30 Good Minutes on Encountering Racism

If you’re new here: “30 Good Minutes” is a weekly(ish) series where I set a half-hour timer and write until it dings.

The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama is holy ground, and we should tour it in bare feet. A few times throughout the 11,000-square foot exhibit space, the curators quite literally honor the specific piece of ground you’re standing on. “You are standing on a spot where enslaved people were warehoused,” reads one sign, stenciled onto a brick wall.

Last week, I toured the museum as part of a 3-day Learning Lab in Alabama led by an organization called Empower Initiative. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it—the entire Lab was phenomenal, but for my few minutes today, I want to focus on the museum.

The people who pulled the Legacy Museum together are master storytellers. Every square inch of the place has been crafted to clarify history, to tell the truth, to invite your whole body, mind, and soul into a confrontation with the reality of America’s terrible, tragic use and abuse of Black lives. It’s an overwhelming encounter with racism, and a hard one.

And it’s one we very much need. I’m grateful for Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, and for all the people whose years of careful, brilliant work made the Legacy Museum possible.

Upon entering, you see the very beginning of the story of chattel slavery—a towering video wall showing waves crashing at you, over and over. This was the view of kidnapped men, women, and children taken from Africa and forced into a voyage across the ocean that many of them did not survive. You then walk through their watery graves, and only then come to the shores of Charleston, Boston, New Orleans, Richmond, and more, where a lifetime of misery awaited.

I do not want to describe many of the exhibits in detail, in part because I can’t do justice to them and in part because they need to be experienced to be understood. Using a phenomenal array of historical archive and new media—animation, hologram, sculpture, text, photography, video—the curators take you from slavery through the Civil War and into the failures of Reconstruction; the era of lynching, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration; organized resistance movements; the rise of mass incarceration, and more.

But I do want to mention two key spaces in the Legacy Museum that I’ll be thinking about for a long time. About halfway through the museum, you come to a wall of large jars filled with dirt, gently lit with amber light. Each scoop of dirt was taken from a particular place where a Black man, woman, or child was lynched—murdered, many times in public view, for the crime of being Black. Each jar is marked with the name of the person lynched, along with the place and date where it happened.

You’re looking at the earth that lay just underneath each victim. The earth that was there when it happened. The earth that bore witness, that still bears that witness.

This wall of dirt broke me open. It’s a strange thing to begin sobbing in a museum, but I am sure I am not the only one. It is a wailing wall, and it was all I could do not to drop to my knees.

Toward the end of the tour, the Legacy Museum closes with the Reflection Room, a tall-ceilinged square room tinted in glowing gold. The walls are filled with large portraits of Black heroes and saints—Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, James Baldwin, Nina Simone, and on and on. It’s another sea crashing over you, but this sea is a resurrecting one.

You’ve spent the last two hours seeing the worst humans can do. Now, you’re in a hall of saints, surrounded by strength and goodness—people who people mined justice, truth, and beauty from the ground of terror. Again, I wept.

Our country continues to struggle with a crisis of contempt, one expressed in structures that are invisible or ignored. Mass incarceration in for-profit prisons. Stubborn, systematized poverty that falls mostly along residential and racial lines. The most necessary and fundamental right of U.S. citizens—the right to have a say in how we’re governed—under attack by a mix of gerrymandering and manufactured cynicism. And on and on.

But that’s why we must take journeys of remembering. We must remember who we have been so that we can change who we are still becoming.

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