NEARLY ONE YEAR AGO TODAY, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opened to popular excitement and critical acclaim, joining the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), inaugurated in 2004, as one of the only racially specific institutions on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Both museums, especially when considered against the dearth of official engagements with black and Native histories, offer vivid testimony to the artifacts, cultures, and struggles of the peoples on which they focus. Yet their presence also raises vital questions about such national projects—Who, ultimately, are they “for,” given what they are museums “of”?—in an era that has witnessed the rise of Black Lives Matter in response to police violence, and ongoing contestations over Native sovereignty and environmental justice at Standing Rock. To take stock of these tensions, art historian and Artforum contributing editor HUEY COPELAND joined theorist FRANK B. WILDERSON III—author of the influential Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms (2010)—in a candid conversation about the structural logics shaping both museums, in which these scholars at once echo and extend their long-standing dialogue about radical approaches to contemporary culture.

Slave shackles, pre-1860. From “Slavery and Freedom,” 2016–26, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC.

HUEY COPELAND: These two museums are prominently placed on the Mall, among the other museums representing national culture, and much has been made of the “inclusiveness” of those gestures. The National Museum of African American History and Culture, for starters, enacts a particular spatial intervention, whose semiotics aren’t subtle: As many have noted, it’s a big, beautiful brown thing interrupting a series of white-marble buildings. The National Museum of the American Indian, on the other hand, doesn’t offer much chromatic contrast. But the undulating lines, unlike the rectilinear structures of most other buildings on the Mall, are almost aerodynamic, so your gaze travels over the surface and keeps on going.

Inside, the spatial logics of each institution are even more divergent, and I think these differences speak volumes about the questions you and I are engaging today. What’s striking when you go into the NMAI is that if you start at the top floor, there is a wonderful multiplicity of pathways before you. The institution really tries to represent a wide, if not exhaustive, range of tribal identities and histories that then come together when you get to the current exhibition about treaties with the US government [“Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations”]. There’s a respect for these tribes and their many internal distinctions as peoples, who each have a relationship, a claim, to a particular land. In fact, one of the first things you see when you enter the building is a sign reading WELCOME TO NATIVE AMERICA. That is, of course, a kind of fiction, but it’s about claiming the space of this museum as a land that belongs to peoples who have a right to it and a right to be recognized as such, even if the exercise of those rights is more limited beyond the museum’s walls.

Now, the NMAAHC’s logic of display is, more or less, about a voyage toward personhood and “culture”—or the ruse of that narrative. You start in the basement with slavery and you move upward from there in a path that spirals up to Oprah and Obama. So it’s a teleological movement—from slavery to personhood to presidency—that is effectively cleaved from actual history. This narrative allows you to blithely think that a certain kind of historical project has been achieved, when the black body continues to be anything but a person, continues to be this thing that can be murdered, violated, appropriated, reified, and repurposed for any reason whatsoever. And that logic—perhaps more subconsciously than anything else—continues to inform the displays in the “Community” and “Culture” galleries, which are, in one sense, completely about the commodification of black bodies: whether in the sports section, where you have gleaming silver statues of the Williams sisters and the space feels like a Foot Locker, or the music section, which took me back to the days of the Sam Goody record store (but where, amazingly, the museum has given P-Funk’s Mothershippride of place). In both instances, you’re engaging with these incredible artifacts and histories, but in galleries that resemble tricked-out spaces of consumption—that package blackness in forms that we’re already comfortable consuming under the guise of expressions of personal or collective achievement, as opposed to revealing that such expressions are always tied to a broader logic of commodification that would deny both black personhood and collectivity altogether.

What do these differences mean now, and what are we to make of these particular institutions devoted to American Indian and African American history and culture in relation to the ongoing project of settler colonialism—in which foreigners variously invade, conquer, and subjugate indigenous lands and populations so that they might be remade in an imperial image? What are the ramifications not only for the reproduction of the American nation-state but also for a larger global order whose power relations are equally structured by the logic of antiblackness?

