In A Fool’s Errand (Smithsonian, 2019), Lonnie Bunch shares the vision and leadership he brought to the realization of the National Museum of African American History and Culture—a dream shared by many generations of Americans. Bunch’s deeply personal story reveals the triumphs and challenges of bringing the museum to life and taps into broader questions of the role of race in America—past, present, and future. In this program, he engaged in a conversation with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates to discuss the significance and impact of the museum at a time when the nation is grappling with so many divisive political and cultural issues.
Copies of A Fool’s Errand will be available for purchase at the event. Each purchase includes a bookplate custom-designed by the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Presented by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology in collaboration with the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research
About the Speakers
Lonnie G. Bunch III, Secretary, Smithsonian Institution
Lonnie G. Bunch III is the fourteenth Secretary of the Smithsonian. He assumed his position on June 16, 2019. As Secretary, he oversees nineteen museums, twenty-one libraries, the National Zoo, numerous research centers, and several education units and centers. Previously, Bunch was the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum has welcomed more than five million visitors since it opened in September 2016 and has compiled a collection of 40,000 objects that are housed in the first “green building” on the National Mall. The nearly 400,000-square-foot National Museum of African American History and Culture is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting, and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history. A prolific and widely published author, Bunch has written on topics ranging from the black military experience, the American presidency, and all-black towns in the American West to diversity in museum management and the impact of funding and politics on American museums. He has served on the advisory boards of the American Association of Museums and the American Association for State and Local History. In 2005, Bunch was named one of the 100 Most Influential Museum Professionals of the 20th Century by the American Alliance of Museums. Born in the Newark, New Jersey, area, Bunch has held numerous teaching positions at universities across the country.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. , Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director, Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University
Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has authored or co-authored twenty-four books and created twenty documentary films, including Wonders of the African World, African American Lives, Faces of America, Black in Latin America, Black America since MLK: And Still I Rise, Africa’s Great Civilizations, and Finding Your Roots, his groundbreaking genealogy series now in its fifth season on PBS. His six-part PBS documentary series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross (2013), which he wrote, executive produced, and hosted, earned the Emmy Award for Outstanding Historical Program—Long Form, as well as the Peabody Award, the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, and an NAACP Image Award. Professor Gates’s latest project is the history series, Reconstruction: America after the Civil War (PBS, 2019), and the related books, Dark Sky Rising: Reconstruction and the Dawn of Jim Crow, with Tonya Bolden (Scholastic, 2019), and Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow (Penguin Random House, 2019).
Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture
[00:00:07.78] Now, it's my great honor to introduce our speakers, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, and Dr. Lonnie Bunch, the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, the world's largest museum complex.
[00:00:30.43] Now, Professor Gates and Dr. Bunch have many things in common. They have both enjoyed working in spaces designed by David Adjaye. Both are institution builders with a broad public mission to advance the study and appreciation of African-American history. Both are passionate collectors and curators of historical objects.
[00:00:51.94] Both are intellectual descendants of W. E. B. Du Bois and are keen to connect his legacy to the work of our time. And both have tackled the epic challenge of telling the whole story of African-American history. Professor Gates, in his Emmy Award PBS series, Many Rivers to Cross, and of course, Secretary Bunch, as the founding director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
[00:01:19.57] To say just a little more about both of these extraordinary individuals, Professor Gates is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist cultural critic, and institution builder, who has authored or co-authored 24 books and created 20 documentary films, including Finding Your Roots, his groundbreaking genealogy series now in its fifth season on PBS. His latest project is the history series Reconstruction, America After the Civil War, released earlier this year on PBS.
[00:01:54.58] He has also published two related books, Dark Sky Rising, Reconstruction and the Dawn of Jim Crow with Tonya Bolden, and Stony the Road; Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow.
[00:02:09.57] Dr. Bunch is one of the nation's leading figures in the Historical Museum community and the first African-American to lead the Smithsonian Institution. And just yesterday, he is also one of the 2019 recipients of the W. E. B. Du Bois Medal. This medal is awarded by Harvard's Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research, and it is an honor bestowed on those individuals who have made significant contributions to African and African-American history and culture.
[00:02:42.42] Dr. Bunch's accomplishments are many and I could spend the whole evening sharing them, but instead, we have a wonderful video which tells his story, and we are going to share it now.
[00:02:55.14] [VIDEO PLAYBACK]
[00:02:59.26] - Creating this museum gives us a chance to make manifest the dreams of many generations.
[00:03:09.84] We call the lost dream back.
[00:03:16.74] - This is a milestone moment, not only for the Smithsonian, but for the United States.
[00:03:25.69] - The goal of the museum is to make America better, provide opportunities for us to be made better by the past, and for us to move towards a future where race will always matter. They will find that those ideals are only met through sacrifice and struggle, and belief in a better day.
[00:04:07.33] [MUSIC - PATTI LABELLE, "A CHANGE IS GONNA COME"]
[00:04:07.83] - I was born, ooh, by the river.
[00:04:16.29] - This place is more than a building. It is a dream come true.
[00:04:21.57] - History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived.
[00:04:29.31] - And by knowing this other story, we better understand ourselves and each other. I, too, am American.
[00:04:38.37] - I do want to give a shout-out to Lonnie. It's really important to understand this project would not and could not have happened without his drive, his energy, and his optimism.
[00:04:54.31] - 11 years we have dreamed, prayed, toiled for this day. Today, a dream too long deferred is a dream no longer. We've guaranteed that as long as there's an America, this museum will educate, engage, and ensure a fuller story of our country will be told on the National Mall. Welcome home.
[00:05:24.85] - In May, the Smithsonian named its newest secretary, Lonnie Bunch III.
[00:05:33.21] - What I hope is that I can help the whole Smithsonian be the place that people look to, not just to visit, but for answers to help them live their lives. So for me, it's about helping the Smithsonian be the place that is the glue for America, and that helps America grapple with who it is, helps us understand itself, and its world.
[00:05:56.65] [END PLAYBACK]
[00:06:05.75] Please join me in welcoming Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch.
[00:06:28.50] Thank you, Jane. Give it up for Lonnie Bunch III, ladies and gentlemen.
[00:06:39.24] As Oprah said, you my friend. You my friend.
[00:06:43.63] Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. You all remember the good old days with Richard Daley. He actually questioned your decision to move, quote, unquote, "to a one-horse company town like Washington, DC."
[00:07:00.19] What did you say when Mayor Daley said that to you, my brother?
[00:07:03.42] I said, thank you, Mr. Mayor. I'm still going.
[00:07:08.35] What was the most difficult thing about leaving a remarkably successful tenure at the Chicago Historical Society to take on what Daley called a project?
[00:07:19.09] I think that was really the biggest challenge, is that for 100 years, people had tried to build this museum, and my notion was, can I do it? So why would I leave Chicago, where I had fooled people? I'd raised $26 million. They thought I knew what I was doing. So I thought, why leave?
[00:07:35.56] But I realized that being an African-American running the Chicago Historical Society nurtured my soul, but I realized that if we could build the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, it would nurture the soul of my ancestors, and there was no choice.
[00:07:50.56] What were you hesitant at all?
[00:07:56.53] OK. How many of your fears became realities once you moved, once you embarked on what some people call a fool's errand?
[00:08:08.98] I was lucky, because I was really concerned about moving back to Washington. You've got to understand, I was at the Smithsonian for many years, and when I left the Smithsonian, it was the hardest thing I'd ever done. And I had to convince myself that I'd never go back. Otherwise you'd sort of be miserable. So when they called me to come back, I remember thinking, I'm not good enough. I've got to raise half a billion dollars.
[00:08:32.53] Half a billion dollars.
[00:08:34.03] And I've got to figure out how to get a staff and get this going. So, to be honest, none of my fears came true.
[00:08:41.68] What was your worst or most ridiculous fundraising trip? The worst, not the best. I know two of the best, but I'm going to ask you about that. But as a fundraiser myself, I want to know, when you go, damn, I can't believe that just happened.
[00:09:00.94] So I've got amazing people on the council of the museum, such as Ann Fudge, and many of them opened doors for us. And so there was a company that talked to one of the council members and said, we're interested. Why don't you come up and meet with us? But we couldn't get anything scheduled, and finally it gets scheduled, and I have to get up really early, get that 5:00 AM train.
