First Look: Museum of African American History

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It’s also fitting that this museum has found a home on the National Mall.  As has been mentioned, it was on this ground long ago that lives were once traded, where hundreds of thousands once marched for jobs and for freedom.  It was here that the pillars of our democracy were built, often by black hands.  And it is on this spot –- alongside the monuments to those who gave birth to this nation, and those who worked so hard to perfect it –- that generations will remember the sometimes difficult, often inspirational, but always central role that African Americans have played in the life of our country.

This museum will celebrate that history.  Because just as the memories of our earliest days have been confined to dusty letters and faded pictures, the time will come when few people remember drinking from a colored water fountain, or boarding a segregated bus, or hearing in person Dr. King’s voice boom down from the Lincoln Memorial.  That’s why what we build here won’t just be an achievement for our time, it will be a monument for all time.  It will do more than simply keep those memories alive.

Just like the Air and Space Museum challenges us to set our sights higher, or the Natural History Museum encourages us to look closer, or the Holocaust Museum calls us to fight persecution wherever we find it, this museum should inspire us as well.  It should stand as proof that the most important things in life rarely come quickly or easily.  It should remind us that although we have yet to reach the mountaintop, we cannot stop climbing.

And that’s why, in moments like this, I think about Malia and Sasha.  I think about my daughters and I think about your children, the millions of visitors who will stand where we stand long after we’re gone.  And I think about what I want them to experience.  I think about what I want them to take away.

When our children look at Harriet Tubman’s shawl or Nat Turner’s bible or the plane flown by Tuskegee Airmen, I don’t want them to be seen as figures somehow larger than life.  I want them to see how ordinary Americans could do extraordinary things; how men and women just like them had the courage and determination to right a wrong, to make it right.

I want my daughters to see the shackles that bound slaves on their voyage across the ocean and the shards of glass that flew from the 16th Street Baptist church, and understand that injustice and evil exist in the world.  But I also want them to hear Louis Armstrong’s horn and learn about the Negro League and read the poems of Phyllis Wheatley.  And I want them to appreciate this museum not just as a record of tragedy, but as a celebration of life.

When future generations hear these songs of pain and progress and struggle and sacrifice, I hope they will not think of them as somehow separate from the larger American story.  I want them to see it as central — an important part of our shared story.  A call to see ourselves in one another.  A call to remember that each of us is made in God’s image.  That’s the history we will preserve within these walls.  The history of a people who, in the words of Dr. King, “injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.”

May we remember their stories.  May we live up to their example.  Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.  (Applause.)

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