FRANK WILDERSON: That’s the big question, and the important one. The NMAAHC reminds me of growing up in the ’60s and ’70s when blaxploitation came up. You knew that it was blaxploitation, that it was an exploitation of the most racist stereotypes, but just seeing black characters on the screen was so joyful that you went to every single movie.

HC: [Laughter.] Even if you were depicted as a pimp or a prostitute in every scene!

FW: Exactly. The words to the song “Superfly” made no difference. Superfly’s “hustle was wrong,” as Curtis Mayfield sang, but it didn’t matter. We let ourselves be deluded into conceiving of blaxploitation as genuine recognition and incorporation, since we hadn’t had that for so long in film. Now, I don’t want to demonize the NMAAHC in the way that one might demonize blaxploitation. On the other hand, I do want to say that it’s interesting that on day one, there’s a five-block-long line of people waiting to get in, and the majority are black. The audience was not diverse. And yet when the museum’s leadership, the director and architects, talk about its inspiration and its mission, inclusiveness is the buzzword that is constantly invoked.

The Treaty of Canandaigua, signed by the Grand Council of the Six Nations and George Washington, 1794. From “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations,” 2014–21, National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC.

HC: Especially with the liberal narratives of progress that surround the NMAAHC.

FW: There’s an expectation that the NMAAHC is going to start a national conversation about race or be a major contributor to one. The other expectation is that, yes, the museum is about blacks, but it’s really for everyone. This is really different from the NMAI, which is about Native people and for Native people, as well as everyone else. A sign saying WELCOME TO BLACK AMERICA at the entrance of the NMAAHC would be a scandal. But WELCOME TO NATIVE AMERICA is not a (mainstream) scandal. You cannot be black, Frantz Fanon reminds us, with impunity.

So the narratives of racial “inclusion” and black social “progress” that the NMAAHC deploys are symptoms of what Jared Sexton calls “the anxiety of antagonism”: There’s always an anxiety about whether there’s a place for blacks and the kind of poison pill that we represent in the national psyche. Because unlike the Native American, the black American’s (or the slave’s) paradigm of subjugation is total—it’s the usurpation of subjectivity that is at the core of black subjugation, rather than the usurpation of land (for the Indian) or labor power (for the worker). For the slave, there is no surplus value to be restored to the time of labor. And no treaties between blacks and the government are in Washington waiting to be signed or ratified. Unlike the settler in the Native American political imagination, there is no place like Europe to which blacks or slaves can send our antagonists back. Humanity itself is the antagonist of the slave. That’s a much more systemic problem. Which is why I call blackness a poison pill. What do you do with a group of people against whom the whole world is at war? Mainstream institutions of representation, no matter how liberal, aren’t willing to wallow in this contradiction. So the museum suddenly has to do two things. It has to elaborate and illustrate and represent black achievements. But it’s also got to make the rest of the world feel safe. And yet, in fact, these are distinctly different projects.

HC: Yes!

FW: To take a line out of your book Bound to Appear [2013]: “While these interventions reflect a dramatic social and political sea change on the level of representation—emblematized by the US Senate’s woefully belated June 18, 2009, apology for slavery—the lasting import of rhetorical returns to the ‘peculiar institution’ remains to be seen: revolution on the ground, let alone reparation to the national fabric, has never seemed less tenable.”

I think that’s incredibly relevant, because here we have this $540 million museum with $270 million coming from the state, $21 million coming from Oprah, and more from other private sources. This is a dramatic change at the level of representation. But the fact that “reparation to the national fabric has never seemed less tenable” is the real context of the NMAAHC’s emergence.

HC: Still, when I went to the museum, I was amazed at the sense of a space of black gathering and engagement, where all kinds of real talk—articulations that might be at cross-purposes with the stated ambitions of the museum—could take place. Let alone the wonder of seeing all those black folks together. The possibility of a kind of alternative gathering, of what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney have so brilliantly theorized as an “undercommons,” was there. This struck me, too, because the first time I went to the museum, I waited in line for day-of tickets—I didn’t get in—and the conversations taking place with other folks queuing up, with the vendors hawking Michelle Obama tote bags, were energizing and sobering and revelatory in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated.

