On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Although it will be a monumental task, the past is replete with examples of ordinary people working together to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. History is a guide to a better future and demonstrates that we can become a better society—but only if we collectively demand it from each other and from the institutions responsible for administering justice.
As the country wrestles with racism and police violence, we hear from Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, on this moment of protest in the midst of a pandemic, the evolving role of cultural institutions and where we stand on the arc of civil rights.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Lonnie G. Bunch III Founding Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. This is a quote: "Like many Americans watching multiple incidents of deadly violence against black people unfold before our eyes has left us feeling demoralized and distraught, aghast and angry." Those words from Secretary of the Smithsonian, Lonnie Bunch. Quoting some more: "Not only have we been forced to grapple with the impact of a global pandemic, we've been forced to confront the reality that, despite gains made in the past 50 years, we are still a nation riven by inequality and racial division."
KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in this moment of pandemic and protest is Lonnie Bunch. He is the secretary of the Smithsonian. He's also the founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Lonnie Bunch, thank you so much for joining us.
LONNIE BUNCHIt's always my pleasure to be with you, sir.
NNAMDIYou have said that it's time for America to, quoting here, "confront its tortured racial past." What about this moment is different to you?
BUNCHWell, I think, first of all, it's a moment where so many people in the United States and the world are focusing on Black Lives Matter, focusing on the black experience. And what's crucial to me is that this is a moment where I hope we can force -- and maybe that's the right word -- force political leaders at all levels, force cultural community leaders to actually say, now is the moment to try to understand how race has always shaped the American experience, and how you can't talk about American democracy without talking about how race and institutional racism has always been a part of it.
BUNCHAnd I think the first step is for people to understand that this is a story, a problem for all Americans. It affects black people, but it's a problem that all Americans have to grapple with.
NNAMDIYou know, people look at the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they look at the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they look at the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and they say we have made progress in our democracy. But you say the state of our democracy feels fragile and precarious. What do you mean by that?
BUNCHWell, for me, it's crucial to understand that the struggle for fairness and racial equality in America is a struggle that will go on as long as there's an American. So, I want people to realize that there have been moments of transformation. There have been moments that I've laid a foundation upon, which later generations built on. But there is also a need to continue to fight the fight to ensure that liberty is really at the heart of the American mindset, rather than just that it's the founding documents.
NNAMDILonnie Bunch, is the study of history particularly important at times like this, when the country is wrestling with racism and police violence?
BUNCHOh, I think absolutely. I think history is an important tool that helps people live their lives. I think it's important to look at history for several reasons. First of all, there is a sense that history reminds us that this is a long struggle, and that there's not an overnight victory, and that perseverance is the key.
BUNCHBut it also gives you inspirational people who help you think about this moment and help inspire you to change. I mean, I've been hearing in my head all week, for the last several weeks, Ella Baker. I've been hearing Ella Baker, the great civil rights leader talk about that until the killing of a black mother's son is as important in this country as the killing of a white mother's son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest. And, to me, that's both sad and inspirational, and inspires me to want to make sure that we continue to fight the good fight.
NNAMDIBut, of course, unlike the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s, today we have another layer, a global pandemic in the form of COVID-19. Can anything in our recent history, or history, compare to this moment?
BUNCHWell, I think that there are things in this moment that are unique. But let's be clear, there were global pandemics, the flu epidemic in 1918, 1919. Around the same time, we have the Red Summer riots. You've got a horrible flu epidemic that kills millions of people in 1968. So, it's not that this is the only time that's happened. But what's happened is that these have come together strongly, and that, in essence, you have an international attention to these issues. And you have social media.
BUNCHSo, for the first time, what you have is an ability to make sure that moments of evil or the desire to come together as a community is something you can do much more quickly because of social media.
NNAMDIAnd I was thinking of the pandemic, the flu pandemic of 1918. At the time, my father would have been 18 years old. He was born in 1900. And that pandemic was particularly harsh on younger people as opposed to this one that seems to be affecting elderly people a little bit more. Is that kind of history important to understand?
BUNCHI think it is. I think it's important to realize that there are those moments where people were able to sort of come together and overcome. Not necessarily make all the changes one wants. Clearly, it's a long-term struggle. But it's important to understand that this moment has uniqueness, but it's also part of a long history of the struggle for fairness in America.
