Reflections on belonging and a painful symbol of American slavery: Stepping stones

As he walks through the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Master of Divinity student Tatum Miller considers what it means to belong.

Photo by Chuck Givens on Unsplash

What does it mean to truly belong?

I asked myself that question as I stood at the base of a preserved auction block in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

I remember that day almost perfectly. Despite a chilly 55 degrees, Washington, D.C., was bustling, although the bustling had a certain stillness to it. Walking to the museum was a joyful experience due to the beautiful scenery. As I got closer, I could see the building that resembled an African headdress.

Preserved auction block in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.

Curious thoughts swam through my mind. What kinds of things would I see in there? Do they have Kobe’s jersey? But as I began my journey through the museum, I felt as though my very shadow was becoming heavier. The experience started on the bottom level, four floors below the ground, and thoughts about Black triumph vanished as I was confronted with scenes of chattel slavery.

The auction block wasn’t far off, only around the corner to the right of the Civil War exhibit. I sat there, expressionless, picturing my ancestors awaiting their turn to step onto that block.

There was nothing special about this block — it was a normal-looking stone that was big enough for someone to stand on. While I was silent, the auction block screamed.

“You don’t belong here.” And yet, enslaved Black people would be forced repeatedly onto that block to be sold to the highest bidder. Families were torn apart, lives changed forever.

America’s anthropology of Black people painted us as property, justifying every evil act committed against us. Being counted as three-fifths of a person voided “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” outlined in the Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, the voice in my head was right.

We didn’t belong on that auction block.

I’ve come to know that belonging requires two things: hope and love.

In a society that enforces the idea that some people belong more than others, Black people find belonging amongst ourselves within a common struggle. That belonging is reflected in the way we dress, the language we use and the songs we sing. It is reflected in the unspoken acknowledgment between two strangers passing each other on the sidewalk. Though others may not know my name, chances are we can understand each other’s pain. Even though there is suffering, hope still rises.

This hope is loudly proclaimed within the Black church. As Esau McCaulley explains in his new book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, many Black Christians understand the message of scripture as salvation and freedom. There is hope for a better tomorrow because Jesus cares about our souls as well as our bodies. This hermeneutic does not exclude others; rather, it presents an anthropology that sees Black people within the imago Dei. It says our Blackness is beautiful and God sees us as such, pursuing shalom for all people. Ultimately, we find our belonging in Christ above all else.

After a while, I stood. I stood with my feet planted firmly on the ground and my chest out, knowing that the auction block does not decide who belongs. Belonging created by our ancestors rages on still, continuing to create room for the marginalized. As I traveled to the top of the museum, I laid my eyes on Kobe’s 2008 Game 5 jersey. The journey from the basement to the rooftop is marked by pain, but belonging runs through it all.