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Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos

The Smithsonian’s new museum is a monument to black permanence

The boom box that Radio Raheem carried down Brooklyn’s Stuyvesant Avenue in Do the Right Thing now sits, fully intact and quiet, in a glass case in Washington, D.C. Sal didn’t destroy it, after all. The giant stereo that once blasted Public Enemy’s anthem “Fight the Power” on repeat is displayed across the hall from a giant red flag bearing the group’s famous target logo.

Civil rights activist Brittany Packnett described the exhibit to me over a burger and fries near Capitol Hill on September 24, a few hours after she became one of the first visitors to the Smithsonian’s brand-new National Museum of African American History and Culture. My heart stopped for a second after she said, “the Public Enemy flag literally sits across the way from Radio Raheem’s boom box.” My reaction wasn’t just some fanboy moment, a product of my love for Spike Lee’s masterwork since I first saw it in the summer of 1989. It was because Bill Nunn, the actor who gave life to Radio Raheem, had died that day, hours before Public Enemy performed in celebration of the museum’s opening.

Chuck D and company saved “Fight the Power” for the end of their set that night, dedicating it to Nunn’s memory. Radio Raheem’s message in the film, portrayed through music, was constant, unwavering resistance — an essential component of black life. Radio Raheem was a town crier, silenced only by Sal, the local pizzeria owner, taking a bat to the radio and a cop applying a fatal chokehold to Raheem.

The museum opened on the same weekend that protests were erupting in Charlotte, North Carolina, over the outrageous killing of yet another black man, Keith Lamont Scott, by police. The confluence of those events got Packnett and me thinking about the importance of an African-American museum as perhaps the largest physical symbol of black permanence this nation has ever seen.

As the cofounder of the police reform initiative Campaign Zero, Packnett had attended the opening ceremonies that morning, featuring celebrities of every stripe. Packnett watched as President Obama declared the museum “a monument, no less than the others on this Mall, to the deep and abiding love for this country and the ideals upon which it is founded.”

“I tweeted the exact moment when I started to get chills,” Packnett said. “There was something about [the president] and Mrs. Obama sitting in front of John Lewis, seeing Janelle Monáe sitting right in front of me with a leather jacket on that said ‘Black Girl Magic’ on the back, I was just like, ‘We in here and we are not going away.’”

You could feel that sentiment throughout the crowd. I sat next to my mother during the ceremonies that morning, in a mostly black group of people across street from the museum. The building springs from the Mall lawn like a giant steel and bronze flower in bloom. We watched the speakers via a giant video screen, surrounded by folks who’d come on the charter bus or Greyhound that morning from cities across the nation, pulled to the capital as if by magnetic force. Men in Colin Kaepernick jerseys and women wearing elegant church hats sat on blankets and lawn chairs to witness history. It felt like the biggest family reunion ever. We’d waited a long time for this.

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In that sense, the opening had a similar vibe to Obama’s 2009 inauguration, though about 50 degrees warmer. This event felt even more historic, oddly enough. Here was our nation’s first black president, months before he vacates the White House for good, dedicating a national museum to black Americans.

The museum also opened as Donald Trump, an unqualified charlatan who has led a racist campaign to delegitimize that president, tries to succeed him. It opened at a time when black life may seem especially fragile or fleeting, while black activism is surging.

Packnett noted that this “black renaissance” we’re living through is inseparable from the civil rights activism we’ve seen arise in black communities over the last several years. We wouldn’t have one without the other. This time, she said, “We’re part of a generation where we’re just not going to let people tell our stories for us anymore.”

She continued, “We’ve been struggling and we’ve been fighting and we’ve been pressing and we’ve been confronting and we’ve been bold and we’ve been kneeling during the anthem and we’ve been out in the streets doing all that stuff,” Packnett said. “This is so permanent. There’s something about being able to plant a flag in the ground and have a stake in the ground and say this: ‘From here is where we move forward. No matter how much you want us to start back, this is where we’re moving forward from — in prime real estate on the National Mall.’”

I still haven’t been inside the museum itself. The demand for admission was so high that I couldn’t get a pass to enter on opening day. The anticipation for this museum was more than 100 years in the making; it was in 1915 that black Civil War veterans first proposed the House bill to “secure plans and designs for a monument or memorial to the memory of the negro soldiers and sailors who fought in the wars of our country.” I heard more than one elderly woman sitting near me talk about how she wished her mother was alive to see this. My grandmother, God rest her soul, would have loved it, too.

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Packnett hopes the museum will be able to tell stories not just about the past, but about “real” and “concrete” civil rights wins modern activists will achieve. Indeed, it isn’t unlikely that Packnett’s own work will be enshrined in the museum one day. A couple artifacts are up already, Packnett told me: a picture of two of her fellow organizers, a quote from Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza. But, as Packnett was reminded a couple days before by former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee member Courtland Cox during a Smithsonian panel, the museum is a living symbol of the struggle itself. “Our work will be necessary but insufficient,” she recounted Cox saying, “because Charlotte is still happening and Tulsa is still happening and Ferguson is still happening.”

One building won’t protect our lives from those determined to erase us on the streets and in our textbooks. But a museum cannot be miseducated, incarcerated, or cut down by a cop’s bullet. This museum concentrates and calcifies the progress and pain of our people, preserving it for future generations to study and learn from. At a time that is chaotic for many black Americans, it serves as an immovable object that attests to our durability. This is a people’s house that shall not be moved. We in here, indeed.