The list to get into the National Museum of African American History and Culture is epically long. So naturally, I was seriously excited when I finally received tickets. I happily made the trek from New York City to Washington D.C. on Friday, March 16. Although I had toured a handful of museums in D.C. over the years, to see the history of Black and brown people on display was monumental. People of color are rarely represented in the celebration of America’s history in D.C.’s plethora of museums.
During my first few minutes into the museum, which begins with the origins of race-based slavery in the 15th century, I saw parents and teachers explaining the brutality of racism to children. Innocent children asked questions like, “Why did this happen to Black people?” One child wondered out loud, “Could this happen again?” The teacher responded with, “As long as we know and respect this history—no.”
About twenty minutes into the museum, I noticed a smattering of red hats. At first, I thought nothing of it, but as I was looking at a display of a slave cabin, I heard a young man spew, “She’s ugly,” and then laugh loudly. I turned around and saw a teenager and his friend staring at a picture of abolitionist Sojourner Truth. One of the teens was wearing a red hat. I thought to myself, “I know he isn’t wearing what I think he is wearing in the National Museum of African American History.”
To be sure, I took a better look and there he was, no more than 15 years old, wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. I scanned the room and like bright-red ants, young men were scurrying around the museum wearing “Make America Great Again” hats. They were pointing at graphic images of slavery, giggling at memorabilia from Jim Crow and some were sitting on the floor, appearing to be angry they were in the museum. Were these young men forced to attend the museum? If so, what educator allowed them to wear these hats as a collective show of Trump support? I couldn’t find a teacher anywhere.
As I was observing the disrespectful teenagers, I saw a massive sign from 1937 that read “There’s No Way Like The American Way” with African-Americans standing in front of a photo of a smiling white family. I said to a friend who was with me, “That could be Trump’s slogan for 2020.”
“Make America Great Again” is a coded version of “whites only” and “no coloreds allowed” signs. Trump purposely used the phrase as a dog whistle to the parents of the young men like the ones who were wearing a disturbing message in a museum that proves that the “again” Trump references was not great for everyone. In actuality, it was downright deadly for many Americans. This is not to say every Trump supporter is a racist, but anyone who supports the president clearly dismisses racism.
I tried to ignore the teenagers, but as I strolled through the museum there was a teenage girl behind me talking to her friend. “Did you see when we were talking about Hitler in class and he did the white power sign?” she said.
“Are you serious?” her friend responded.
“Yeah, he said he was joking, but it was so rude.”
She was referencing one of the boys wearing the hats.
Once outside of the museum, I saw several of the boys sitting on the floor of the lobby. The group was all-white and half of them were wearing the red hats. In the middle of the group, there was a lone Black child, looking mortified and staring blankly into space. The image could have easily been one of the displays in the museum. One Black face surrounded by white children, half of them donning hats with the divisive message. His face haunted me because I have been the only Black child in a classroom — but something in my soul told me his experience was worse than mine. There were no “Make America Great Again” hats when I was a teenager. There were no implicit or explicit symbols to showcase hate that were popularized by the president.
I posted an image on social media of one of the young men in a red hat; however, I hid his face. Some people asked why I didn’t say anything to the teenagers. Here’s why: I was not going to let them ruin my experience. The teenagers were craving a reaction. I knew an adult arguing with pre-programmed racist teenagers would not end well. Furthermore, as I studied the rusted chains that were used on enslaved West African children or heartbreakingly stared at Emmett Till’s mangled face, the “Make America Great Again” hats in the National Museum of African American History were poetic irony. Racial resentment is recycled for the next generation and these teenagers were living proof.
I walked out of the museum reflecting on the selfless and, in many cases, nameless people who fought for my right to exist as a free person, as a voter and as an American. Red hats were minimal compared to the sacrifice of the countless souls who are honored in the museum. Unwittingly, the ignorance and arrogance of ill-bred teens proved why the museum is crucial. Once upon a time, people believed racism would die with the “older” generation. However, with the resurgence of white nationalism and the hatred in the comments section of any article that promotes change (this article included, where I will be called the N-word multiple times), proves that racism is passed down – it’s the American way. Therefore, the days ahead may prove to be darker and more brutal than we could ever imagine.
Lest we forget, the insidious message behind “Make America Great Again” harkens to a time where Black people in America had no rights and knew their “place.”