question: Who has the right to tell the African-American story?

It’s Friday afternoon, and the Mall is simmering with camera-toting tourists, lunch-breaking employees, and emaciated joggers. A group of women plants itself on a bench and sparks some cancer sticks, while a weary father grips his nagging son’s arm and gives him an earful: “Dammit, Bobby, I said no!” A few yards away, yellow buses disgorge droves of screeching schoolkids, who are about to tour one of the largest complexes of museums ever assembled. Bright-eyed and laughing, they scan the Mall, trying to decide which museum will be their first victim. They know that from the history of aviation to an impressive collection of cockroaches, the Mall has it all. And it’s expanding. In 1993, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was added nearby, and in the next 10 years a museum dedicated to Native Americans is slated to join the Smithsonian carnival of history and culture.

But as eclectic and comprehensive as the Mall may seem, the monumental narrative offers only the most passing acknowledgement of black Americans. There is a museum of African art joined to the Asian art museum, and black folks pop up here and there in a few exhibits. There are also the security guards, the janitors, and the handful of upper-management types. And then there’s always the homeless man in front of the Smithsonian’s archaic castle who chimes, “That’ll be great—don’t be late,” to the guilt-stricken geeks who drop change into his wrinkled McDonald’s cup. But the stoic museums that line the Mall are virtually crying out for some soul. And if you were to write American history simply based on what you saw here, you might very well conclude that black folk were a minuscule thread in the American tapestry.