By Osayi Endolyn
I want to tell you about my experience at Sweet Home Café, the stellar cafeteria-style restaurant that holds center space in the Smithsonian’s National Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.
I want to tell you about the geographically-minded menu that challenges the narrow definition of what black food can be, accomplished by its embrace of the diaspora and how it evolved and improvised from West Africa, through slavery, and during the Great Migration in these United States. I want to talk about the long, silent line for oxtail pepper soup and the wistful expressions on people’s faces when a cook announced that the kitchen was behind, and he was sorry but no, this group wouldn’t be eating oxtails for lunch. I want to talk about my order of shrimp and grits and how at least three diners asked which line I got them from and were they good, then went to acquire their own serving because I could only nod and point with my mouth full. I want to talk about eating by myself in a room filled with a couple hundred people, most of them black, a multigenerational space buzzing with energy, discussion, deep thought, emotional fatigue, and pride stemming from the exhibitions beneath our feet.
But I can’t share all this without first explaining how Sweet Home Café functions in the massive historical narrative that is the NMAAHC, and how this museum figures into what it means to be black American, a tragic and triumphant story that I swear to you, we have never been told so fully. But even that becomes difficult without first acknowledging what the experience of blackness has looked like for me in my three-plus decades, in this brown-skinned, American-born, half-Nigerian, half-black American body. Even though blackness exists on its own, as a state of mind, a political identity, a cultural claim, let’s be real—you can’t talk about historic blackness without addressing whiteness, because blackness and whiteness as constructs—race as a construct—were created as tools to justify economic growth. To get where I want to go, I have to tell you about being black in a white-centered America.
The day of my museum visit, I woke up at 6 A.M. in my hotel room near the National Mall. My laptop browser was already set to the NMAAHC’s free ticketing page. At 6:30, same-day tickets would become available and I was determined to get the first timed entry at 10:30. The museum has been at capacity every day since it opened in September 2016, submitting to hourly passes to stem the flow of 2.1 million visits in its first year. The average stay at most Smithsonian museums is two hours. At the NMAAHC, the average visit lasts for six. I was ready to be surrounded by an African American narrative. I craved a cultural respite. Ten days earlier, my current city, Gainesville, Florida, had withstood the arrival of a white supremacist speaker whose name I refuse to write because he is such a ridiculous, dangerous fool. The city, and the University of Florida (a publicly funded campus legally compelled to provide space to this man and his message) had been on edge in the weeks leading up to the event. I had been on edge, too.
White people, friends of mine, presumed that I wasn’t acutely aware that a white supremacist was coming to town, so they sent me links. I opened text messages asking me to read news stories illustrated by violent pictures from the August 2017 Charlottesville goon squad march of angry white men with their torches. Other white acquaintances emailed to ask about news sources for the event because apparently that’s not a thing you can figure out without asking a black person in Gainesville. My nerves frayed. I made leaps of logic: If I had a baby and she died, people would probably not send me links about dead babies. They would probably not write me, “This is crazy, WTF, have you seen this? Do you know where I can find news about dead babies?” I had what felt to me like prescient knowledge of a target on my back because I’m black, a constant, simmering reality check in a country established by verifiable racists, a fact that implicitly carries such deeply embedded emotional and psychological and physiological weight that it can hardly be accounted for, and folks sent images and videos of violent people saying how they hated my blackness. Thanks for sharing!
Twelve days before I downloaded my museum ticket, I’d been part of a group text of predominantly white women in Gainesville who were planning a drinks outing. The date coincided with the white supremacist’s arrival and I wasn’t comfortable being out that night, which doesn’t strike me as unreasonable. Someone chimed in that if the Nazis decided to hang out at the bar, they’d just go home, haha! I typed, “Cheers! Have fun being white!” but deleted it. Another black woman on the thread privately reached out to a handful of white friends who she knew better. Some folks can’t afford to be cavalier about Nazis, she told them—maybe one of you could check this person, even though the black person still has to ask for you to do it.
A woman asked how she could be a better ally. I googled “how to be a better ally” and almost sent the link with its 156 million search results, the first of which was a BuzzFeed piece titled “How to be a better ally: An open letter to white folks.” On this thread of highly educated women, professional badasses in their respective spheres, no one spoke up without being prodded and a lukewarm attempt at allyship revealed a lack of agency in learning about their role in systemic racism. The threat of white supremacy is not always violence. It’s often intellectual laziness and a defiant refusal to be accountable for what privilege can buy—safety among Nazis while you sip your pinot grigio. I lobbed my phone across the room and turned on Black-ish, a family sitcom about a black man who wonders if the cost of his success has been cultural assimilation or erasure. The show is so black, it constantly deals with the threat of whiteness. You see how that works?
In California, I lived in the Bay Area, the central valley, the Inland Empire and Los Angeles and I never once had a black teacher in all my years of public schooling until I got to an interdisciplinary Afro American studies class at UCLA. I’ve worked professionally every year since I was fifteen and I can count on one hand and a couple of fingers, the number of supervisors I’ve had that were not white; even fewer who were black. Throughout my education and most of my jobs, I’m usually one of the only black people in the room, at the table, in the photo, in the audience, on the email list, et cetera. The approved lip color for the cheerleading squad was rarely my shade; I’m the only person on the conference call who is asked to account for my nationality and my “experience.” Weeks before my trip to DC, a wide-eyed white guy touched my hair at the SFA Fall Symposium. He apologized later.
It might sound odd to feel at home in a museum that documents African and domestic slavery in the Americas from the fifteenth century to freedom in the nineteenth, the era of segregation through 1968, and the import of blackness in our modern-day economy, political climate, and arts scenes. I saw a depiction of Thomas Jefferson that places the dichotomy of the Declaration of Independence and his enslaved property side by side. I read classified ads placed by family members desperately in search of loved ones after Emancipation. I marveled at the collected treasures sourced by the museum: a 1950s rural Georgia midwife’s uniform, Funkadelic’s mothership. I watched a brief video that showed how black dance throughout the diaspora evolves from and retains its African roots. Exhibits presented the gestures of a people as a cultural language, layered throughout hundreds of years. It felt like home because this was my story, but it’s also a universal, human one. No other space so clearly articulates how the African American narrative is definitively American. There is no America—in size, strength, skill, or reputation—without us.
Sweet Home Café is educational tool and salve. It’s a break after you’ve finished the freedom exhibit, a precursor to the cultural expressions galleries. In line, people muse over the poster-sized menu detailing a la carte dishes divided by region: fried chicken, collard greens and biscuits in the agricultural South, catfish po’ boys and gumbo in the Creole coast, oyster pan roast and turkey grillades in the Northern states, and braised short rib stew and empanadas with black eyed peas, chanterelles, and corn on the Western range. I chuckled as black people posited whether the barbecue pulled pork looked alright, or if the macaroni and cheese, candied yams, and baked beans were as good as so-and-so’s. I sat at a table with an elderly Alpha Phi Alpha and his wife who said she felt “drained, but happy to be there.” The café diners were another form of exhibition—among many, Africans, black Europeans, white Americans. Open displays of grief, quiet rumination, outbursts of levity. When I walked through the exit it was just after 5:30. I’d been in the building, living and breathing my history for seven hours. I felt seen but not ogled, cared for but not exoticized. I’d been heard and I hadn’t said anything.
Osayi Endolyn is the SFA’s Deputy Editor.