New African American Smithsonian Showcases Horror and Beauty

The three-tiered National Museum of African American History and Culture opens this weekend in the shadow of the Washington Monument and with a festival of Free Sounds. (Photo Credit: The New York Times)

The three-tiered National Museum of African American History and Culture opens this weekend in the shadow of the Washington Monument and with a festival of Free Sounds. (Photo Credit: The New York Times)

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opens Saturday, just before the first presidential debate in a contest in which charges of racial bigotry have been regularly tried.

President Barack Obama, America’s first black president, has openly encouraged GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump to visit the new Smithsonian museum before the November 8 election.

This pair of shackles is one of many relics of slavery, America's darkest chapter, on display inside the museum.

This pair of shackles is one of many relics of slavery, America's darkest chapter, on display inside the museum.

Situated perhaps symbolically on the last available museum site on the National Mall in the shadow of the Washington Monument, the new museum traces the journey of a slice of America’s people who arrived in chains, suffered through segregation and still experience discrimination in the workplace and on the streets.

As the Museum celebrates its opening with a three-day Freedom Sounds Festival, protests continue in Charlotte and Tulsa over controversial police shootings of black men. Congress is hung up on a spending bill to keep the federal government running, in part because of a refusal to provide aid to Flint, Michigan, water users and Louisiana flood victims.

Backers were forced to raise private funds to build the museum because of congressional opposition. Senator Jesse Helms said if Congress funded a museum recognizing African Americans, other groups would demand equal treatment. Congress finally authorized the museum 13 years ago.

The building makes its own statement with a black-brown metal façade that contrasts sharply with the white marble sister Smithsonian museums surrounding it. The museum’s tiered design draws inspiration from African architecture, and the façade pays homage to the skill of black freemen metalsmiths in the Deep South. Architect David Adjaye, who designed the museum, said the architecture intentionally “speaks another language.

Chuck Berry's shiny red Cadillac is one of many thousands of African American artifacts on display in the new museum. 

Chuck Berry's shiny red Cadillac is one of many thousands of African American artifacts on display in the new museum. 

The exhibits and 36,000 displayed artifacts center on the life of black Americans from tiny plantation cabins and punishing neck chains to pioneering jazz musicians and Chuck Berry’s cherry red Cadillac. However, exhibit designers sought to make the museum appeal to a wider audience by showing how African American culture has become embedded in all American culture.

“It explores what it means to be an American and share how American values like resiliency, optimism and spirituality are reflected in African American history and culture,” the museum’s website declares. Designers also attempted to place the arrival of Africans in America as part of an ongoing global migration that at once has increased diversity and underscored human unity.