The doors to the first national museum devoted to the African American experience in the United States — the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) — opened last week, and the lines to see the history of Black communities in this country have yet to slow down.
Its mission is to illuminate for all people the rich, diverse, complicated, and important experiences and contributions of African Americans in America. Penguin Young Readers is working with the Smithsonian to publish the behind-the-scenes story of this new grand museum in Washington, D.C. in How to Build a Museum by Tonya Bolden (Viking/Smithsonian; on sale: September 9, 2016; 978045147637; $17.99; Ages 10 & up).
Tonya Bolden has written more than fifteen books for young people, including Maritcha: A Nineteenth Century Girl; Searching for Sarah Rector, the Richest Black Girl in America; Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln and the Dawn of Liberty; and M. L. K.: The Journey of a King, among others. Her work has been recognized with the Coretta Scott King Honor; the James Madison Award; the Carter G. Woodson Award; and NCTE Orbis Pictus Honors, among others.
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I had the exclusive opportunity to speak with Bolden about her newest book recently. Her goal is always to “make history come alive for young people and create books that I never had. History is delicious and transforms you.”
Because Bolden often writes about African American history and historical figures, a book about NMAAHC, which enshrines that history, is especially important to her.
“This is almost like a culmination of what I’ve done," Bolden said. "History and culture of people of African descent is where I live. It’s not some place to visit. I better understand myself and my family as I study history. ‘We are made by history,’ as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said.”
How to Build a Museum not only touches on the physical structure of the building, but how NMAAHC itself was envisioned. As Bolden says, “the building took 13 years to build, but 100 years to come about. 1915 is when the fight began. It’s been a long time coming. The museum speaks to the tenacity and perseverance of people of African descent. Initially there was a push to honor Blacks that served in all wars. But they continued to dream, and the dream got larger. Now, the NMAAHC is a celebration and tribute of Black people in the universe of endeavors: art science, social change, entertainment.”
Tonya Bolden has written a fascinating chronicle of how all of these ideas, ambitions, and actual objects came together in one incredible museum. The book includes behind-the-scenes photos of literally "how to build a museum" that holds everything from an entire segregated railroad car to a tiny West African amulet worn to ward off slave traders.
The NMAAHC is the first of its kind in the world and, as Bolden says, “the last that will be built on the National Mall, on America’s front yard.”
Filled with artifacts and reminders of both the past and the present, there is something for everyone. One of Bolden’s favorite artifacts is something that you might initially miss. It is “a sack that was created by Rose in the 1850s. Her daughter, age 9, had been sold. She created a sack for her child to carry that held: ‘clothing, pecans, and all my love.’ Those objects and this act show the humanity of Black people.”
Bolden hopes that after reading How to Build a Museum, young people will realize that “people of African descent are not bit players in the history of America.” Rather, she wants them to “understand the vitality, the sorrow songs and jubilee, the trials and triumphs, and that we are agents of change," she said.
"Black history and culture is rich and deep and not simple. It is necessary to understand Black lives on these shores to understand America. As Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood said, ‘the way out is back through.’”
Visiting NMAAHC should be near the top of your list, regardless of your age. The museum is a beautiful testament to the resilience of African American people and our contributions to this country. For the young people in your life, it is vitally important for them to see these images and artifacts.
But until you can make it to Washington, DC, share our history with Tonya Bolden’s book, How to Build a Museum.
Images provided by Tonya Bolden.