“Typically,” wrote Edward Rothstein in a 2016 essay in Mosaic, “the contemporary American identity museum tells of a group’s distinctiveness” as well as its “grievous sufferings,” and then concludes by showing how, “by fully embracing its own identity and aggressively affirming its rights, the group begins to undermine the rigid prejudices of the surrounding culture and to attain freedom on its own terms.” The exception, Rothstein argued, are Jewish museums, which inevitably embrace the universal over the particular. To Chloe Valdary, a comparison between the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Jewish museums confirms Rothstein’s thesis—and that’s generally to the former’s credit:
[B]y balancing a focus on the particular with an aspiration toward the American vision of equality and freedom, the DC museum is far more inclusive than one that overstates the virtues of universalism. . . . The National Museum of African American History and Culture should serve as a template and moral vision for others. What we all ought to seek is not universalism but transcendence, which cannot be achieved without honoring the particular. Transcendence cannot come from romanticizing the suffering of a people or by universalizing it—which is ultimately a form of ignoring it.
This is not to say that there is no danger in overdoing a focus on the particular; too much individuality to the exclusion of others leads to atomization and disintegration of the spirit. This is perhaps most strikingly manifested in the Nation of Islam (NOI) exhibit which is included in the museum’s discussion of the religious traditions of black America. NOI’s inclusion isn’t problematic per se—after all, it is part of [African American] history—but NOI’s theology is entirely antithetical to the spirit of the museum.
[Thus] it’s not surprising that the museum makes no mention of the specifics of Muhammad’s teachings. In order to be true to itself though, it ought to be self-critical about this chapter in its history.