[00:09:26.65] I'm with a colleague, and we walk into the building, and they ignore us. We're just sitting there for about an hour, hour and a half, and then somebody comes out, calling a name that's not mine. And it turned out it was the person we were going to meet, but it wasn't a person I'd scheduled to meet. So this woman comes out, greets us, but doesn't say hello or anything. And she just walks us back into this conference room, no offer of coffee, anything.
[00:09:54.19] So we're waiting another 40 minutes and somebody comes in, and he says, I was told that I'm to meet with you, and I wanted to give you an opportunity to talk, but you know what? Never mind. We're not interested at all in what you've got to sell, so goodbye.
[00:10:11.08] Oh no, man.
[00:10:12.31] And so the worst part, though, was when we were walking out. The woman who had walked us in is laughing at us. She's covering her mouth, giggling.
[00:10:20.18] Oh, man.
[00:10:21.07] That was the very worst. If that had happened early in the tenure of this project, I would have felt what a failure I was. But we really felt that was the very worst of anything that happened.
[00:10:32.09] And has that company called you to get free tickets?
[00:10:37.33] No, they still haven't given us a dime.
[00:10:40.03] Not a dime.
[00:10:42.01] Lonnie, you and I have known each other a long time. We're very close friends. A couple of things I've never asked you. One is, what do you think in your background prepared you for this role? You've gone from writing about history to making history.
[00:11:01.44] Oh, geez.
[00:11:03.18] You have, and you've made history in two ways, the National African-American Museum, of course, and then becoming the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian. Either one would have been enough. But what do you think, for real, brought you to the table?
[00:11:20.18] I think that for a lot of us, it was our parents. My parents were two teachers, and their notion was how central education was to your future, but also the notion that nothing should stand in your way. I grew up in a town where, in my part of town, we were the only black family, and it was an Italian town, so I still curse in Sicilian.
[00:11:42.47] And what I learned there was how to fight, how to run, and how to talk my way out of things. And I think that served me in good stead the rest of my career.
[00:11:53.07] And you can talk your way out of things in Italian and in English.
[00:11:57.10] (LAUGHING) That's right, absolutely. So you went to the white school, as we call it back in the day, as Ann knows.
[00:12:05.36] Yeah. Yeah, the most amazing thing, to me, was so, I'm long gone from the neighborhood and I did something on the radio in LA. And this woman calls and says, do you know who I am? I was your girlfriend in kindergarten.
[00:12:21.62] Because she said, remember that in that town, they wouldn't let the black kid dance with white girls, but you could dance with the Jewish girl.
[00:12:30.40] Right? And she said her name was Esther, and I'm like, I remember it like it was yesterday. But I don't know Esther. It turned out it was my dad, because I'm Lonnie III. This Esther was his dance partner in the '30s.
[00:12:44.72] So I called my dad and he said oh, Esther Shapiro!
[00:12:52.96] And then his dad said, did she leave her number?
[00:12:54.95] That's right!
[00:12:56.82] Yeah, he did, too.
[00:13:01.08] Did people give you a hard time? You're the black kid in the class, right?
[00:13:05.02] Is this a Richard Wright story, where you go to the teacher in the eighth grade and you say you want to be a lawyer, and they go no, your people are meant to be carpenters?
[00:13:11.98] That's exactly what they said. They told me that I should work in a print shop.
[00:13:16.30] That was the best I could be. And what I remember more than anything else, you know how every year you would they'd go into school and they'd ask what your parents did?
[00:13:23.29] And my parents were teachers. I'd say one worked at the board of education in this town. One worked at the other town. And they would always say, oh, it must be nice to have janitors who have a steady job.
[00:13:32.62] Oh, no.
[00:13:33.20] Yep. And so I remember, for years, I never said anything to my father. When I finally said something, he and my mother came up, oh it was just bloody.
[00:13:40.70] Oh, I bet. (LAUGHS)
[00:13:42.04] Very bloody. But I was very proud.
[00:13:43.99] Well, you do work in a print shop. You own a print shop. It's called the Smithsonian Institution publishing company.
[00:13:49.98] That's right.
[00:13:52.49] What do you think were your greatest successes regarding-- I love this phrase you use, quote, "making the invisible and forgotten central to our understanding." What do you think-- well, your short list of successes in doing-- because what we're trying to do is change the narrative.
[00:14:19.74] Bryan Stevenson who's, along with John Wilson, the closest person to a saint that I've ever met--
[00:14:24.87] That's true.
[00:14:25.68] --gave an interview in Vox magazine two years ago. And in it, he said the worst thing about the Civil War and Reconstruction, as bad as slavery was, and Jim Crow, following the rollback of Reconstruction, was the narrative--
[00:14:41.01] --that they created. The United Daughters of the Confederacy and a lot of other people, the Columbia School, as you so well know, and we've been tortured by this narrative since at least the 1890s.
[00:14:53.85] So what those of us who are professors of African-American Studies, which Lonnie is, and institution builders, which you are, and a museum director, which you are par excellence, in various ways, we are trying to change the narrative. How successful are we at doing that? And what have been the high points in your career in doing that?
[00:15:18.75] Well, I think first of all, Skip, you've done so much of that. You've really both changed the narrative. And part of changing the narrative is embracing so much more than African-American History so people understand that that's central to who we are regardless of race. And for me, part of it was working in museums to change the pace of museums.
[00:15:42.12] One of the things I was proudest of was I collected the Greensboro Lunch Counter from the 1960s. And I was the associate director of the Museum of American History. And when I collected it, the other curators said, well one day we'll do an exhibition on the 20th century, so let's put it in storage. And I remember thinking, wait a minute. I'm in charge.
[00:16:01.66] So I decided the best thing I could do-- in those days, the Smithsonian had the Star Spangled Banner, the flag hanging up-- so I said, let's put the Greensboro Lunch Counter next to that.
[00:16:12.66] Let's begin to change the way people look at America. And I think those kinds of things were crucially important. But I think the best thing was, really, taking the African-American Museum and saying, this is understanding America through an African-American lens. To suddenly say, this is the quintessential story of us all. That, I think, changed things dramatically.
[00:16:33.73] Why do you think there are lines, still, around the block, trying to get in. How old is the museum?
[00:16:39.72] It's three years.
[00:16:40.74] Three, and there's still lines around the block. Why?
[00:16:44.55] Because the staff was so brilliant that what we realized is, there was a thirst for the unvarnished truth. It was also done in a way that was engaging, that wasn't about guilt or pointing fingers. It was about understanding.
[00:17:00.00] But I am stunned at how many people still want to get in. The other day, a woman called, said she wanted tickets. I said no, I don't do tickets. And she said, literally, she was my girlfriend in seventh grade.
[00:17:15.80] Was she Italian?
[00:17:17.21] Yeah. Yeah. So I'm sitting there, listening to the name, and I don't know her at all. But being from Jersey, you take your shot. It was a good lie. I gave her tickets.
[00:17:28.04] [LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE]
[00:17:33.90] That's great.
[00:17:35.10] But I think part of it is, it's become a pilgrimage site. It's become a place for many generations to go understand, not only their own history, but how they were shaped by prior history. And I think that, if you look at the museum, we've got one of the highest percentage of senior citizens of any Smithsonian museum.
[00:17:55.29] And you really see this intergenerational sharing, over and over and over again. And I think that's part of the appeal, is that people feel comfortable to be able to explore things that are often uncomfortable. And that was really a conscious decision in the museum.
[00:18:15.09] Let me see how I can ask this question, analogous to my own experience. The American National Biography. For those who don't know, that's the official biographical dictionary of Americans, and it's, I don't know, 30 volumes or something, published by Oxford University Press.
[00:18:34.53] So I'm making up the numbers, but 10 or 15 years ago, they wrote to me. I'm an Oxford author. And they asked me if I would look at their table of contents and see what black people had been left out.
[00:18:47.37] So, you know, the thing is 30 volumes, right?
[00:18:50.70] So I just randomly started looking for people. I'm sitting around thinking, well, who do I admire? How about James McCune Smith, Frederick Douglass's best friend? The best educated black man in America. Three degrees from University of Glasgow, medical doctor, and he wrote for Douglass's newspaper. And he had a kind of postmodern sensibility. No James McCune Smith.