NNAMDIHere is Lou in Fairfax, Virginia. Lou, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LOUFirst of all, as an African-American man, I applaud your election as the Smithsonian's 14th secretary. But I must let you know that I and other black professionals at the National Museum of African Art were fired from our positions to make way for white colleagues. That your equal employment office rejects discrimination claims, and that your equal employment system is structured to, over multiple years, bankrupt and demoralize employees, while denying them justice.
LOUSir, I respectfully ask that you look deeply into the systemic racist climate that the African Art Museum and in your equal employment office that is evident in our respective cases and do the right thing. I and my black colleagues welcome any and all direct dialogue with you, Mr. Secretary.
NNAMDILou, you are saying that you are a former employee of the Smithsonian?
LOUThat is correct.
NNAMDIOkay. Well, these matters are clearly above my head. And Lonnie Bunch, as the secretary of the Smithsonian, I guess, would have to look into them himself. But, Lou, if you'd like to give your name and telephone number to our call screener, then the secretary or some of his people may be able to get back with you at some point. But I don't think he can address a specific case about which I'm assuming he doesn't have any knowledge at this point, right now. Am I correct in that, Lonnie Bunch?
BUNCHI think what's important is that the Smithsonian, like everyplace else, is struggling to make sure that we are a place that is fair and inclusive. And that any issues like that, I would always pay attention to. But this particular situation, I know nothing about.
NNAMDIOkay. Lou, thank you very much for your call. Lonnie Bunch, how do you take the momentum of this movement, sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and try somehow to turn it into real, permanent change?
BUNCHI think, first of all, what is really obvious to me, as a black man who's still breathing, is that we have to breath for all the others, like George Floyd, who didn't make it. And so part of what it does it turns this into something that is both sort of a national issue and a personal issue.
BUNCHAnd I think that what I think I'm seeing differently is I'm seeing so many people who normally turn their backs on these issues, many corporate leaders. I've been impressed that I've talked to a couple of the police chiefs around the country who are recognizing that now is the time they've got to make fundamental change. Now, will they? We have to hold their feet to the fire. But I'm hearing conversations that I've not heard before.
BUNCHBut I must admit, I am hopeful of change, but I'm not always optimistic. Because how many times have I said to people, I'm tired of mourning? How many times have I looked back in history and said, this is really another one of those moments where black dreams are crushed, black hopes are rejected? But I believe that this is a time that if we can continue to keep the visibility, put the pressure on, really reap the benefits of leadership at all levels, this can be a time of change.
NNAMDIDale in Winchester, Virginia called to say, but couldn't stay on the line, last night on “CBS Evening News,” they did a tiny segment on George Floyd's teacher in grade school, and referenced a letter he wrote on what he wanted to be when he grows up. And it was Supreme Court Justice. Maybe the Smithsonian would want that letter to display.
NNAMDIYou lead the Smithsonian Museums, Lonnie Bunch, and curators are collecting objects to help future generations understand this moment. For some months, they focused on the coronavirus. Are curators also now turning their attention to issues related to Black Lives Matter and the current protests?
BUNCHOne of the most important things that museums have to do is collect today for tomorrow. And our curators, across the Smithsonian, have been collecting not just the pandemic. They've collected this moment. They've collected Black Lives Matter. One of the things that's really important to me is to make sure that there's the material, so that things that happened early in my career when I wanted to tell certain stories, there were no collections in museums.
BUNCHI want to ensure that these stories are told today and made available for people in the future. Because there's no doubt, no doubt in my mind that this moment is one of the most important moments of transformation in American history. And it's going to be the way people are going to understand so much of the early 21st century, by looking at this moment.
BUNCHSo, I’m proud that our folks are out interviewing people, collecting materials, collecting photographs and videos that people shoot on their phones, making sure that this story is told through a variety of lenses.
NNAMDILast time you were on this program, it was to discuss the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture, the institution you founded, which, like all the museums in Washington, has been closed for months amidst the pandemic. How can cultural institutions like the Smithsonian remain accessible and relevant in a time like this?
BUNCHWell, first of all, the Smithsonian's doors are closed, but the Smithsonian's not closed. For the last several months, the Smithsonian has made so much of its content available digitally. We've created so many educational programs and opportunities to, first, help teachers, but then to help parents who suddenly are becoming teachers. We've made sure that so much of our content about the science of pandemics, much of our content about race is online through the portals that we've created like SmithsonianCares, but also to the individual museums.