So for me, the spectacle of all of us coming together around this space was just as interesting as what the museum was offering up—particularly knowing that that audience itself had the possibility to do something else with its collectivity, something that the museum might not countenance or even imagine. It’s those kinds of gatherings or spaces that are actually incredibly important and valuable. Because of course we know that, structurally and historically, the place of blacks is no place, right? So with these crowds and this moment—this pause—there is a site of gathering where we can make a place of and for blackness, of and for our relationships to one another, of and for the kinds of possibility that might emerge elsewhere.

FW: To even see the shell of accommodation of different constituents, of engagements—that means something different happened in the space that day. It’s encouraging that you had that experience.

And, of course, I know the kind of narrative that circles around this period from 2003, when George W. Bush signs the legislation for the museum’s creation, until 2016, when Barack Obama says on opening day, “We’re not a burden on America, or a stain on America, or an object of pity or charity for America.” I understand you can’t actually do anything with big dollars without that kind of packaging, in which the history of African Americans is made palatable, unthreatening, and a conduit for “inclusion.”

But it’s my job and your job as critical theorists to join in with the black joy but also to be the skeptics.

View of “Slavery and Freedom,” 2016–26, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC. Photo: Eric Long.

HC: Agreed—and if I could backtrack a little: I don’t think your blaxploitation comparison demonizes the NMAAHC. I think it’s brilliant and useful, because it points to the question, Who is speaking, and for what?, which we as skeptics always need to ask. In that regard, and I don’t want to overstate the difference, maybe the NMAI broaches these issues more self-reflexively—a bit more skeptically—than the NMAAHC because of its particular history. Both at the NMAI and in the discourse that has emerged around it, there is a consistent engagement with the complexities of questions like: What does it mean to put forward a Native museology? How do you build a museum that is not always already part of a colonial project? And how do you imagine this institution as one that can make space for and entertain something radically decolonial, that has an antagonistic relationship to the nation-state? If the real potential of these museums is as spaces for the activation of alternative kinds of knowledge, ontology, and community—and for the kinds of speaking, the kinds of conversation, that can transpire in such spaces—then I think you see this more strongly worked through at the NMAI, where there are rooms that seem visibly off-limits to non-Native visitors, since they are earmarked for indigenous-community gatherings. There is an intimation of spaces for autonomy and contestation, for which the museum becomes a platform.

At the NMAAHC, by contrast, while there are institutional frames for black engagement, it’s harder to find places where the “speaker” is not an archetypal liberal (though I don’t mean to demonize those, either) who steadfastly pretends that if we can just get inclusive enough, such questions will answer themselves or won’t even need to be asked. I think the liberal rhetoric that you hear from the lead architect, David Adjaye, is one that has to speak not only to a certain kind of accommodationist nationalist narrative—accompanied by a belief that all differences can eventually be incorporated into a seamless fabric—but also to corporate interests. And that means, echoing Sexton’s anxiety of antagonism, that the rhetoric of both of these institutions necessarily trades in a certain refusal, an antagonism toward historical fact. So at the NMAI, even if in some respects the presentation is less accommodationist, the museum, as critics like Sonya Atalay and Jennifer A. Shannon have argued, still trades in the language of “conflict” as opposed to “genocide.” And the NMAAHC talks about the “uneven” history of black people in America, as opposed to the rapacious, ongoing extraction of value from black bodies.

Such antiantagonistic language allows the museums to bring a national project in line with the corporate interests that want to continue the extraction of value from black bodies and Native lands. Even when you see the contemporaneity of these processes, you cannot ignore the branding: At the NMAAHC, there’s the Oprah Winfrey Theater, and the NMAI is partly sponsored by the Harrah’s Foundation, of casino fame. These are the economic possibilities that the institutions rely on, implicitly testifying to models of black success or corporate collaboration with Native communities as ways forward. These are the economic possibilities that the institutions respectively pose as open to these populations, giving evidence of models of black success or corporate collaboration with Native communities as ways forward. The question is, then, Are these merely representational bandages that cover over the ongoing reproduction of the economies of power and extraction of which slavery and genocide are only the most extreme instantiations?

