Acknowledging My Privilege

Lebanon Valley College students pose outside of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Raeann Walquist ‘20 shares her experience and emotions from a recent class trip to Washington, D.C. 

 

I stared, almost entranced, with sympathy at his mutilated face and wondered how this type of devastation was possible. 

I recently embarked on a trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture as part of my Art 370 class at Lebanon Valley College. I had taken African American Literature the semester before and had an interest in African American history. However, I was gravely unprepared for my experience at the Washington, D.C.-based museum. I fully expected the trip to weigh heavily on me, but I underestimated the effect that three hours in the beautiful building would have on me. 

After going through an extensive security check, I found myself in an elevator descending four floors underground. When the elevators opened, I faced eerie darkness around me and a mass of people who had crowded into this section of the building. 

It was only after I had gone through the first section of the building that I understood why we had gone so far underground. The building was designed to imitate the journey of the African American from total entrapment, to freedom. At this point, I was in dark, cramped quarters just like those of a slave ship.  

As I worked my way through the museum, I was blown away by what I saw, including symbols of hope, struggle, and progress. However, when I arrived at the section devoted to Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was brutally murdered by a lynch mob, I found myself mentally preparing for what I expected to see. 

The image of Emmett’s beaten face was small and subdued. There was nothing flashy or elaborate about the exhibit. (It pains me to use that word, “Exhibit.” I don’t want to abridge this young man’s life down to an exhibit in a museum.)

I wondered how it must feel to be his mother, so overwhelmed with the horror and racism around her that she, inspired by her son’s untimely, and gruesome death, could make the courageous decision to allow her son’s body to become a symbol for the African American struggle. I could not fathom the strength that it took to do something like that. 

This was a pivotal moment in my trip. I felt the weight of African American people’s history. And possibly for the first time, I fully understood the extent of my privilege as a white person. I wasn’t alone.

“I thought it was interesting but also sad and disappointing how African American people are basically erased from U.S. history,” said Katherine San Cartier, a sophomore sociology major.

Students and faculty alike were impacted by the museum. In fact, many were moved by the exhibits and other visitors to the museum. 

“One of the most poignant moments in the museum was a grandmother standing with her young granddaughter in front of the display of President Obama and his family in the White House,” said Dr. Barbara McNulty, director of LVC’s Suzanne H. Arnold Art Gallery and assistant professor of art history. “The grandmother was explaining the display, and the young girl was asking questions, especially about President Obama’s daughters, Malia and Sasha. For me, this was an example of a museum functioning in its highest form.”

I thought I had a good understanding of my privilege, but I was missing a broader historical sense that may seem less obvious in the modern day, as acts of racism take on a different, more subtle form than the outright nature of America’s history. 

The trip to the museum was eye-opening, and I hope that LVC can keep finding ways to offer these types of experiences for all students so they gain a fresh perspective on classroom material in addition to real life applications.   

 

Photo by Renata Williams.