[00:19:16.52] And I look for other people and they're not there. George Washington Carver's there. Booker T. Washington's there. Du Bois is there. But a lot of the people whom we would expect to be there, weren't there. So I wrote to them and I said, nobody's in here, really.
[00:19:35.19] Why don't you let me organize a project doing the African-American National Biography? And they did. And we did the same thing with the W.W. Norton company. The Norton Anthology of American Literature was full of holes. So we did the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature. And there have been good-hearted people who have come up to me to say, it's one thing to do a black anthology.
[00:20:02.25] It's one thing to do a black biographical dictionary. But how do you integrate, how do you get James McCune Smith into the American National Biography? How do you get Phillis Wheatley into the Norton Anthology of American Literature? So, how do you reconcile this tension?
[00:20:19.56] How do you answer this question, which is posed to me, about the relationship between building a canon of knowledge about the African-American experience and changing the larger narrative of the American experience? After all, exhibits can't just leap out of the National-- the Adjaye genius building and go into the Museum of Natural History.
[00:20:43.89] I think you do it on several levels. First of all, within the museum, you actually identify areas where the African-American experience explicitly changed the American experience. So that therefore, whether it is simply looking at the wonderful work you did on Reconstruction, how so much of public education in the South comes because black people get educated and demand it?
[00:21:06.42] And there were black legislatures.
[00:21:07.86] Absolutely. That changes everything.
[00:21:10.89] And then the other thing is, museums love models and messiahs. And right now, the African-American Museum is the model and the messiah.
[00:21:18.56] That's good!
[00:21:18.96] So therefore, all these other institutions are now grappling with, how do they reach diverse audiences? How do they tell stories in different ways? How do they use technology? So part of it is, I argue, by showing that you could make the best museum in the world based on a subject that many people were afraid of, it's going to change the way the rest of the museums do their work.
[00:21:39.37] Now the Boston Globe reporters in the audience, that is your inset quote.
[00:21:44.49] Museums love-- say it again.
[00:21:46.35] Models and messiahs.
[00:21:47.33] Models and messiahs. You can write that down.
[00:21:51.67] That is a brilliant observation. So that you change the paradigm.
[00:21:56.94] And you make it sexy. You show that it has market value.
[00:21:59.94] You show that you suddenly can get lines around the building.
[00:22:02.91] That you can create a restaurant that people want to actually eat the food.
[00:22:07.92] That you can really sell books about history that people will buy, and suddenly everything changes.
[00:22:14.79] What was the toughest challenge you faced in the construction of the museum, on the Mall? And the obvious follow-up that everyone wants to know is, did you ever feel like giving up?
[00:22:29.04] Well, the toughest was where I made what could have been the worst mistake of my career. If you've been in the museum, you noticed that when you go down to the history galleries, they're tiered. You walk up and you go basically through three floors.
[00:22:43.88] Well, the original plan was to have just one floor of galleries. And as we talked with designers and others, I said, well why don't we go ahead and do three floors? The problem is that meant we had to go down 80 feet.
[00:22:56.78] We hit water at eight feet.
[00:22:57.98] Oh, man.
[00:22:59.15] And we had so much water that it just filled up and they couldn't figure out how to get rid of the water. And literally, I thought the project was dead. I thought that, basically, I would be known as the guy who built the largest swimming pool on the National Mall.
[00:23:14.63] Aw, that's horrible, man.
[00:23:15.62] It was really bad. And at one point, it was so bad that they called in all these engineers and nobody knew how to do it. So one day I was talking to folks, and I said, you know, who are the best people to deal with water? The Dutch. So we called engineers from the Netherlands.
[00:23:30.99] No kidding!
[00:23:31.56] Oh, absolutely. And they came in and figured out how to get rid of the water.
[00:23:35.36] Wow. You've got to give it up to Lonnie Bunch for that.
[00:23:39.70] No, that is brilliant.
[00:23:43.43] Because I really thought I had screwed up. I really thought it was the worst.
[00:23:46.73] Did you tell anybody? Did you tell Oprah to take her $20 million back?
[00:23:50.01] Yeah, right! That's the key, right? I already spent it.
[00:23:55.44] They go, how you doing, Lonnie? Oh, everything's fine. Everything's fine.
[00:23:59.13] That's your job, right?
[00:24:00.24] Why are you spending so much time in Amsterdam? Oh, I like Amsterdam. I like Indonesian food.
[00:24:05.57] That's right. Exactly. Oh no. But I think that was the time I despaired. I really thought that it wouldn't work. But other than that, I really thought that once we actually got land on the Mall, I knew we'd pull it off. Because the real key was, were we going to get the land on the Mall? Because the government normally tells the Smithsonian, put a building here. Well they didn't want to do that.
[00:24:31.88] Now, when I'm being kind, it's because it was the last space on the Mall. When I'm being truthful, it's because it was something African-American and there was this desire not to have this on the Mall. And so there were sites that I still can't find. I don't know where they are. They were so far away from the Mall.
[00:24:47.60] And so once we were able to convince the regents that this was the place for the museum, because the museum's council just knew there's no other choice. Once we got that, that was when I knew we'd be successful.
[00:25:00.66] But I have to be honest. I actually prepared. When we were trying to figure out how this decision was going to be made, I actually hired people from the Clinton administration who were crisis management people, and said, OK, if I don't get this the way I want, what do I do?
[00:25:14.78] Ah, brilliant.
[00:25:15.05] And they told me to walk away. So I really had two speeches prepared, because I didn't know how was going to go. I had the one speech, oh this is the most wonderful thing in the world. And the other speech was, I cannot be there where you disrespect the African-American community.
[00:25:28.89] So I remember not telling anybody I had that speech. And my wife found it and said, wait a minute. You mean to tell me we're going to be out of a job?
[00:25:38.52] So luckily, they picked the right spot.
[00:25:41.11] But where did you get this-- People ask me, OK, what do you think has contributed to the successes that you've had? And to me, it's knowing how to, and learning how, to ask for advice. And you have that same capacity. And some people think-- and I tell this to our students-- that's a sign of weakness, to say I don't know and I need your help.
[00:26:09.20] John Blum was my great mentor at Yale. John Morton Blum, the American historian. And he said it's an act of empowerment. When you ask someone for their advice, they think you're a genius! Because you asked them.
[00:26:23.69] And told me that when I was a junior at Yale.
[00:26:26.01] And if you want them to give you money--
[00:26:27.77] Oh, yeah.
[00:26:28.04] Go to them and say, I need your advice. How do we do this?
[00:26:30.81] Listen, here is a chiasmus. If you ask somebody for money, they'll give you advice. If you ask them for their advice, they'll give you your money.
[00:26:38.87] Never forget that. Never forget that.
[00:26:40.79] That's right. I'm always asking for advice.
[00:26:45.26] Me, too. You can't get a loan from a bank when your checks are bouncing.
[00:26:49.43] That's right.
[00:26:52.47] So where did you learn that? You went to the Clinton team for crisis management. Somehow-- who was the little boy put his finger in the dike?
[00:27:05.12] Yeah. I don't know. The little Dutch boy.
[00:27:07.54] The little Dutch boy. You ought to give everybody a free copy of that book.
[00:27:12.96] I think, for me, it was really understanding African-American history. That you realize that, for me, the phrase was, you make a way out of no way. And African-American history taught me that there are ways to not give up. There are ways to work a system. There are ways to figure out when to confront, when to let somebody else carry the idea.
[00:27:34.44] So for me, every time I struggled, I'd read something about Harriet Tubman, or I'd read something about the creation of the NAACP in the early 20th century. I'd read something you wrote, and that would really give me the reservoir that I can dip into to figure out how we move forward.
[00:27:52.44] But the other thing was, quite candidly, I hate to admit this, but I am so damn competitive. I hate to lose on anything.
[00:27:59.92] Oh, me too. I hate it.
[00:28:01.16] So part of it was, how do I win? That's why I literally would sit up and say, OK, how do I win this moment? And that's the way I would do it.