Because even at the moment that these economies and histories are somehow supposed to be reckoned with, they risk being all the more firmly suppressed. One of the first things you see in the NMAAHC, for instance, is a wall label that says, “Objects define a museum.” And I thought, “Really?!” What does it mean, given the history of black people as objects of property themselves, to say that material remains define a museum, especially since so much of black culture—to say nothing of black peoples—is literally and figuratively lost? How might we think about those terms differently, in working toward a radical museology that reckons with, rather than sidesteps, the imbrication of museum cultures in the maintenance and reproduction of antiblack ideologies?

Now, the NMAI is trying to create narratives that are hemispheric and tribal—reaching across North and South, East and West—as opposed to national. The museum resists the nation-state as a frame, even though that’s ultimately the container the institution is in. And it gestures toward a larger diasporic economy—about the movement and exchange of indigenous peoples—that also characterizes how the NMAAHC has aimed to address the ways in which blackness is produced and circulated globally. But at the end of the day, those possibilities aren’t fully explored in order to think about what this kind of black institution would have to be to generate narratives that go against the status quo and that, at least potentially, have politically liberatory effects—because the museum would have to be radically, deeply other to itself in order to do so.

FW: It couldn’t get funded if it were radically, deeply other to itself.

HC: [Laughter.] Right?! And as scholars like LeRonn P. Brooks have shown, the very contested histories of the NMAAHC, of how it came to be, are themselves accounts of how structural racism continues to unfold and reproduce itself.

But within the museum, aside from a few vitrines at the outset, there isn’t a unified effort to tell us how the objects and materials at the NMAAHC have arrived there, whether through theft or donation or other forms of “acquisition.” While there are many opportunities to mark these larger social processes in relationship to objects, those systemic inequities and structures of violence are not consistently staged or taken up, because to do so would be to confront people with the persistence of those structures in the present—as opposed to safely sealing them within a container that is now consumable as “history,” which, strangely enough in a black museum, is spatially bifurcated from “culture.”

FW: Consumable history to be consumed as spectacle, at that. But you also have something else at the NMAI, which could start creating alternate spaces, rooms that are off-limits to nonmembers, so to speak. The sense that these are people, and that there are going to be spaces for them as a people, is a major part of the libidinal economy, which is constantly being repressed or disavowed in putatively black spaces where the project pretends to be a celebration of black personhood.

In other words, the NMAAHC functions at the level of spectacle; the NMAI functions via articulation, through exchanges and transfers and treaties, even if those articulations end up in conflict and genocide. Articulation does not happen between masters and slaves. But articulation is the essential modality of the settler-native conflict.

HC: Yes.

Shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria, ca. 1897. From “Slavery and Freedom,” 2016–26, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC.

FW: I’m not saying, “Hey, recognize me as a person”—I don’t think that’s actually possible. I think that personhood can only be coherent because blackness exists as a foil to that coherence.

I think that from birth to death, we go through a kind of madness that is different for all kinds of black people. But we go through life knowing there’s no place in which our blackness belongs. “Black America,” even as a metaphor, is a contradiction in terms. Lincoln said this when he wanted freed slaves to colonize Central America and Liberia. What we need in a black museum is the space to talk about that dynamic: the comprehensive psychic and material isolation we’ve been subjected to even in stories and exhibitions about our struggles! Instead, we have the extremely violent hydraulics of our history disavowed and repressed in the NMAAHC. So when Adjaye says, “For me, it has always been about creating a museum that has a specific narrative alongside a universal message,” well, boom, there we are: dead in the water! And we didn’t even have to get on Lincoln’s boat to Belize.

It’s unfortunate that we’re having this conversation after the fact, that we don’t have a room in “our” museum to talk about these issues, let alone produce a conceptual framework. This is precisely the crowding-out scenario that I call anger management. It’s part of a disciplinary project of structural racism, and sometimes it appears in blackface.

