Birth of our real national story starts with the centrality of slavery

I recently visited the National Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C., a major symbol of the turn toward greater honesty in the telling of America’s story.

Many contemporary American conflicts and problems are rooted in a history we think we know, but don’t really. Fortunately people across the country are taking important steps to get history right.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is a major symbol of the turn toward greater honesty in the telling of America’s story. The museum opened nearly a year ago on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and it does an excellent job giving a straightforward presentation of our troublesome history.

The museum begins its story before there was a United States of America and moves forward in time floor by floor to the present, but I spent most of a day on the lower floors, where a visitor can see the framework for America being laid.

There is a quick introduction to Europe and Africa in the 1400s, when some of their kingdoms began to do business with one another, and the narrative moves on to the arrival of Europeans on this continent and the forces that would change all three lands dramatically.

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You see how the relationships among the peoples of the continents shift as the European desire for land and for people to work that land grows, along with European wealth and power.

Many things stuck out as I moved up through the museum, like this note: “The financial legacy of the slave trade helped create the nation-states of Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, France, Great Britain, and the United States, as well as others in the Caribbean and South America.”

Or this: “Scholars estimate that of every 100 people seized in Africa, only 64 would survive the march from the interior to the coast; only 57 would board ship; and just 48 would live to be placed in slavery in the Americas.”

As America became a nation, its people were on fire with ideas about liberty and equality. In a section on that fervor, the museum prominently places a statue of Thomas Jefferson, whose words helped create America. Behind Jefferson is a wall of bricks, and on each brick is the name of a person held in bondage by the champion of liberty. Over his lifetime, Jefferson held 609 people as property. All men are created equal, he wrote. Twelve of the…

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