[00:28:08.46] No, that's good. That's what you have to do. May I ask you something I've never asked you before? And it's something another interviewer won't ask. You have to be an African-American and interested in the history to ask this question. If you could go back in the time machine to one period or to meet one historical person, who would it be?
[00:28:29.00] Du Bois.
[00:28:29.71] Du Bois?
[00:28:32.06] He, as I said last night, he's the gold standard. The ability to be a gifted historian, to use that history to be a social activist, to be as brilliant as he was, to recognize that what he did was write history for today and tomorrow, not just yesterday? That would be the person I'd want to meet.
[00:28:51.38] Is there a particular period, maybe that you wouldn't like to have lived in? Is there a period you would have liked to have lived in?
[00:29:00.32] Would or would not have?
[00:29:01.37] Would have.
[00:29:03.61] Because I'm not picking cotton.
[00:29:06.26] That's just not happening.
[00:29:08.81] Hey, I'm with you on that.
[00:29:10.82] I'm sorry, no. No, no, no.
[00:29:14.23] Mississippi, Alabama, 1840? Nah, we're good.
[00:29:16.49] Not me. Nope, nope. Nope.
[00:29:18.45] That time machine, no. Let's don't stop there.
[00:29:21.06] No, let's get a little closer.
[00:29:22.53] Yeah, that's right.
[00:29:23.22] No. I think that, for a lot of us, you'd want to live in the 1920s. You'd like to see the benefit of this migration of people from the South to the North, to see the, both tension, but amazing change of tint and tone of America's cities. That would have been interesting to be at.
[00:29:41.77] I agree. That was the first period of African-American history that I really studied. The Harlem Renaissance.
[00:29:48.75] And the reason is, I went to Yale in '69. Black Studies was just being invented. There weren't even that many sources available, and not that many people to teach those sources. So they concentrated on slavery and refuting Stanley Elkins' Sambo theory, that black people had been reduced to Sambos by the onerous oppression of slavery. And the other one was the Harlem Renaissance as a mirror of the Black Arts Movement.
[00:30:14.16] And so, there were these two-- I think I studied the Harlem Renaissance three times in two years. But it was the Jazz Age, the birth of modernism, and the birth of, metaphorically, the Jazz Age, but literally, the birth of America's greatest musical form.
[00:30:31.74] And the notion of issues of gender are so strong. Watching these black women carve out careers, make this transition from a rural setting to an urban setting. That to me was so fascinating.
[00:30:45.33] Me, too. And the fact that, it took me years. It's kind of like learning about the complex sexuality of the Greeks, which nobody ever talked about, right? Not when I was growing up. Not in my school. But learning about how many of the black authors of the Harlem Renaissance were gay or bisexual, which wasn't in the initial--
[00:31:07.95] No, no.
[00:31:08.52] So, identity was fluid and quite complex and also torturous.
[00:31:14.25] Right. I think in a way, one of the challenges of building a national museum was, how do you tell those stories? How do you make sure issues of identity and sexuality are at the heart of the museum? And that was a real challenge, because those are things the Smithsonian doesn't normally do. And because even though we are our own museum, we're part of the Smithsonian.
[00:31:35.02] And so it was thinking very creatively about, how do you tell the stories that have to be told? How do you raise the issues that often aren't raised in museums? And as John Hope Franklin used to tell both of us, how do you tell the unvarnished truth?
[00:31:48.83] Right. Some of the best parts of your book-- and I encourage you to buy Lonnie's brilliant book before you leave. Because if you don't, you're not going to be able to leave.
[00:32:02.64] We have locked all the doors, so that's just the way that's going to be.
[00:32:07.95] And I'm from Jersey, so we only take cash.
[00:32:09.96] Yeah that's right.
[00:32:14.62] He was telling me, now he's a government official or whatever the status is, you can't even give him a gift without it being-- tell them about that. I would say, Lonnie, I was going to give you a first edition, signed by W. E. B. Du Bois, of The Souls of Black Folk, which cost $30,000. Oops, but I can't!
[00:32:38.49] Here's a photograph. But if you had said it in private, you would've tempted me.
[00:32:43.91] Yeah. Right.
[00:32:45.06] No, it's the rules of the secretary. There are certain things you can't take as gifts, and my favorite is-- it's a story-- so basically, early on in the process, when I started with a staff of two, we didn't have offices. And they finally gave me offices in another building, and when I went to the offices, they were locked.
[00:33:05.40] So I went down to the front desk and asked to the manager, I said, I'm the new director of the Smithsonian Museum. I'd like keys to my office. They said, we don't know who the hell you are. We're not letting you in.
[00:33:17.40] So then I figure, OK, African-American, where are the African-Americans? So I go down to the guards. I figured, the guards are black. So I go down to see the guards, and I said the same thing. And I'll never forget. This guy said to me, we're not going to let you in because you might steal something.
[00:33:33.99] So I'm thinking, it's an empty office. I'm standing in front of it with my one staff, and a guy comes by with a maintenance truck, and on the truck is a crowbar. So I actually broke into our offices. That's how we started. And so, then you fast-forward years later. I'm leaving the museum and coming over to the secretary, and one of my former colleagues sends over a crowbar.
[00:33:58.98] The problem was, the Smithsonian needed to evaluate it, take pictures, look at the value, before they decide I could actually keep it. So you know if I could barely keep a crowbar, I can't keep Du Bois at all.
[00:34:11.94] Well, you broke into your office, and some people think I broke into my house. But I don't want to talk about it.
[00:34:18.34] [LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE]
[00:34:27.65] And we do have the cuffs.
[00:34:30.56] The cuffs are in-- I am an exhibit. That's right. And those handcuffs, which Officer Crowley generously gave me, I gave to Oprah. Said you should give them to Lonnie, meaning the museum. And I'm there, and I'm there as part of the exhibition of black people in Martha's Vineyard. It's very kind of you to do that.
[00:34:52.90] And that was a big thing. My kids really, wow, Daddy, you are somebody.
[00:34:58.44] I must admit, I was worried when Oprah gave me handcuffs. I was like wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.
[00:35:03.26] I don't know. So finally, she explained it. I was OK then. I'm sorry, Oprah.
[00:35:13.57] Now, some of the best parts of your book, to me as a scholar, especially, involve your acquiring of very special artifacts, such as Nat Turner's Bible, or sadly, Emmett Till's casket. What was your favorite discovery?
[00:35:35.90] There are two objects that mean the world to me. Emmett Till's casket is really one of them, in part because, when I was president of Chicago Historical Society, I became close to Studs Terkel, the great oral historian. And Studs would bring people into my office, and one day he said, would you like to meet Emmett Till's mother? And I didn't know she was still alive.
[00:35:53.60] So he brought this woman--
[00:35:54.76] Mamie, right?
[00:35:55.01] Mamie Till. Mamie Till-Mobley. He brought her into my office. She was so short, her feet couldn't touch the floor. And next thing I know, we were going to spend an hour together. She spends seven hours telling me what happened, from the time she kissed her son goodbye, till the time she buried him.
[00:36:13.19] And I was so moved by her, we became friends, and I started writing articles about her for the Tribune. And I was at her house on a Friday, and we were going to get together the following week, and she died that Sunday. But the one thing she had said to me before she died is, for 50 years, she carried the burden of Emmett Till, and now it was my turn.
[00:36:33.98] And so I then left to go back to the Museum of African-American History, and two years later, they find Emmett Till's casket. Because when Emmett Till was disinterred by the Justice Department, he was buried in a new casket, and the old one was going to be kept in this pristine state, but it was thrown in a shed. Raccoons were living in it. And the family called me and said, would you do something?
[00:37:01.18] And I remember thinking, is this too ghoulish? Should I do it? So I decided that I would preserve it. We built a special place so nobody could gawk at it and see it, but then when we were doing the exhibitions, I realized that the story wasn't Emmett. It was Mamie. It was the courage of this woman to take the most painful moment of her life and use that to reinvigorate the civil rights movement.
[00:37:24.24] So when I thought about that, I said, that's how we do it. And so every morning, I always get to the museum early, and I always walk in and look at Emmett Till's casket to think of the sacrifice of that child, but also the courage of the mother. So that, to me, is the most sacred space in the museum.
[00:37:44.21] That's a beautiful story.
[00:37:45.67] Thank you.