For example, I’m thinking of that teleological movement, of the NMAAHC trajectory you brilliantly outlined at the beginning: from slavery up to personhood and Obama. This is a telos of progress that the facts don’t support. I would hope for a place where we could confront the enigma of blackness, could actually critique telos itself. Then, instead of succumbing to the anxiety of antagonism and using blacks to represent the same human capacity from which we’re barred, ab initio, we could think, collectively, about what is ignored when a time line of progress is imposed on a group of sentient beings whose temporal capacity is not recognized or incorporated in the collective unconscious of the world. The world doesn’t recognize the time of black dispossession; the world doesn’t accept that blackness possessed a prior plenitude (a state of being a human subject) before slaves were made of us. Whereas a prior plenitude for Native Americans (land, custom, culture, and, above all, sovereignty) is something both genociders and the indigenous genocided can agree on.

Black dispossession is a snarl, because the libidinal economy doesn’t have the means to know it, since its victim is the thing against which humans define themselves and not, like the Indian, a degraded form of humanity that is human nonetheless. But it is also because of the terror of looking the absence of subjectivity in the face, as opposed to the dispossession of aspects of subjectivity. The latter, the history of Native peoples, is a form of narrative plenitude; the arrival of the colonizer is the dispossession of this prior plenitude. The return of Turtle Island to its rightful occupants would be the third movement in that narrative progression—the restoration of plenitude.

What is not being considered is the idea, which you and I and others have written about, that blackness does not have a prior plenitude that can be disimbricated from slavery, in the way that indigeneity has a prior plenitude that can, in fact, be disimbricated from colonialism. And yet we don’t have space in our museum for that to find expression in words and images. It’s the dilemma, or the trauma, of the kind of structural violence that doesn’t have a prior plenitude that occupies the psyche of every single black person moving through that museum—but they’ve got to put that trauma on lockdown to engage the museum. Or, as you’ve said, they have to find a trickster or counter way of engaging it—to use masks, in the way that black people would mask voodoo deities with Roman Catholic saints.

HC: I love that. I think one of the many aspects of the NMAAHC that speaks to this problem—to this desire for a respectable teleological narrative—and to questions of perpetuity and recursiveness is the way in which there’s no comprehensive framing of black desire and black perversity, let alone LGBTQI questions, within the museum. It’s, “Oh, here’s James Baldwin, here’s Bayard Rustin, here’s Audre Lorde, they were important (and gay),” as opposed to thinking about what it would mean to foreground the importance of LGBTQI subjects and subject positions to black freedoms and struggles; or thinking about the ways in which the victimization of that population continues to elucidate the ongoing threat to black bodies from all kinds of violence—structural, medical, you name it. But to confront black desire would demand an understanding of blackness itself as something that’s necessarily perverse, that enables the contestation of any institutional or categorical imperative, and that, as Cedric Robinson so famously noted, is part and parcel of a thoroughgoing critique of Western civilization. We have to put pressure on all forms of representation and whom we think we are in fact representing, or think can be represented, in a given frame. And that would mean challenging linear narratives of progress and respectability, and instead conceiving of a black or queer approach to the unfolding of history from the bottom up.

FW: It’s building on the idea that blackness can be nothing but queerness. In other words, the heteronormative stability of filiation is linked to the limitless and unnamable sexual violence we have been subjected to since day one (389,000 slaves were bred like cattle into four million slaves in less than two generations), which makes any pretense of a heteronormative blackness untenable and unethical.

HC: Then what do we do with this museum? What would it mean to imagine alternative spaces or modes of thinking both within and beyond the museum?

FW: That’s heavy. What do you think?

HC: I think that for a number of folks associated with an Afro-pessimist or black radical position, it is nearly impossible to represent, say, slavery in ways that fundamentally differ from the tropes we’ve already got. So what would it mean to create spaces that are not beholden to the work of narrative, explanation, cultural justification, or black respectability? Spaces where we can plot the possibilities of the truly revolutionary and the radically decolonial?

Continental Army private Prince Simbo’s powder horn, 1777. From “Slavery and Freedom,” 2016–26, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC.

