February is Black History Month, and we are thinking back to our visit last October to the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago. My kids picked out these mementos from the gift store: soapstone hearts carved with the words “kindness” and “freedom.” The DuSable museum includes a high quality exhibit about African American experiences from the slave trade to the present day. Going to the museum as a family gave us an opportunity to face some hard truths and have discussions about racial inequality.
Chicago is one of our favorite cities to visit. We go about once a year to visit friends, try different cuisines, and explore the city’s parks, museums, and cultural sites. This time, we made it a priority to visit the DuSable. I knew the museum would raise difficult questions, but my kids are getting older—at the time of our visit, F.T. was eleven and G.N. was eight—and they are sophisticated enough to learn about the more complicated and difficult aspects of American history. Our family is of European and Middle Eastern descent, but we want to learn about all American cultures because African American history is American history.
My kids learn about American history in school, but their school is engaging in self-examination after a controversy about how to teach painful topics like slavery, and I want to supplement what they are learning and have deeper conversations about it as a family. This topic has been on my mind since last year’s opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a memorial for victims of lynchings and racial terror, in Montgomery, Alabama; friends and colleagues have been visiting and writing about their experiences, including a San Antonio mom who took her young children there this summer.
DuSable Museum of African American History
My kids are museum veterans, but the DuSable impacted them differently from any other museum they have ever visited. Nevertheless, our day started out in a pretty ordinary way. We set out with our friends and took a train and a bus to the South Side of Chicago. The DuSable is located in Washington Park, on the edge of the Hyde Park neighborhood. The bus dropped us off near the group entrance, which is spacious—on weekdays, the museum probably hosts a lot of school field trips. Eventually we found the stately and symmetrical front entrance.
The museum’s namesake is Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, a Hatian of French and African descent, who was likely the founder, circa 1780, of the first trading post and settlement that became the city of Chicago.
On a Sunday afternoon, the museum was quiet, with only a few small groups of visitors. The kids immediately wanted to go to the gift shop, but my friend and I insisted that we dive into the exhibits. The first gallery we entered featured the artwork of Margaret T. Burroughs, a South Side community leader. But the part of the museum that I most wanted to see with my children was farther away from the entrance and down the stairs.
Freedom, Resistance, and the Journey Toward Equality
“Freedom, Resistance, and the Journey Toward Equality” is a powerful exploration of the African American experience. Moving chronologically from the slave trade through key historical periods to the present day, the exhibit features artifacts that tell meaningful and often heartbreaking stories. Certain objects and documents made an especially strong impression on my children and me.
A collection of iron shackles and bilboes represented the era of the transatlantic slave trade.The gallery walls showed illustrations of how slaves were tightly packed into the holds of ships with no room to move. My kids were horrified that these crude iron tools were used on real people. My friend and I explained that the slaves who were captured were not criminals; they were innocent people who were taken as property.
A slave owner’s notebook recorded a “List of Property,” including ages, names, and dollar values of slaves. I explained to my daughter that if we were slaves, our master would have the power sell me to one family and sell her and her brother to different families, and we would probably never see each other again. She was shocked and upset.
Then, my daughter asked me if slave women could choose when to have children. At the time, I mumbled something like, “That’s complicated,” and I am still trying to come up with a good answer. My daughter and I have talked about bodies and consent, but we will keep revisiting the topic as she gets older. When she is a little older, I plan to discuss the story of Sally Hemings with her as a way to frame the issue of whether an intimate relationship between a slave and her master can ever be consensual.
Blackface and Other Disturbing Images
The exhibit includes a small photograph—about the size of a passport photo—of the face of Emmett Till after he was beaten to death and drowned by a group of white men. I knew the outline of Till’s story from the documentary Eyes on the Prize, but the photograph still shook me all over again. It’s so stunning that I’m choosing not to include the image in this blog post, but you can follow the links in this paragraph to see it. I asked my son to come take a close look at the photograph at the DuSable, and he was frightened. The photograph is still powerful today, and I can only imagine the courage it took for Till’s mother and the periodicals, including Jet magazine, to publish the image. Till’s tragic death made more people aware of ongoing injustice and led to change.
As we were planning our visit, my friend who lives in Chicago told me that the artifact that creeps her out the most is the Ku Klux Klan outfit. It’s truly scary. Pictures don’t do it justice; seeing it in real life reinforces how the costume was meant to be intimidating. This artifact illustrates how the DuSable Museum serves an important purpose: the museum preserves the costume, but puts it in historical context. We must not forget our history, but also we should not create opportunities to revere things that are evil.
The DuSable’s collection includes blackface figurines, and I am grateful because it gave me an opportunity to explain to my kids why they should never dress up or wear makeup like that. Blackface is offensive and there’s never a good reason for it. And yet it still happens, whether in dusty yearbooks or present-day schools—my friend said it happened in her neighborhood in 2017, as described in this blog post. As with the Ku Klux Klan costume, the museum presents these artifacts appropriately in their historical context. My kids and I can talk about them and understand why they are wrong.
Illustrating Inequality . . . and Hope
To illustrate the concept of separate but unequal, the DuSable presented a white-only drinking fountain next to a colored-only drinking fountain. Even today, the reality is, where there is racial segregation, white people usually get the good stuff and everyone else gets something inferior. The lesson of this simple display applies to education as well, even decades after Brown v. Board of Education.
The exhibit brought the story of the journey toward equality to the present day with artifacts such as a Black Panther sign offering free breakfasts for children to an iconic “Hope” campaign poster for President Barack Obama. It’s not a cleaned-up version of history that caters to white fragility; it’s the real thing, and I am thankful for that, because I want my children to learn the truth.
After touring “Freedom, Resistance, and the Journey Toward Equality,” we paused in a gallery with contemporary paintings by African-American artists, mostly portraits, and felt uplifted by the beauty. We paused and had a conversation, adults and children included, about what we had seen. The kids looked sort of stunned. They shuffled their feet and clenched their hands. One young friend spoke up and said that the root of the evil was slavery—that the white people were trying to get rich from the unpaid labor of black people.
For young minds, it’s a heavy weight to realize that there are centuries of history of white people oppressing black people, and that inequality and injustice still exist today. I want my kids to be aware of our country’s past and and to consider what they can do to make things better. Seeing the gallery at the DuSable was a tough experience, but avoiding that conversation is worse. Young people need to know how things got this way. I hope that, with this knowledge, my children will resolve to make choices every day that will make the world more kind and just.
- “Speak Their Names—How Montgomery Reignited My Commitment to Education Activism,” Marisol Rerucha, La Comadre, October 12, 2018
- “The Horrid Legacy of American Racism Captured in a Museum in Alabama,” Sharif El-Mekki, Philly’s 7th Ward, October 11, 2018
- “A Visit to Montgomery, Alabama,” Zachary F. Wright, Good School Hunting, October 9, 2018
- “A Week Full of Firsts,” Seth Saavedra, New Mexico Education, October 8, 2018
- “The First Word My 4-Year-Old Learned This Summer Was ‘Lynching’: Why I Thought It Was Important to Take My Preschooler to Montgomery,” Bekah McNeel, The 74, September 10, 2018
- “Rethinking Cultural Competence at Great Hearts Monte Vista,” Inga Cotton, San Antonio Charter Moms, April 23, 2018
- “How a stupid teen’s Blackface selfie revealed the racial fault lines in my integrated suburb,” Tracy Dell’Angela, Head in the Sand, October 14, 2017