[00:37:51.01] And my second favorite artifact is something that's not even on display. I spent years trying to find slave ships.
[00:37:58.72] Oh, yes.
[00:37:59.59] Because I really felt that most Americans didn't understand the international slave trade, and I thought, foolishly, how hard can that be? They had to be somewhere. Well, I didn't realize most of them were at the bottom of the ocean.
[00:38:12.55] So we had to put together an international team to map the ocean floor, to try to find these wrecks, and we'd found one that sank off the coast of Cuba. And I spent years negotiating with the Castros, but they weren't going to let me dive, because it turned out where he wanted die was an old submarine base or something. So that wasn't going to work.
[00:38:32.41] But luckily, I knew people in South Africa who said they thought they had a ship that sank off the coast of Cape Town. Would I bring expertise and scholars? And we did, and it turned out it was a ship, the Sao José, that had left Lisbon in 1794, had gone all around to Mozambique and picked up 512 people from the Makua tribe.
[00:38:53.29] On its way back, it sank off the coast of Cape Town. Half of the, quote, "cargo" was lost. The other half was sold. I felt it was crucially important, then, to go talk to the Makua people in Mozambique.
[00:39:05.05] So I went to Mozambique and met with the chief of the Makua people, and he brought me a gift. He said, here is a vessel wrapped in cowrie shells. It's a gift for you. And I open it, and it's full of soil. And I'm trying to figure out, what kind of gift is this? And then he said his ancestors had begged me to take this soil to the site of the wreck, sprinkle the soil over the side of the wreck, so for the first time since 1794, his people could sleep in their own land.
[00:39:34.39] Oh, wow.
[00:39:35.35] That, to me, was the most touching moment. I'm thinking, they're paying me? Really, pretty special.
[00:39:41.38] I remember the press conference when that was announced. You said, I wanted to give the American people a slave ship, and now we've been able to do it. Most of us don't realize it, but 2% of our enslaved ancestors who came to the United States came from Mozambique. And that was a long, a long Middle Passage. Because you had to go all the way around the bottom of the continent, and then cross the ocean.
[00:40:09.79] You pioneered the Save Our African-American Treasures campaign, which is am African-American Antiques Roadshow, where people can learn about historical artifacts and preservation. Why do you think it's been so effective?
[00:40:25.66] Well, partly because, literally, I fell asleep in front of the television and woke up and the Antiques Roadshow was on.
[00:40:32.08] I had never heard of it, and I thought, what a good idea. So, you know, you just can't steal it. So you call it Saving African-American Treasures.
[00:40:40.33] But I think part of what happened, really, is early in my career, I was working in California. I was collecting in California, and I was told this woman had amazing collections. So I went to see her, and she's telling me she has nothing. Why are you here? You're wasting my time. And then to get rid of me, she said, well go look in the garage. See if you can find anything. And it was a treasure trove, and I thought, I bet things are still in basements, trunks, and attics of people's homes.
[00:41:05.80] And it turned out that we would go around the country. We would do these programs. We'd say, bring out your stuff. We wouldn't take it. We'd help you preserve grandma's old shawl or that 19th century photograph, and then people would call and say, I've got this and I've got that. So that the museum collected 40,000 artifacts, of which 70% came out of basements, trunks, and attics of people's homes.
[00:41:27.14] That's amazing.
[00:41:27.43] And to me, that's the success of the museum.
[00:41:30.10] Yeah. Do you get letters? We get letters a lot from people who will have something which they think is going to pay for the rest of their life. And it's not worth anything. It's like the third edition of the 10th printing of The Souls of Black Folk. And then you have to tell them, and they go, you're just trying to steal it.
[00:41:53.77] That's exactly right. My favorite is that somebody called and said they had a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation and they wanted to know how much it was worth. I was like, are you kidding? So they brought it in, because I figured hey, just in case.
[00:42:08.65] And it turned out it was one of those things that were made on fake parchment in the '50s. And it was hard to tell the poor woman. She was like, no, this is real. And I said, look at the bottom. It says 1957. And she is still mad at me.
[00:42:25.48] No, because people have unreasonable expectations and they fantasize about it, and that is a very difficult thing. So what I say is, ask Lonnie Bunch because I don't know. You've got to get him to give you advice.
[00:42:41.09] Let's talk about W. Now Lonnie was kind enough to invite me to the opening of the museum, and there weren't many academics there. The academics couldn't get through for members of Congress and Black Wall Street, and entertainers.
[00:43:01.39] You had to give some money, and academics don't give money, OK?
[00:43:04.45] No, right.
[00:43:06.41] Let's be true, you know?
[00:43:08.31] Yeah, I just went. I just showed up.
[00:43:10.56] Skip's always like, Lonnie, let me in. Fine.
[00:43:12.61] Yeah, that's right. Let me in. And he did. But among the speeches, one of the most moving, and it was quoted in-- we were listening to the wonderful video, was W. And it was heartfelt.
[00:43:29.05] So how important was George W. Bush in making sure the museum was built? And secondly, did your working relationship change your opinion of him as a politician and as a person?
[00:43:40.81] Not as a politician, but as a person. Because what really struck me is, George Bush, when everybody was saying in the Republican Party, this museum should not be on the Mall, he actually stood up and said, it has to be on the Mall. And so it helped me, every time I went on the Hill, I would say, but the President says it needs to be there.
[00:44:00.97] And then he really had been unbelievably supportive. In order to get money, you've got to get in the President's budget. He always made sure we were in the budget. If I needed things. I became close to his wife, Laura Bush.
[00:44:15.07] Smart move, Lonnie.
[00:44:16.36] Hey, you know. And I would give her books to read. And so we'd read books together. And so she then introduced me to George, and he was really very supportive. His politics, you can't live with, but the fact that he's a good guy, I was really quite taken by that.
[00:44:33.85] And he is a good guy.
[00:44:34.69] He really is.
[00:44:35.21] Yeah, Condi is a very good friend of mine, and I did that film about Lincoln.
[00:44:45.34] And I wanted to ask George W. Bush about Lincoln, but I wanted to go to Lincoln Bedroom. And Condi arranged for George W. Bush to give me a tour of the Lincoln Bedroom, and to be interviewed in the Lincoln Bedroom, and he was really nice. He was smart. He was funny.
[00:45:02.41] I came back to Harvard and I go, George W. Bush, and they go, you've been drinking the Kool-Aid down there in Washington.
[00:45:09.66] Well what's wrong with you, boy? No, but he is. And he had Condi. He had Colin Powell.
[00:45:17.29] I was quite-- he really was important in those early days. There's no doubt about that.
[00:45:22.21] How important is it that the Secretary of the Smithsonian is an African-American?
[00:45:30.55] I'm still struggling with this, because I worked for six secretaries, and now I am one. It feels really weird.
[00:45:37.59] Wow, you've worked for six.
[00:45:39.13] Yeah, you know.
[00:45:39.78] And there have only been a total of--
[00:45:41.78] 14. So I've been at Smithsonian a long time. Or they get fired quickly. I'm not sure which. But I think that I recognize, symbolically, what it means. The reaction around the world was overwhelming. I received thousands of emails, and what I realized is, being Secretary of the Smithsonian opens all these other doors. And that's really been the only reason I wanted to have a career, was to open doors for other people.
[00:46:14.78] Oh, that's beautiful.
[00:46:15.67] That's what the Secretary of the Smithsonian does. Although I must admit, I'm wondering why my friends like you helped me say yes.
[00:46:24.15] Well, I begged you to take it, and more than that.
[00:46:29.60] But I remember, a few years ago, there was a poll of inner-city African-American youth published in the Washington Post, and it said, list things white. And on that list, and I'll never forget this, speaking standard English, getting straight A's in school, and visiting the Smithsonian Institution.
[00:46:57.43] I was shocked, Lonnie, because going to the Smithsonian was like going to Mars for us, or, I don't know, going to fantasy life. I loved the Smithsonian. First went when I was 10, nine years old, soon to turn 10, and it was just magic. Better than Disneyland, by far. How do we change that? Do you think that's still true?
[00:47:21.57] I think there are so many African-American kids who don't get a chance to engage culture. In museums. In Kennedy Centers, places like that. I think it's crucially important. And one of the things I'm trying to do as Secretary is really focus on the District of Columbia schools, and to think about, what are the best things we could do at the Smithsonian to aid those schools?
