Why Being Black in Museums Feels So Uncomfortable

Countless spaces are labeled as ‘Black’ but they’re not entirely ours. How do we reclaim them?

Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

“Why is the African collection on the lowest floor?” I ask a security guard at the British Museum. Every other collection gets sunlight, but Africa is buried underground, hidden beneath the fire exits, accessible only if you want to look for it. The guard tells me it’s probably because the museum acquired this collection last, so instead of building a fourth floor, they dug deeper.

When I visit the National Museum of Scotland I wait for my group of friends to wander off so I can take a picture of the Art of African Metalwork exhibition. As the picture snaps into focus, it hits me: I’m standing in a building built specifically to display art and cultural tokens the British looted during the colonial era, I’m in a Black space compromised by Whiteness, and I feel like shit.

The simultaneous exclusion and exploitation of Blackness in so-called intellectual spaces is a secret we’re all in on. White university professors are often the experts on marginalized peoples. Mostly White-manned, Silicon Valley brands hire social media managers to hijack Black culture for profit. And in museums, Blackness is often categorized under the “history” label, while Whiteness is categorized as “high art” — one that sometimes glamorizes the ownership of Black people.

It’s hard to navigate spaces that so easily appropriate, exploit, and erase any color that doesn’t fit within the tight mold of Whiteness, but that’s just life as a Black person. We talk about the art of being Black in White spaces — the code-switching, the hair-straightening, the unwritten no-sweatpants rule — but what about the art of being Black in Black spaces that Whiteness has compromised? We’re so used to having our spaces tampered with that we don’t always notice they’re not entirely ours. How do you reclaim a space that’s already marketed as yours?

Art historians and museum conservators have discovered colorful paint remnants on Greek and Roman statues for centuries, but many fought hard to keep this secret hidden. Why? Because this discovery puts in jeopardy all the beliefs they hold about the ghostly white marble that characterizes the unique grandeur of Western culture.

The Louvre is one of the most famous museums in the world, so obviously it has a historical reputation for excluding Black art. Imagine what kind of double-take history must have done when The Carters’ music video for “APESHIT” dropped. Black dancers and artists perform, unshackled, through the halls of a former royal residence, overshadowing the White European art. Instead of contemplating art that glorifies objects related to the historical subjugation of Black bodies, Black people’s freedom of movement becomes the art.

The year after “APESHIT” came out, I went to see an exhibition at my local museum in Bordeaux that centered Black people’s freedom of movement and speech, Naming the Money, from Black British artist Lubaina Himid. I encountered 100 life-size painted plywood cutouts of African servants depicted in 17th- and 18th-century European court paintings. Himid removes these protagonists from their painted contexts to give them back their bodies and their original names. The backs of Himid’s protagonists don’t depict the whip scars we’re accustomed to seeing on Black bodies. Instead, Himid uses this space to give them a voice of their own. One text says:

My name is Usikulumi
They call me George
I used to sway to the wind
Now it chills my bones
But I have the spring

Here’s another one:

My name is Thandine
They call me Sally
My jugs were much admired
Now they are smashed to bits
But I remember the shapes

The text on the figures follows this pattern: The figure’s original name, the one imposed on them, their joy and how it was stripped away, and the tragic nature of their resilience. I read all 100 of these texts and could also hear them repeated through the speakers of the museum. My heart ached.

Toward the end of the exhibit, I sat down on the cold floor, my back against a wall, next to a White friend who knows her ancestors were slaves, too. I asked if she was okay; she wasn’t, we both weren’t. But in that moment of generational grief, I couldn’t help but compare myself to her. I imagined how our heritage shapes our lives in similar ways, but also wondered why she gets to suffer as much as I do, if not more, when her Whiteness shields her from the experiences my Blackness can’t escape.

When we left the building I thought about my bizarre entitlement to Black trauma. Was this exhibition really for me? Was it giving me a voice, too? Or was Whiteness already so deeply embedded in the very premise of this work that it’d be hard for me or any other Black person to feel uplifted by it?

I don’t really know the answers to my questions, but here’s what I do know: Bordeaux, my hometown, used to be the second-largest slave-trading port in France, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, a building originally built to store colonial goods like sugar and cotton in transit to Northern Europe, sustained the city’s maritime trade for more than a century after the abolition of the slave trade. Naming the Money reclaimed a space that was complicit in our subjugation by featuring a Black woman’s artwork about Black voices liberated from their oppressors. This is powerful, but it also reminds me of the words of bell hooks about the feminist movement’s unwillingness to confront racism:

Many white women have said to me, “We wanted black women and non-white women to join the movement,” totally unaware of their perception that they somehow “own” the movement, that they are the “hosts” inviting us as “guests.”

Black people have been making art for centuries, why should we have to be invited to showcase our art in White institutions for it to be powerful?

The Carters’ “APESHIT” is special to me because it reflects that tension between the awe of watching Black people strutting in the Louvre, and my indignation of this as the reason it’s awe-inspiring. Beyoncé and Jay-Z are a billionaire couple whose iconic status makes posing in the Louvre just another milestone they can reach with ease. “APESHIT” feels less like Black people reclaimed the Louvre and more like wealthy White people lent their property to wealthy Black people who have exceptional proximity to that which Whiteness covets.

Cultural consumption is closely related to particular forms of inequality, like education, social status, and social class — inequalities that hit Black people the hardest. That’s why most museums make me uncomfortable; I know they were never meant to welcome me, a Black, working-class man. Blackness is the only thing Jay-Z and I share. As aspirational as “APESHIT” is meant to be, his Blackness is so different from my own, there’s no way I can see myself reflected in it.

A still from Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s “APESHIT.” (YouTube)

I was filled with anger the first time I noticed the African collection of the British Museum was underground. I felt like they were giving it less value because of its Blackness — and I have no doubt that I am partly right — but that anger was misplaced. The museum shouldn’t have this collection in the first place.

The British Museum holds 73,000 artifacts from sub-Saharan Africa; France has 90,000; Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa has over 120,000, mostly from the Belgian Congo; and Germany’s Humboldt Forum has 75,000 objects. I’d feel more comfortable in museums if they repatriated these artifacts, but the power dynamic in the long fight for restitution isn’t in our favor. Most museums make me uncomfortable because their very nature facilitates racial and generational trauma. Most of African art history has been curated through slavery, rape, mutilation, murder — the abject crimes that come with colonialism.

When I go to a museum, I am standing in a building that rounds up in one place all the legalized crimes White people have committed against us.

The African collection in the British Museum, the Central African collection in Belgium, and all the other spaces that display looted African art are not Black spaces, they’re just marketed as such for White consumption. I can only think of two ways to reclaim such spaces: restitution or abolition. I have a hard time thinking either of these will happen any time soon, so our only hope is to continue fighting with the resilience we’re known for. For now, maybe I’ll try and channel this Black TikToker’s energy, whose guilty pleasure is to stare at White people in the racist memorabilia section at the Smithsonian. The nature of our resilience might be tragic, but we should try and have fun when we can.

English graduate student and freelance writer based in France. Words at Level, Elemental, Gen, Human Parts, etc. Email: abderemane.m.assad@gmail.com

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