Throughout elementary and middle school, I learned about the basic story of slavery in history classes: moving from the slave trade, to slavery in the US, to emancipation with the Civil War. In high school, this understanding became more sophisticated, learning about the politics and nuances of each notable event. However, my understanding of this side of US History was completely transformed this past weekend with our DukeEngage cohort’s trip to the African American History Museum.
Growing up in California, it was really easy to feel really distant from these topics. While issues of racism would still arise as with any other place in the US, the clear-cut reminders of slavery were missing. I never grew up with in places where this history and this context actually existed, so my mind isolated these issues to the East Coast. As a result, I knew what slavery was and why it was bad, but I never was able to fully conceptualize its impact on real peoples’ lives until this experience. With graphic images of lynching, anecdotes of horror stories from slaves and their families, physical tools that were used to subjugate human beings, and poignant tributes to the massive injustices many slaves faced, this experience in the museum suddenly made my understanding of these issues extremely tangible and real. I had never truly felt history in such a personal way, and, like for many other people in our cohort, this was a deeply emotional experience that made me really reflect on my own life and my society.
Though it was hard, this was by far my most memorable and impactful experience in a museum. However, more importantly, this experience left me with a lot to think about after I walked away. First, I immediately began to think of my own place in society, understanding my role, my experience, and my interactions. Understanding my place of privilege, not having faced the harsh effects of slavery and racism that many still feel today, I felt an immediate responsibility to actively partake in efforts to dismantle racism in the communities that I live in. While this was always an important issue to me, this experience redefined these thoughts as a more tangible, necessary goal in my life with the way I treat others and the ideals I promote in my community. Additionally, with obvious connections to the policy-oriented nature of our program, there are connections to politics and history, with an even more pressing need to push policy in a just way for true societal change. Personally, this pushes me even more to be civically engaged and politically responsible, with general themes to consider in my career as well.
Beyond this, one of the biggest takeaways for me was the role of narrative. From the very first day of the program, Professor Williams would always ask us to consider the role of narrative. He encouraged us to see that narrative really frames the way society engages with issues, defining what questions are asked, whose stories are told, and what action needs to be taken. While it took some time to see, this experience really solidified these concepts in my mind. The museum was able to display voices I was never able to hear in ways I never knew about, answering questions I never knew could be asked. Going beyond the tailored, carefully-curated narrative we hear in school, this experience really showed me the impact of asking questions on all sides of an issue and how these change the whole conception of the issue. Despite having already-strong personal feelings on issues of race relations, this experience built those thoughts and feelings even more, in a way that will impact the way I look at the world for the rest of my life.
Finally, this experience only built upon the most important lesson of this entire summer: no matter how old you are, what you know and believe, and what issues you’re involved in, every single person has an important responsibility to always keep learning. This experience showed me a lot of things that I really never properly engaged with, showing me how lacking my knowledge base was. Additionally, this just reinforced lessons from every experience this summer, pushing me to always keep asking questions and learning to consider all answers, even those I don’t agree with. To me, this is truly a skill I hope to improve, allowing me to more properly engage with issues that are important to me.
Overall, this experience was a great culmination to a summer full of asking questions, learning, and engaging. I’m extremely thankful to DukeEngage for allowing us to experience these opportunities, with many avenues for group reflection. Things I learned from this program are mindsets that will benefit me for the rest of my life.