[00:47:43.95] Because for me, like you, the Smithsonian was really special. For me c one of the reasons why I said yes to being Secretary was because, in the middle 1960s, I'm a 12-year-old kid and I'm in love with the Civil War like so many other kids, because of the centennial of the Civil War.
[00:48:00.72] And we're driving from New Jersey to visit my mother's family in North Carolina, and we get near Richmond. There are all these signs for museums and battlefields, Museum of the Confederacy, and I want to stop. And my father always has this excuse, I've got to go 20 more miles to get gas. So he never stopped.
[00:48:17.79] So on the way back, I thought OK, let me get a map out. I went to Esso and got a map out, and tried to plot 20 miles before we would get to a museum, so I could tell my father. And he basically didn't stop, but he did something unusual. He came into Washington, DC. Because we always went straight to New Jersey.
[00:48:35.98] He pulled in, drove to the Smithsonian and said, here's the place you can go understand America and yourself without worrying about the color of your skin.
[00:48:45.96] Oh, wow. And I have never forgotten that that's what the Smithsonian meant to me as a kid. It was a place of possibility. It was a place of fairness. It was a place that mattered. And so my hope is that I could make the Smithsonian that way for so many other kids.
[00:49:00.65] Oh, that's beautiful. What do we do with the story of the Confederacy? Not every week, but almost every other week, during our season of Finding Your Roots, I have to tell somebody, your great great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy, and not to make them feel guilty about.
[00:49:25.53] I don't think guilt's heritable. So it's not your fault, and we're all Americans. But how do we deal with that period? What's your take on Confederate monuments, for example?
[00:49:37.05] I've been called by more mayors to figure out, should they take down monuments? So when the mayor of New Orleans called me. And I said, well,
[00:49:47.70] Mitch Landrieu.
[00:49:48.15] Mitch Landrieu, who is really pretty impressive.
[00:49:51.15] And he took them down.
[00:49:52.64] Well, he called me, and I said, if you're going to take them down, then you need to put him in a place where people can see them. So we put him in a warehouse so people could interpret them. My problem is that you don't want to destroy all these statues. You don't want to take them down.
[00:50:05.09] But what you want to do is, I could live with Confederate statues if they also said, they were traitors to the Union. If they also said that you lost the war, even though they won the peace. And so I feel very strongly that you've got to help people understand that those monuments are less about the Confederacy and more about white supremacy.
[00:50:25.86] And what's interesting is, at the same time so many of those monuments were built, that they were also the mascots for Indians. So there's this real sense of whiteness in the late 19th century that is reflected in these monuments, in the mascots using Indians. So that to me is the story, rather than just, these are about Civil War soldiers.
[00:50:47.82] Oh, absolutely. Those monuments were part of a conscious, concerted effort to roll back the narrative on Reconstruction, because it was very important that Americans believed that Reconstruction had been a massive failure.
[00:51:04.31] Like The Birth of a Nation.
[00:51:05.64] Like The Birth of a Nation. Birth of a Nation, people think it's about slavery. It's not. It's about Reconstruction. And why? Three states were majority-black states, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana. And three more states were almost majority-black states, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia.
[00:51:19.44] And in the 1868 election, South Carolina elected a black Secretary of State, a black Treasurer. There was a majority in the House of Delegates. Essentially, you're talking about the potential for a black republic within a republic. And they had to dismantle it.
[00:51:36.93] And I think, Lonnie, we've never talked about this, but I think that the fact that 80% of the eligible black men in 10 of the 11 Confederate states, in the summer of 1867, actually registered to vote. And in 1868, they voted. Ulysses S. grant won the presidency, overwhelmingly in the Electoral College, but he only won the popular vote by 300,000 votes. 500,000 black men from the Confederacy voted for Ulysses S. Grant, and I think that scared the bejesus out of white people, not only in the South but in the North, too.
[00:52:13.65] Too much black power right.
[00:52:14.89] That's right.
[00:52:15.36] And I showed John Lewis his great-great-grandfather's voter registration card from that first Freedom Summer of 1867. And then he looked at me, and I said John, no one between your great-great-grandfather and you voted again in Alabama because the right to vote was taken away. And that was true. And he looked at me and his head fell and hit the table. And he just wept like a baby. That's why voting rights was important.
[00:52:49.57] So the construction of those monuments occurred in the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century As part of this alteration of the narrative that it was the worst time, and black legislatures had been venal, they were stupid.
[00:53:06.64] Corrupt. They wanted to pass miscegenation laws so they could rape white women. It was horrible. So that puts those statues in-- would you put them in dialogue with other statues?
[00:53:19.47] Like Kehinde Wiley's new statue that's going on Monument Boulevard in Richmond. That's wild.
[00:53:24.93] I think that's really powerful. The problem with the statues are those things are so damn big and heavy. It's hard to get them in a museum. But I think that's what you need, that kind of juxtaposition, to make it work.
[00:53:35.61] Right. What are you hoping to accomplish? What are your initial goals? When you started with the National African-American Museum, your goal was to raise half a billion dollars and get the thing built. What's your goal? What's on your shortlist so far, as Secretary?
[00:53:53.13] Well goal number one is that half of the 14 secretaries died in office, so goal number one is not to die in office.
[00:54:00.34] That's goal number one.
[00:54:04.68] We can all applaud that.
[00:54:07.39] We would not want you to--
[00:54:10.65] I think it's important to recognize that the Smithsonian is visited and venerated, but I'm not sure its valued. I'm not sure it does the work that it can in terms of being transformative for a nation. If I believe that the Smithsonian is part of the glue that holds the country together, it means that the Smithsonian has got to do the work it's done. I love the pandas and all that, well, let me say in the right way. I love the pandas.
[00:54:38.74] But I think that it's got to also help us think about climate change, help us grapple with issues of race, help us look at women and the issues that that unfolds for us. I think that the Smithsonian has such amazing expertise, but the other thing the Smithsonian has is the great convening power.
[00:54:56.03] Oh, yeah.
[00:54:56.35] I can call anybody.
[00:54:57.70] Right? And they will come and help us grapple with these issues. So I want the Smithsonian to be as much about today and tomorrow as it is about yesterday. I think that's one.
[00:55:06.19] Number two, 35 million people come to the Smithsonian. But that means millions will never get here. So then the question is, what's the virtual Smithsonian? Not the virtual Museum of American History or Virtual Air and Space Museum. What's the virtual Smithsonian that really allows you to cut this expertise not just in science, art, and history, but in identity in democracy, in innovation? Thinking very differently about how we do that.
[00:55:34.54] And then, I guess, the other piece for me is really thinking about, what does it mean to be a National Museum in a transnational age? What is the role of the Smithsonian internationally? Most of what we do is a lot of scientific research, a lot of ad hoc relations. But what is it for the Smithsonian to be a 21st-century institution that has a global impact? So trying to grapple with these kind of things.
[00:56:01.46] And then, I guess the other thing I wanted to do is convey to the staff of the Smithsonian that you are good enough to lead the Smithsonian. Because nobody from inside has led the Smithsonian in 75 years. And that sends a message to staff.
[00:56:20.56] And so what I want is, much like I had to do at the museum, I want people to believe that that's possible. I want them to believe that the Smithsonian is the place that they can live their careers and have the leadership, most importantly, have the effect that is transformative.
[00:56:37.18] As I keep thinking about, John Hope Franklin used to always say to me, when people go through that museum, they have to be changed. That's what I want people to go through at the Smithsonian.
[00:56:47.74] Did you cry?
[00:56:48.94] Oh, man. I'm like, I'm crying over Casablanca.
[00:56:55.02] But I think that what happened is that, I always have this ritual, that when I used to do honest work as a historian or as a curator, when I would do an exhibition, as a curator, I would walk through and say goodbye. Because once the public goes in, it's no longer yours. The public will take it in ways you couldn't anticipate.
[00:57:10.72] So I decided to say goodbye to the museum. And I walked through, and suddenly I'm thinking about the work of the staff, the generosity of people who gave collections. But I thought a lot about my father and grandfather, who were not here, who were both gone. And I thought that this is their story, and I cried all night. All night.