FW: That would be a very vibrant space for black people, and a very dangerous space for everyone else. [Laughter.]

If we actually had that kind of sanctioned space, it would mean that everyone else would have to acknowledge that the regime of violence that saturates blackness does not have a corollary or cannot be reconciled with the regime of violence that saturates Native American history. And then they have to go one step further, and say that the telos of “We shall overcome,” which many black people live by, has to recognize that the narrative form that allows other oppressed groups’ struggle stories to be told is dependent on the fact that blackness cannot tell that struggle story: because, again, there is no prior plenitude that precedes our struggle, unlike with the semiotics of colonial struggle and violence. In part, because colonial violence has characteristics that are adjacent to other forms of violence. Colonial violence is adjacent to the violence of capitalism in the same way that the word cat acquires meaning because of its adjacency to tiger and leopard.

But the ultimate meaning of colonial violence is not found in what’s adjacent to it, but in what it is not. Its opposition is to the regime of violence that subjugates blackness, and this is what Orlando Patterson articulates in Slavery and Social Death [1982], where he says that every structure of domination needs an ocean of violence to get it kick-started. It takes an ocean of violence over two hundred years to convert people into workers, to discipline them into temporalities that are new and more constricting—and to have them imagine their lives within those constraints: urbanization, mechanization, factories.It takes an ocean of violence to produce the position of the “Indian.” Once the system of domination is set up, then the violence goes into remission, and only rears its ugly head again when the people who have assumed their positions start to rebel against the hegemonic constraints.

But, Patterson says, slavery operates according to a completely different logic of violence. It takes an ocean of violence to produce a slave, singular or plural, but that violence never goes into remission. The prehistory of violence that establishes slavery is also the ongoing, concurrent history of slavery once it is established. And that blows your mind. What it means is that you can’t make sense out of police killings the way a proletarian or a Native person can. The murder of black people has to be explained less through Marx and more through the work of a Sexton or a David Marriott or a Saidiya Hartman on libidinal economy. Because what the murders of black folks do is produce community for people who aren’t black; it’s a mode of pleasure and an anchor for coherence. One can look at the regime of violence that subjugates blacks and say, “If I am submitted to that kind of violence, it really won’t be that kind of violence because it will come with a reason, whereas for blacks, it is always prelogical.” Baldwin, as he’s nearing death, says it all in The Evidence of Things Not Seen [1985]: Murdering our children is what it means to be a nation. Few of us, during our so-called productive years, are able to be that honest; we keep looking for a telos, we keep trying to shield ourselves from genealogical isolation by drawing analogies between our suffering and that of, say, Native peoples—knowing, if only in our preconscious, that our regimes of violence are not alike.

HC: It’s worth remembering that while there’s a lot of time, money, labor, and attention invested in these particular buildings—these monuments, these physical, material manifestations—such formations are always haunted by theft and death. (And the ongoing threats of both, which the recent discoveries of nooses left in the NMAAHC have soberly underlined.) But it is heartening, in a way, that even as it forwards a particular vision of black experience that inspires both racial hate and celebration, the NMAAHC has still become a gathering place and a spur for alternative readings. And the museum has arrived at almost the same time as the emergence of new forms in politics, like Black Lives Matter, and art, like Theaster Gates and Eliza Myrie’s Black Artists Retreat, both of which are precisely about creating spaces of quasi autonomy where black folks can talk real to one another without the explicit imposition of some kind of respectability for an outside audience, where the plotting of new possibilities can unfold. So perhaps the most interesting places to look, aesthetically and politically, are these more ephemeral formations of people—which are just as materially rich as museums of things—because they are premised on the desires of actual, living, breathing black bodies, as opposed to our inevitable fate as the corpses on which institutions, regardless of their color, continue to be built.

Huey Copeland is an associate professor of art history at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and a contributing editor of Artforum.

Frank B. Wilderson III is a professor in the department of African American studies at University of California, Irvine.

Visit our archive to read Jared Sexton’s essay “Radical Will: The Year in Race” (December 2013).