BUNCHSo, one I'm proudest of is that the Smithsonian nimbly adjusted and said, while our doors are closed, our hearts are open, our scholarship is available, and our commitment to educating and serving a public is just as strong.
NNAMDIThe National Museum of African-American History and Culture has launched a portal to help people explore issues of race and racism. What are some of the resources people can find there?
BUNCHYou know, I'm so proud of the museum, and I take no credit for that. It was done after I was gone. What I think is so powerful is that, first of all, it provides people with sort of scholarly resources, things to read to understand this moment. It also provides educational materials that help parents talk to children. But, also, it gives children educational opportunities to understand this moment and to ask questions about fairness.
BUNCHIt also has sort of material that would allow anybody to figure out, how do you have the conversations around race? How do you make sure that you can talk across racial lines to find real, candid conversations? And I'm very proud of it because what it does is it says, here is something that many people say we do all the time, we talk about race. But we really don't talk about it in a meaningful way and across many boundaries. And this portal is helping all Americans do that.
NNAMDIMary Alexander, University of Maryland professor of museum scholarship and material culture emailed us to ask: What is your advice to museum study students, most often white and female, as they enter the museum profession?
BUNCHWell, my hope is that the profession is diversifying in many different ways in terms of race and ethnicity, in terms of sexuality. But I always say to students entering the museum field is that this is really an opportunity to work in a field that should be not about science or history or art. Its ultimate goal should be to help a country be made better, to encourage new generations of people to recognize they've got to step up and become activists to help a country be made better.
BUNCHSo, my advice is, if you're willing to fight the good fight, if you're willing to recognize this is about the greater good and not about you, and if you're willing to work long hours for low pay, come work in museums.
NNAMDI(laugh) Around the country, Lonnie Bunch, and the world, we're seeing a reckoning with monuments to a racist past. In Richmond is Governor Ralph Northam pledging to remove a monument to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. And, in a town in Britain, protestors toppled the statue of a slave trader -- his name was Edward Colston -- and they threw it into a nearby harbor. What has this kind of shift meant to you, as an historian and an educator?
BUNCHI think that, first of all, as somebody who's been in Bristol and England, I'm so pleased they turned that statue over. (laugh) But what I think is so important is to recognize that you don't ever want to erase history. What you want to do is you want to make sure that if there are statues that remain, that people understand what they are. That these statues, for example, Confederate statues are less statues about celebrating a historic Southern past and more about statements about white supremacy, statements to counter the struggle to erase segregation.
BUNCHSo, people need to understand what these statues really are. I'm a firm believer in pruning, getting rid of some statues, adding other statues that give a richer sense of the history and the complexity. But what I'm happy about more than anything else is part of what's happening at this moment is people are understanding the power of history, the importance of history. And to recognize that it's crucial for a nation, because you can tell so much about a nation by what it remembers, but what it puts in its museums' walls, by what it builds statues to, by what holidays it celebrates.
BUNCHBut I think you tell even more about a nation by what it forgets, what it doesn't celebrate. And I think today what you're seeing is people saying, it's not enough to remember. You've got to make sure that you counter the prevailing narrative and ensure that you're telling fuller, rich stories. As John Hope Franklin used to always say to me, the most important thing one can do is ensure that the public learns the unvarnished truth about the past.
NNAMDIYou just mentioned one of my favorite people, John Hope Franklin. Here is Atesh, in Prince George's County. Atesh, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ATESHHello, Lonnie. You may remember me from my 20 years at the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. And I've been hearing really disturbing things lately about what's going on with the directorate there, and the staff is really alarmed and the board is alarmed. Can you just speak publically and the unvarnished truth, telling the story, what is going on?
BUNCHWell, obviously, I'm not going to talk about personnel issues, but I think the reality is that I'm revisiting so many aspects of the Smithsonian, because this is a moment to say, what is the best format, the best structures, the best people to lead the Smithsonian as we move through the 21st century? So, there are areas that I am very, very supportive of in terms of the Folkways and Folklife. And so there are many parts of the Smithsonian we're reviewing now, but the reality is that the Smithsonian is a place that is going to be made better, and I'm committed to doing that.
NNAMDIThe Smithsonian recently received a $25 million grant. Do you have any idea what that grant will do? (laugh)
BUNCH(laugh) Yeah, since I was involved a bit. What's important is that I think that this is a time that individuals and institutions have to play a role in illuminating all the dark corners of our past, of helping people understand the history of this country, the centrality of race in this country and to help people figure out, all right, what can we do to grapple with this.