[00:57:35.07] I'm being given the sign that it's time to entertain questions from the audience. But before we do that, give it up for my friend, Lonnie.
[00:57:49.52] You're the best, man.
[00:57:51.39] I love you, man.
[00:58:08.94] Now, do we have a card system?
[00:58:10.56] Yes. We're here to collect cards. There's a colleague on the other side, and I'm right here if you want to pass me your questions.
[00:58:18.16] I can't call on anyone from the audience. I've been given instructions.
[00:58:22.45] Sure you can. You're the boss.
[00:58:23.83] No. I was told that. This is Jane's house.
[00:58:27.33] See, you come over to the Hutchins Center, and my house.
[00:58:32.26] One of the reasons why we're such good friends is that neither is learned how to follow the rules.
[00:58:35.77] Yeah, I know. I started to do it, but she'd kick me out. She'd tell that little English woman right there, man.
[00:58:49.28] Corey, do I have any?
[00:58:51.08] They're coming. I'm being a good boy.
[00:58:56.21] You're better than I. OK.
[00:59:05.16] Thank you. OK. He just gave me one card.
[00:59:13.92] We have more coming. We have more coming. All right, great. All right, let me ask you the first one as they collect more.
[00:59:21.51] Well, I want to ask you something before that, which is, you worked so hard for so long to create the African-American Museum. Was it a difficult thing to decide to become Secretary? I know you had plans, well, now we've done it. It's been three years. Then we could do this, then we could do that. How tough was that decision?
[00:59:46.71] It was one of the hardest decisions of my career. I really didn't want to be Secretary. I really wanted to talk about my book, spend a year at the museum, and then go teach.
[01:00:00.16] Yes, we talked about that.
[01:00:01.75] And I had this real desire to slow down and to enjoy life a little more.
[01:00:08.18] What he's saying is that professors are lazy. They don't really work hard. That's true.
[01:00:14.33] You know. But what I realized was that, how do you say no to the Smithsonian? And part of what happened is that I refused to be in the competition, but then when I got in, I wanted to win.
[01:00:26.95] Sure. Of course.
[01:00:27.55] And so you sort of put yourself in. So it is really the most amazing thing to me. But I must admit, the greatest sacrifice is giving up the best office in Washington, which had the best views of the Washington Monument and everything, to an office that is historic.
[01:00:48.52] Yeah, that location for the African-American Museum is bad.
[01:00:51.22] I'm telling you.
[01:00:51.82] It is bad. All right, first question. I visited for the first time in March, and I was really excited to see Phillis Wheatley. What was the process in curating figures who are less known than other figures, and are there figures that you wish were added before the museum opened? People you did have enough time or enough space to tell someone's story?
[01:01:16.87] The way we actually came to craft the exhibitions is we spent several years just interviewing people, doing focus groups, scientific sampling to understand what people knew and what they didn't know. And then we brought the best scholars from around the world to tell us what they thought. And then, basically, the curators and I sat down and said, all right, here are the big stories we want to tell, but we're not sure how we're going to tell them till we get the collections.
[01:01:42.94] So we really felt, because usually when you build a museum, you already have the collections. So this was like going on a cruise at the same time you're building the ship, and so it was really an iterative process. But I think that there was nothing that I felt we left out. I think that there were artifacts I wish we had, but I think that we've really told the stories in ways that allowed us to look at Phillis Wheatley and Harriet Tubman and others.
[01:02:10.96] The good thing about a museum is it's going to evolve. And especially now that I'm gone, they're going through some really cool, probably. But I think that you'll see more stories, more ways to understand this history as the museum evolves.
[01:02:27.25] How do you approach conflicts regarding the museum's history of acquiring sacred and cultural artifacts?
[01:02:34.54] First of all, what I've made really clear to Congress and everybody, is if you're afraid of conflict and controversy, then don't build this museum. There is no way you can tell this story without shining the light in all the dark corners, without collecting things that you might not traditionally collect.
[01:02:51.76] For example, just thinking about Emmett Till's casket. I think, candidly, we probably would have never done that at the Smithsonian. But I thought that it was so important. We felt it was important to break the way the Smithsonian traditionally does things, in order to tell certain stories, and so that's why we did it.
[01:03:10.60] How was the collection built, and how many, if any, were already accessioned from other museums?
[01:03:17.92] One of the things I realized, being in and out of the Smithsonian for many years, that if I took everything the Smithsonian had about African-American history, it would be only 20% of what we needed. And most importantly, I didn't want everything black to be in one museum.
[01:03:33.88] I thought it was really important that the Smithsonian's greatest strength is that it's got different portals into what it means to be an American. So I want you to go through American History and see the way they talk about the Greensboro Lunch Counter, or the way the Smithsonian Art Museum talks about the Harlem Renaissance.
[01:03:50.95] Or black astronauts in the Air and Space Museum.
[01:03:54.46] That's right. And so I think the notion was, never take it all. And therefore, if we were going to have to find 80% anyway, might as well just make it 100%, and that's what we did.
[01:04:05.53] And that goes back to relationship between black authors in the African-American anthology or the American anthology.
[01:04:12.26] How do you tell the story? And the answer is, you have to do it both ways.
[01:04:16.32] You have to tell it as a self-contained narrative, and tell it as an integrated narrative. Please tell the story of the airport shoeshine man. See, black people-- Now, I'm going to make a horrible generalization, but black people are raised to have their shoes shined.
[01:04:29.19] That's right.
[01:04:29.85] I got a lot of white friends that think shining your shoes is an act of God, from the rain. But my mama would say, you cannot be on the stage with Lonnie Bunch and not have your shoes shined.
[01:04:39.94] That's right.
[01:04:41.02] When I went away to college, my father gave me a shoeshine box.
[01:04:43.62] There you go. You see?
[01:04:44.34] That was one of those gifts. So what I do is, I always shine my shoes before I get on the airplane. So I know every shoe guy.
[01:04:53.59] You have your shoes shined.
[01:04:54.79] Yes. That's right. That's true. So I sit down and I watch-- I know every shoe shine guy in every airport in the country. I can tell you exactly where they are. And so I was coming back from Dallas.
[01:05:07.00] Some are Ethiopian, like in Charlotte, they've got Ethiopians. I know.
[01:05:11.05] But if you go to Dallas, it's these brothers from the South who've been, you know. So I'm getting--
[01:05:16.66] Better shoeshine people in the South than in the North.
[01:05:18.55] Oh, absolutely.
[01:05:19.90] I agree. Yeah, in Boston, the shoeshine folks are not that good, OK?
[01:05:24.07] Nah. Shaky.
[01:05:26.45] But, you know, Miami? Oh, baby. But anyway, I get my shoes shined, and it's an elderly African-American guy, and he looks up and he says, are you that museum guy from Washington?
[01:05:38.26] That's pretty cool.
[01:05:39.00] And I said yes. He doesn't say anything else.
[01:05:43.07] Nothing. So I'm thinking, oh, that's really powerful. So he finishes shining my shoes, and he says $8. So I give him a $10 bill, and he looks at me and he says, keep it for the museum.
[01:05:56.20] Oh, wow.
[01:05:56.63] Now I've got to be honest. He's a shoeshine guy, so I said come on, man, take this money. And he said to me, don't you dare be rude to me. He said, I'm not sure what's in a museum, but if you do it right, it may be the only place where my grandchildren understand what life did to me and what I did to life. And so that shoeshine guy was really my North Star.
[01:06:19.97] So building a museum, yes we talked about Fred Douglass and Martin Luther King. But the key is, I always kept in mind that I wanted his grandchildren to understand the life of an average person who did everything they could to take care of their family and to make a contribution.
[01:06:37.24] That's beautiful. That's great.
[01:06:40.92] Great story. Do you have any advice for a young African-American entering the field of museum curation, museum studies?
[01:06:55.37] Get in another direction. No.
[01:06:59.07] I really think that the key is, you've got to build your resume. You've got to be comfortable moving around, because you're not going to find the perfect job, and you want to build your resume. What you want to do is always make sure you've got the best education you can have, and then put yourself in situations where you learn things.
[01:07:21.30] I think my success was not only tied that I understood history, but I understood systems. I thought about, how do things work? How do you work in a bureaucracy? How do you read blueprints so you could make determinations?
