On the road yesterday I listened to the opening ceremonies of the new African American Museum of History and Culture of the Smithsonian Institution on the National Mall in Washington. Every such event, of course, is long-planned and structured. This museum has been in the process of becoming reality since 1916. The words offered during the dedication and opening yesterday are worthy of a century of effort.
The Reverend Calvin O. Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church of New York City made a point well that was often emphasized in other ways by speakers who followed: African Americans have not been anything like incidental to the building of this nation. Rather, in ways chosen and before then terribly unchosen, they have been vital to that ongoing project. To paraphrase, Reverend Butts said in reference to the heritage of slavery in this nation and hemisphere: “Get me to work for you for nothing for 250 years and you can build anything.” Undeniable truth. Slaves, suffering with no rights, generation following generation, were a central part of the engine that drove the growth of the economy of America for centuries, and not only on the cotton plantations of the south.
George W. Bush, who as President signed the legislation to make the museum real, in a fine talk pointed out particular ways in which the existence of this institution both bears witness to the best of this nation and at the same time calls it to be even better. A great nation, he said, does not hide from its own truth, even the uncomfortable and painful truths that are part of its story. And he continued by affirming that a great nation can and does change. And will continue to do so. The photo, caught by a former White House photographer, of Bush and Michelle Obama embracing, is in itself a beautiful antidote to the present political moment in the ongoing presidential campaign.
And the man whose successor will be decided in that campaign provided a masterful talk. In some sense Barack Obama’s speech yesterday might be understood as a kind of valedictory on the massive issue of race relations and racism in the nation by the nation’s first black president. He said that the museum’s establishment ” . . .reaffirms that all of us are America — that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story, it’s not the underside of the American story, it is central to the American story. That our glory derives not just from our most obvious triumphs, but how we’ve wrested triumph from tragedy, and how we’ve been able to remake ourselves, again and again and again, in accordance with our highest ideals. I, too, am America.”
Toward the conclusion of the ceremony, as I continued along the road, an unexpected memory from long ago emerged in me for the first time in decades. When I was a little boy my paternal grandparents, both Irish immigrants, worked for a time at the stately home of the founder of one of the banks in my hometown. That banking gentleman had died by then, but my grandmother was one of the nurses caring for his elderly widow at the house and my grandfather was the gardener, coaxing beauty constantly out of God’s green earth.
As a child of four and five years old I would from time to time join them for a day at that (by our standards) great house. I knelt next to Papa as he worked the earth with his gloved hands. I talked to Nana when she would come downstairs from the bedroom of the lady of the house. And, I wandered from time to time into the kitchen.
The kitchen was the domain of Theresa the cook. Theresa was the first person of color I ever met, and with whom I ever interacted. She moved around that kitchen like she had designed it. She cooked and baked and filled that place daily with wonderful aromas. She had a round and kind face in my memories, often covered in a generous smile. She let me sit at the kitchen table and partake of her latest creation before even the folks who provided for the feast.
Theresa was likely born, I would guess, in the late teens of the twentieth century. Her parents may have been, and likely her grandparents were, slaves. They were defined each as 3/5 of a human person. I don’t know what Theresa thought of her life. I don’t know how or if she thought back to the lives of her beloved forebears. I was just a 4-year old sitting in her kitchen. John Kennedy was in the White House and the civil rights movement was about to take flight.
Theresa and I didn’t talk about that stuff. She probably didn’t know people had suggested around the time of her birth that there be established a museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
But I do know this, and in a way that I could not have expressed in words I knew it even then: Theresa knew how to nourish people. She knew how to strengthen people for their journey, different though it was from hers. She knew how to feed the hungry.
And in that, very truly among us in that big house, Theresa was a sacrament of the presence and the love of God who feeds us daily, when we love each other and when we fail to do so. From the stovetop and oven, and from a tough history behind her and her people, Theresa was a teacher of loving truth.
She too has a place in the museum opened yesterday.
(Photo by David Hume Kennerly)