The Smithsonian's new Museum of African American History and Culture is an emotional rollercoaster through time

The new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, which opens to the public on Saturday.

WASHINGTON - Black lives matter indeed, and nowhere is there greater testament to that than at the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opens Saturday.

I previewed it earlier this month, and from the second I laid eyes on the bronze, three-tiered building, with its distinctive Nigerian-inspired design, next to the Washington Monument, I was hyped.

So much to see.

So little time.

High on my must-see list was a slave cabin from South Carolina that had been painstakingly reconstructed and a hymnal that belonged to Harriet Tubman, only one of the baddest sheroes ever. But when I got there during a media preview, I was in a such a celebratory mood, I decided to start with the modern exhibits - Michael Jackson's fedora from his Victory Tour, Chuck Berry's cherry red Cadillac, and other fun stuff.

That's when a museum docent approached and directed me toward a darkened gallery. I glanced in at the dimly lit walls covered with black and white images of historic African Americans and hesitated. It looked way too somber. But the guide explained that the museum, which has four levels below ground and five above, is designed to be toured from the bottom up. So, I allowed myself to be steered down into the dark belly of the museum.

The museum officially starts at the beginning of black life in the Americas - with the 15th century transatlantic slave trade.

Gazing at horrors such as an auction block where human beings were sold like chattel was difficult. At one point, I found myself staring at a pair of slave shackles. Slave shackles! They're next to a statue of Thomas Jefferson, America's third president and a wealthy slave owner. Instead of treating the statue of Jefferson and the shackles as separate entities, the museum deftly weaves the exhibits together, pointing out, "Jefferson understood that enslaved African Americans produced his wealth and provided him the leisure to read, write and govern. Slavery was woven into his daily life, as were its contradictions. Like many other slaveholders, Jefferson owned his own children."

Oh, snap!

That's not the kind of slant I'm used to seeing in museums paying homage to one of America's esteemed founding fathers.

Next, I found myself gazing at a hymnal that once belonged to Tubman and had been donated by the noted historian Charles L. Blockson. It's in a glass case with the slave-turned-abolitionist's white silk lace shawl, given to her by Queen Victoria.

There's just so much to see - a copy of rebel slave Nat Turner's Bible; freedom papers carried by a former slave; and the aforementioned slave cabin, among numerous attractions.

I was wandering around when I happened across an exhibit dedicated to segregation that holds an actual counter stool from the Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. I stared at the cracked blue leather on the seat. It looked so benign. But how many black college students had gotten their heads bashed in for trying to sit on it?

In another portion of the gallery, an older woman yelled out and appeared agitated as she gazed at an exhibit. I wandered over and immediately understood why.

Inside a glass case, there was a sinister-looking hood once worn by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Right next to it, photos of black men swinging from trees. I was all worked up. Seething, actually.

Nearby, an interactive exhibit offered up what-would-you-do quizzes on various dilemmas faced by civil rights workers. As I participated, I was asked what I would do if an angry mob chased me as I desegregated a white-only school. I hit the tab indicating that I would fight back. It was the wrong answer. Humph.

There was lots more - displays about President Obama's presidential campaigns as well as imagery from the Black Lives Matter Movement against police brutality. Heading up an exit ramp, I was confronted by a bright, over-size image of Obama taking the oath of office at the beginning of his second term. It was a triumphant end to three concourses of darkness.

As I gazed at it, the words of Maya Angelou reverberated through my soul: "Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave . . . I am the dream and the hope of the slave."

Time for a break

The museum's Sweet Home Cafe goes way beyond what we typically think of as soul food by serving African American-influenced cuisine from four regions - the North States, Creole Coast, Agricultural South, and Western Range.

Since the shortest line was at the North section, that's where I went for smoked haddock, a corn croquet, Gribiche sauce, brown bread, and Yankee baked beans.

A worker also served me a dish made in honor of Thomas Downing, a free black man born in 1791 who owned a renowned oyster restaurant in New York City, where he not only catered to white aristocracy in its plush dining room but hid runaway slaves in its cellar.

Dessert was, what else? Sweet potato pie. Don't judge me, but I also had a red velvet cupcake and some old-fashioned berry cobbler. As I ate, I faced a giant image of a vintage photo featuring male college students at a lunch counter sit-in. The protesters are looking over their shoulders at diners, almost as if to say, We made it possible for black Americans to be served at lunch counters or in any restaurant they choose.

I really wanted to try the shrimp and grits from the Creole Coast or maybe a bean empanada from the Western Range. But there was so much more left to see.

Looking up

The community gallery on the third floor is well done, with exhibits on popular Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, where affluent African Americans have flocked for decades. (Note to self: Win the lottery and buy a house there.) Another exhibit tells the tragic story of Tulsa's famed Black Wall Street and the violent race riots of 1921 that destroyed it. The gallery covers a whole lot of territory - from the South Carolina rice fields to the Bronx.

I didn't spend a lot of time with sports. I was nearly past the saturation point. But I did snap a photo of the statues of Venus and Serena Williams grinning rather garishly, and of John Carlos and Tommie Smith from the 1968 Summer Olympics doing the black power salute. A display case features an impossibly tiny uniform worn by Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas; a case full of medals won by Olympian Carl Lewis; and a white terrycloth robe worn by Muhammad Ali.

I was almost out of time, and there was still the jewel of the museum to see - the fourth floor. If the lower levels were mostly dark and sober, the fourth floor was the opposite. The vibe was colorful and exciting. Everywhere there was something important to see. One stop was a long-sleeve print dress made by civil rights icon Rosa Parks. She worked on it the day she was arrested, never dreaming that she was about to be thrown in jail after refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. In the music gallery, I went from watching an old video of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson singing His Eye Is on the Sparrow to snickering at a rainbow-colored knickers outfit worn by a 1970s-era dancer on Soul Train.

 

Just when I thought I had seen it all, I spotted Parliament-Funkadelic's Mothership, which used to fly over concertgoers in the 1970s and 1980s. Remembering how George Clinton would climb out of the spacecraft made me laugh out loud. I was done.

I also was amazed to see a section on cultural gestures unique to African Americans, such as the dap style of handshake greeting popular in black communities in the 1970s. (I had no idea that American troops stationed in Vietnam had brought this nonspoken form of communication home with them.) I read about the nod - that silent acknowledgment black males give each other that takes the place of saying hello in certain situations. I rolled my eyes, though, when I spotted a photo of reality TV star NeNe Leakes of Bravo's Real Housewives of Atlanta, who's known for throwing "shade." Translation: attitude. But, as I said, this museum has a little bit of something for everybody.

@JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

armstrj@phillynews.com