Thursday, March 30, 2006

The lofty feeling of being "We the people!" ... all of us ... .

Wednesday afternoon brought us to a delicious lunch at the Native American Museum, followed by a great multi-media show in a small circular theater on the top floor of this beautiful curved sand-hued building where we sat on tiered benches on 3 levels and watched multi-tribal images played against a mound at floor level; a screen that displayed evolving moving images while overhead on the domed ceiling -- changing scenes that took us through the seasons; under the ocean with the whales; surrounded us in caves and sweat lodges in rain wind and snow; involved us in tribal dancing; while the images before us on the screen played against the huge synthetic rock -- lit from within -- on the floor beneath the mid-level screen. It was an astounding experience that enveloped us in color and wrap-around sound. The entire event lasted no more than 15 minutes, but was so absorbing that the dimension of time dropped away. I wanted to experience it all again -- maybe 3 times -- in order to give full attention to each of the levels, but the trick was to try to take it all simultaneously, and I knew that. One day I'll go back and do it all again.

Martha, Kokee and I made our way separately down through the floors and the many tribal exhibits and -- just as she had the evening before -- standing in the Japanese Interment memorial -- I watched Kokee seeing for the first time the dramatic and hurtful lives of people other than African Americans. Slavery and human exploitation had not been ours alone to bear. The story of the Native American (something we also share as descendants of the Shoshone, the Seminole, and the Choctaw as well as Africans slaves) came alive for us both. I found myself wondering how she was taking these revelations that had been purely academic 'til now. This is a conversation we've not yet had, but will one day soon, I'm sure. This was the time for simply letting life flow over us, to be given context and understood in the days to come.

But it was our trip to the new and wondrous underground African Art Museum that proved to be the most moving -- and for reasons that will become clear when you click on the photo above and read the name of the artist being featured. It was another of those inexplicable moments that occurs from time to time and that have been the cause of wonder for my whole life.

The building shares land with the original Smithsonian Museum and two others. It has a relatively small footprint with most of its space on 3 floors, all underground. One can move between museums at the underground level -- a fact that almost lost us Kokee before she chose to surface and wait for us on a bench at ground level -- amid newly-planted crocuses and daffodils.

I've spoken in other stories of a time when my dearest friend -- from ages 6 into my teens -- was my grandfather, Papa George. He worked as a waiter at the exclusive Oakland Athletic Club at night, but together we planted and weeded and tied vine tendrils of the string beans to wooden poles and dug the root vegetables while he told the stories of Mammá and the little house in St. James Parish, Louisiana, beside the Mississippi, and sang those silly little songs that I thought he made up ... .That was Papa George. I'd speak of him and what he meant to me and of Mammá and her role as strong woman and midwife and protector of her large brood that evening upon receiving the award at the ceremony.

I'd been so aware that I was not alone last night -- but that I'd climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with all of them beside me -- Aunt Emily and Aunt Vivian and yes, Papa George. I found myself so aware that I can't recall ever mentioning the National Park Service nor thanking the National Women's History Project in my acceptance speech -- but back in time in some parallel universe where they still existed. It was strange -- but not disturbing in the least. I felt comforted by their presence and -- as a part of this strange collective -- I felt worthy of the honors being bestowed. We'd lived it and survived, and it was during my tenure on the planet that we now had arrived far from home to reach the nation's capitol to stand at the feet of the great emancipator!

But the most moving day of all would be tomorrow, on Thursday, when we would visit Anacostia and the African American Museum, and the home of Frederick Douglas.

But that is a story for tomorrow. I'm still recovering from the experience of finding -- finally -- our beloved Mammá -- as a class of African American women -- those who were really the "Builders of Communities and Dreams."

Photo: This is the brochure that I picked up just as we were leaving the African Museum. As I saw the name of the artist whose work was being featured (shown in the bottom half of this piece), I felt instantly the rightness of the honor being bestowed upon me as the representative of my family -- all those who preceded me in life -- and who had invested -- genetically -- in all that I am. It could not have been otherwise. This had been earned over generations by us all. Papa would not have had it otherwise!

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