[01:07:34.72] So I've always felt that the key was to, yes, be a gifted scholar. Learn your discipline. Honor your discipline. But recognize that sometimes, discipline alone is not going to get you to the promised land.
[01:07:47.00] No. Right. You could be the most brilliant critic of Phillis Wheatley's poetry, but that's not going to lead you to wake up the middle night and think, Amsterdam is going to plug the dike, right?
[01:08:01.29] That's exactly right.
[01:08:02.28] No, you have to have a certain skill set. You have to be a bit entrepreneur, a bureaucrat. It's an art to go to Congress and make the case. It's a multi-skilled challenge to do what you did.
[01:08:16.80] And again, I really think a lot of it for me is New Jersey. You learn to work the system. You work the angles. You never cross the line, but you get awful close to it, and you do what you got to do to make it work.
[01:08:29.55] Does the National African-American Museum do the work of reconciliation, and do we need truth and reconciliation, and what's your take on reparations?
[01:08:47.08] I really think that one of the goals of the museum was reconciliation and healing. Like many of us, I was shaped by what was going on in South Africa, and I kept thinking about that through the museum. We actually spent a lot of time bringing people in who could help us think about, how do exhibitions help with reconciliation and healing? What are the kind of spaces we need to create that allow that to happen? How do you train the staff to be able to do that? So was crucially important.
[01:09:14.59] And I think that for me, the museum, if it's done its job, illuminates the debt America owes to African-Americans. And that, therefore, if that's the case, then one has to figure out, how do you repay that debt? And whether it is reparations, for me it is about education. So what are the ways you pay that debt off? By ensuring that future generations have the opportunities that most of the earlier generations didn't have.
[01:09:46.75] You are invited to the re-dedication of the Shaw 54th Memorial in the fall of 2020. Are you coming?
[01:09:58.60] I like these cards. Keep [INAUDIBLE]
[01:10:02.44] I will do my best to be there, but I don't have any idea what my schedule is.
[01:10:08.08] Good. See? He's learning all this stuff. They give him a little manual of how to answer these questions. What is your opinion of the New York Times' 1619 Project? And I'll add, since we all know that Africans had been here at least for a century before, in what is now the United States.
[01:10:27.85] And I have to admit, I found it bizarre. I wrote to Dean, who's a friend of mine, and I go, you have to say that the Africans came to British North America, but they had been in the United States--
[01:10:40.78] I think that's really it. The challenge is, on the one hand, because it was what it was, it stimulated a conversation. That's really important. But I thought that it was flawed in that it didn't say, as you put it, the Spanish America is very different earlier.
[01:10:58.60] I think that what it really does is reinforce the notion of the kind of British or English bias. As somebody that's written about California, most of us were trained, as historians, to think of America going from east to west, but if you're a California scholar, you're going from the south to the north.
[01:11:15.73] And it changes the way you think about things. The fact that Los Angeles was established, founded by 24 people of African descent or of mixed race, nobody ever talks about that.
[01:11:26.27] So I think that The New York Times is crucially important, but I wish it had a little more nuance.
[01:11:31.94] And the first Underground Railroad actually ran from the British colonies to the Spanish colonies.
[01:11:37.54] That's right.
[01:11:38.51] If you crossed the St. Marys River, you were free.
[01:11:41.43] That's right.
[01:11:42.40] And so, in St. Augustine, there was a black community, Fort Mose, which was set up right outside for freed black people who had come from the British colonies south, and crossed the St. Marys River into Florida. Florida's first slave revolt, 1526.
[01:12:01.26] Yeah. And that's why Jackson and others go into Florida, to make it an American state.
[01:12:07.13] The same when I used to root for the guys at the Alamo. Nobody talked about the fact that Texas wanted to secede from Mexico because Mexico had abolished slavery in 1821. And the Texans wanted to keep slavery, obviously because of cotton in the profitability. American history was so much more complicated than that we were taught.
[01:12:30.89] I started rooting against the Alamo 'cause those coonskin caps, I mean, that just--
[01:12:35.44] I'm sorry. You're going to lose with that.
[01:12:41.08] Let me ask you this one, following up on that. How can or will you bring up social issues without alienating those with whom you disagree?
[01:12:53.33] Oh, that went a different direction than I thought it was going go.
[01:12:56.18] How do you think it was going to go?
[01:12:57.21] Well, I thought it was how do you do this in the political environment that we're in?
[01:13:01.54] OK, answer both.
[01:13:02.51] All right. My notion is--
[01:13:04.56] Thanks. My notion is that you recognize that a place like the Smithsonian is part of the federal government. The way you do that is by making sure you have allies in Congress.
[01:13:20.62] That would build angels that you have. So when I built the African-American Museum, the first thing I did was find 30 angels from both sides of the aisle who could then speak in my favor. Because you'll never manage Congress, but all you need is a tie. That's all you need. So if enough people say that's OK, then you can do the work there. So it was Congress and then being able to articulate a story through the media.
[01:13:45.66] So it was really building outside support to be able to do that work, and then recognizing that you're going to alienate people anyway, but what you want to try to do is do it in a way that they understand the complexity of what you're trying to do.
[01:14:01.59] I would argue that the most difficult thing a museum can do, and maybe the most important thing a museum can do, is not teach history, but help the public embrace ambiguity. If you could help the public understand that there are no simple answers, that it's the shades of gray, that it's nuanced and complex, boy, what a country we'd be.
[01:14:22.46] No, I think that's a good goal. Final question. Then you have to buy those books, remember? And you'll sign all the books, right?
[01:14:32.41] I already did.
[01:14:33.17] Oh, you signed the books. OK. Final question. How do you reckon with the language of yesterday, with words like, quote, unquote "minority" used for African-Americans and other people of color? How does such language affect the creation of new narratives?
[01:14:50.42] You and I are of an age that we've seen the evolution from Negro to Afro-American to African-American.
[01:14:57.13] From colored to Negro.
[01:14:59.32] Well, you're older than me. You were colored.
[01:15:04.45] I was never colored, OK?
[01:15:07.33] Hey, I wrote a book called Colored People.
[01:15:09.19] I know you did.
[01:15:11.59] But I think that part of what we want to do is, because scholarship and understanding the public was so essential, it really helped us think about language. My curators talked a lot about, what is the appropriate language to use? Do you use "people of color?" Do you use "African-American?" We had long conversations about, do you use words that were very derogatory, but that were really historically accurate?
[01:15:38.26] So we really wrestled with a lot of that, so just thinking about, how do you communicate the past? How do you communicate difficult issues? What is the language you use? Was at the heart of what we had to do.
[01:15:49.73] So what did you decide? I remember, I actually wrote a letter to Roy Wilkins in 1969, saying you have to change the name of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Because we're not colored anymore.
[01:16:02.98] That's right.
[01:16:03.16] They basically threw it in the trash. Like little kids, you know, who cares? But do you try to use the word that-- Frederick Douglass called himself colored.
[01:16:12.34] Would you use the word "colored?"
[01:16:13.33] We try to use the word that was appropriate at that moment.
[01:16:16.93] And we try to, then, even the derogatory words, we do it in a certain way. But we make sure that we use those words. So for example, important things like, candidly, "lynching." There were long debates about, should you show this? How many should you show? What are the ways to let people not have to see it?
[01:16:36.88] And my notion was, if you're going to this museum, you're going to see lynching. I don't care who you are. You may not see 30 images, but you'll see something, because I think you can't understand that story without that. So while we've done it in ways that parents can shield kids at the best, little kids. But I felt it was crucially important that everybody had to go and see something like that to understand the story.
[01:17:00.55] Final question. What are you going to do in the morning when you can't go by and see Emmett Till's casket?
[01:17:13.74] I think that what I do is, at least go by the museum and see that gleaming bronze building in the sun and recognizing that, as I said in the film, as long as there is an America, that museum will be there. That gives me the sustenance to go on.
[01:17:30.66] What Lonnie Bunch III has done is nothing short of a miracle, and I cannot express to you the depth of my admiration and appreciation for the miracle that you've accomplished. Give it up to Lonnie, ladies and gentlemen.
[01:17:50.85] Thank you.