BUNCHSo, I am so honored that one of the supporters of the African-American Museum, the Bank of America, has agreed to give a major gift that would allow us to create an initiative that looks at race community in our shared future. And that this would give us an opportunity to reach virtually around the country to help people grapple with questions of race, to bring together sort of the smartest thinkers nationally and place them in the local context, so that we can make sure that we're actually accomplishing things, not just having conversations.
BUNCHAnd it's important that this would allow the Smithsonian to make sure they collect this moment, to have the collections and the history that will tell the story as we move forward. It also would allow us to craft education material around questions of race and fairness and police injustice. So, this is really an opportunity for the Smithsonian to play a role that matters, to say that issues of race, issues of discrimination, issues of systematic racism are things that the Smithsonian must also help address. And this initiative will help us do that.
NNAMDIYou mentioned earlier the centrality of race in American history. Being in that profession, in the history profession, is there still some pushback from parts of the historian community, if you will, against that narrative, the centrality of race in American history?
BUNCHI think most historians now know that. Most of the American public does not, that they view the African American experience as interesting, sometimes important, but not central to everybody's experience. And if you look at this country's history, it has always been shaped by issues of race, and that so many of the moments where the country actually began to live up to its state of ideals was because of the struggle of African-Americans and others.
BUNCHSo for me, the story of African-American history is the quintessential American story. If you want to understand American notions of spirituality, resiliency, optimism, where to look within this community. If you want to understand the promise of American life and the limits of that promise, it's the African-American experience that helps you see that. So, this is the story that shapes us all.
NNAMDIThe Smithsonian Science Education Center, in partnership with the World Health Organization, has launched a curriculum guide in order to help students understand the scientific and social effects of the coronavirus. Can you tell us a little bit about that guide and what information it offers?
BUNCHWell, I think what the Smithsonian's been doing is a lot of research over the years looking at, for example, the relationship between animal viruses and human viruses. There's been a lot of work that helps us understand how we prevent that. It also obviously makes the connection how the global issues of health are tied to the way we all think about animals and the way that we share our information internationally.
BUNCHAnd this curriculum packet is really a way to help teachers and students understand this moment from a scientific point of view, understand why it's important to look at our science and support our science. And it helps people understand that the key to getting at this moment is through the scientific research that's been going on. And now we have to continue to support that, because this is not going to be the last pandemic.
NNAMDIWhat we learn about history can profoundly affect the beliefs we hold and the people we ultimately become. In what ways are the Smithsonian in general and the Museum of African-American History and Culture in particular working to make sure that the writing of this history, of this moment, reflects the experiences of those most vulnerable both to the pandemic and to police violence?
BUNCHWell, I think that the Smithsonian, especially the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, has shed the light on some of the most horrific moments in American history. Whether it's the murder of Emmett Till, the sort of impact of bondage on African-Americans. But it's also a story that talks about resiliency and hope. And so what you see now is that, as we collect these moments, we're looking at what does this tell us about the history of racial inequity in health care. What does this tell us about the sort of challenge of police violence? And what does it tell us about the limits even of visually seeing things like the beating of Rodney King and the like?
BUNCHSo the goal of the museum, like any good museum, is to make sure that its collections, its scholarships reflects the diversity of features and individuals that have shaped this moment. So, the key is this has to be a moment that looks in all aspects of the community.
NNAMDILonnie Bunch is the secretary of the Smithsonian. He's also the founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Lonnie Bunch, thank you for joining us. Stay safe.
BUNCHIt's always my pleasure. You stay safe, my friend.
NNAMDII'll try. This segment with Smithsonian secretary Lonnie Bunch was produced by Julie Depenbrock. And our conversation about the LGBTQ community protesting racism was produced by Richard Cunningham. Join us tonight for the next Kojo in Your Virtual Community on racial disparities during the pandemic. We'll explore how the coronavirus has hit people of color especially hard, and what people are trying to do to lessen health care inequality. The program starts at 7:30 p.m. and it's free, but you need to register by 5:00 p.m. today at kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, across the country and the capital region, there have been calls to defund the police, but what does that mean? Plus, black police officers have always struggled with a dual identity, but massive nationwide protests against police brutality are forcing them to make particularly wrenching choices. We'll talk about how they're handling pressure from both protestors and their profession. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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