museum showcased the uglier parts of America’s historical treatment of its black citizens alongside African-American successes.
“Our glory derives not just from our most obvious triumphs,” Mr. Obama said, “but how we have wrested triumph from tragedy and how we have been able to remake ourselves again, and again, and again in accordance with our highest ideas.”
“Yes, a clear-eyed view of history can make us uncomfortable,” he said, but he expressed hope that it would “shake us out of our familiar narratives.”
The history told by the museum, he said, “is a story that needs to to be told now more than ever.”
In his nearly half-hour-long address, the president alluded to the recent spate of violence against black Americans -- and the subsequent demonstrations those incidents have sparked.
“This museum provides context for the debates of our times. It illuminates them and gives us some sense to how they evolved,” he said. “Perhaps they can help a white visitor understand the pain and anger of demonstrators like those in Ferguson and Charlotte.”
For black visitors, the president said it could also help them appreciate “the sincerity of law enforcement officials… who in fits and starts are struggling to understand and are trying to do the right thing.”
“It reminds us that routine discrimination and Jim Crow aren’t ancient history,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s just a blink in the eye of history. It was just yesterday. And so we should not be surprised that not all the healing is done. We shouldn’t despair that it isn’t all solved.”
“Protest and love of country don’t merely coexist, but they inform each other,” he added.
Asinto their fifth day following the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, the president said, “Hopefully, this museum can help us talk to each other.”
The museum, the nineteenth and the newest of the Smithsonian Institution, came to be after a yearslong fight for funding. Lewis co-sponsored the legislation that authorized it, and Mr. Bush signed it into law in 2003.