Monday, July 31, 2017

Making A Way Out Of No Way


On my last trip to Washington, D.C. I was unexpectedly provided an opportunity to visit the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). My guide was Alice Bonner, a museum docent with a background in journalism and theater, which provided a unique perspective to my tour. She enthusiastically greeted me and was clearly pleased at the opportunity to share her passion for African American history and culture in a building too long in coming. It was also obvious that she understood the relevance of that history to contemporary society and its role in shaping our future when the first thing she pointed out was that “this building is located at the corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue. The 14th amendment to the U. S. Constitution gave citizenship to freed slaves and provided them equal protection under the law. The fact that the 14th Amendment is exactly in the middle of our 27 constitutional amendments and that this building is centrally located on the National Mall should remind us of the central importance of citizenship to the future well-being of our country.”

We began the tour at the lowest underground level of the museum and steadily worked our way up through three levels encompassing four centuries of struggle and oppression; from slavery to emancipation, from Jim Crow segregation to the Civil Rights movement, and from Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination to our current situation of a society built around structural racism. Given my time constraints, Ms. Bonner suggested that we move quickly through these levels because “they depict some pretty dark and depressing times and events. Even though you need to understand what happened and why, the pain and sadness can be overwhelming. I want you to leave here with some optimism and hope.”

That optimism and hope came when we reached the above ground levels of the museum. The highest level joyously celebrates the numerous contributions of African Americans to our country and the world. Providing a transition to that level is one which explores themes of agency, creativity, and resilience of African Americans who challenged racial oppression and discrimination by “Making A Way Out Of No Way.” The exhibits in this section highlight the determination of a people, despite overwhelming adversity, to create strategies and specific actions that challenged the racial status quo in America. The unifying lesson emanating from each display is the importance of a sense of community for survival and how powerful a community can be in stimulating change on an individual as well as community, national and global levels. In the process, “Making A Way Out Of No Way” offers hope for the future and an example of what is needed if our society as a whole is to survive and thrive.

After thanking and saying goodbye to Ms. Bonner, I reflected on my visit and was struck by the powerful way the NMAAHC chronicles the magnitude of the centuries-long and on-going fight for social justice and how it clearly displays the formidable forces persistently in opposition. The museum also demonstrates that the most powerful and only way to effectively counter those oppositional forces is to create and nurture a sense of community.

Likewise, the core value of public health is social justice which strives for health equity and optimal health for all. Like all struggles for social justice, health equity can only be achieved in communities where there is social cohesion and where everyone has a sense of belonging and bears some responsibility for the community’s well-being as well as the power to help make needed changes. The work of public health is to create that kind of community everywhere, for everyone. Those of us who have some responsibility for our nation’s public health can learn from the struggles of our African American neighbors and adopt some of the strategies they modeled to advance social justice. Only then will we be able to effectively assure the conditions in which everyone everywhere can be healthy.

I hope Ms. Bonner somehow knows that as I left the NMAAHC, I was filled with optimism and hope.