The challenge of a new black history museum

TO MY READERS: Please read the post before you comment. Then comment responsibly

WASHINGTON — Can Lonnie Bunch bring black history out of its ghetto?

Will the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which he heads, lead to “reconciliation,” as Atlanta Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis predicts? Or will it merely exacerbate the perception of a separate experience outside the nation’s central story?

Bunch was appointed founding director in 2005; he has spent the years since working to build a national museum dedicated to the contributions black people have made to the great American experiment. He says the facility, scheduled to open on the National Mall in 2015, should be a place “that provides people the opportunity to go deeply into the African-American experience and understand that. . .it is a quintessentially American experience.

“What I’ve learned as a historian is how central African-American history is to everything (the nation) has done. . .To me, it’s almost as though the history and culture we want to explore is too big to be in the hands of (the black) community. It really is the best way to understand America.”

Bunch echoes Lewis, who spent 15 years pushing Congress to fund the project, which finally won approval in 2003. “We will never be able to appreciate the fullness of the American experience unless we include the whole story of the African-American experience,” Lewis told Museum News.

But history is not a simple matter of dates and places, battles and victors, kings and conquerors. Its many corners and contours reflect different truths, depending on where you stand. And no history is more baited and booby-trapped with conflicting interpretations than the history of race in America.

Just ask Miss. Gov. Haley Barbour, who has been mocked for his memories of a genteel and non-controversial civil rights era in the Deep South. Or ask Va. Gov. Bob McDonnell, who was chastised last year for issuing a proclamation honoring Confederate History Month without mentioning the Confederacy’s central cause: slavery.

Bunch has many constituencies — including black Americans — who want a history that avoids hard truths. He recalled an e-mail from a black man who called him a “Judas” for daring to suggest that exhibits about lynching would be included in the museum.

It’s no coincidence that Black History Month celebrations are often simplistic tributes to inspiring figures or paeans to well-known icons such as George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington or Rosa Parks. Even the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been sanded down to caricature — a preacher who had a Dream. Neither black Americans nor white nor brown seem to clamor for a full telling of this country’s much more complicated history — rife with violence, greed and betrayal as well as courage, charity and reconciliation.

Black Americans have been not just victims but also villains in the country’s complex drama. For example, native Americans have a very different interpretation of the role of the Buffalo Soldiers — “Negro” Calvary who participated in the so-called Indian Wars — than many black Americans do. Black Americans tend to see heroes, while many native Americans see invaders.

If some white Americans would be dismayed by a frank and unflinching exhibition about slavery, so would many black visitors be unhappy about a mention of the small number of black slave-owners, whom Bunch said he intends to include. Any discussion of the role of complexion in black America, where generations favored the fairer-skinned, would likely also ignite — well, the word “controversy” doesn’t quite cover it.

“I got more controversies than the Pope has holy water,” Bunch said, laughing. . “The biggest challenge I have is not raising money, not even finding collections, but recognizing and negotiating the competing audience visions of the past and (black) culture,” he said.

In the midst of that swirl of visions, Bunch says, he clings to advice from black historian John Hope Franklin, who always advised him to seek the “unvarnished truth.” There ought to be a place for that on the National Mall — and in America’s story.

You can join now at http://nmaahc.si.edu/

138 comments Add your comment

Trusslady

February 25th, 2011
3:14 pm

The “unvarnished truth” is what we all need to see and hear. Not the Gone With the Wind movie interpretation. That being said, I don’t think most want to see the truth, black or white. There is fear in being forced to open your eyes.

ctucker

February 25th, 2011
3:17 pm

Trusslady@3:14, you may be right, but I hope more will want the truth.

Good Grief

February 25th, 2011
3:29 pm

As much as I support revealing the history of America, Cynthia, I think many will see this as an exacerbation of “the perception of a separate experience.” I say that, not trying to start any kind of racial-tensed battle or anything of that nature. And I’m not going to use the cliched “Some of my best friends are black” line. I will say that I have never been a fan of hyphenated Americanism, as it were.

That said, kudos to Mr. Bunch for electing to include the negative aspects of history, and not try to present a candy-coated vision of life in this country.

Billings

February 25th, 2011
3:32 pm

I hope Bunch includes the inconvenient truth–that the vast majority of slaves taken out of Africa were sold by African rulers, traders and a military aristocracy who all grew wealthy from the business.

ctucker

February 25th, 2011
3:35 pm

Billings@3:32, Are you a scholar of African history? Where did you do your research?

Ragnar Danneskjöld

February 25th, 2011
3:42 pm

The “truth” does not have to be “all rottenness.” Leftists like to wallow in misery, and feel compelled to make us share the misery. If you want something normal people will actually go see, make it uplifting. Tuskegee alone has enough stories to tell – from GW Carver to the Airmen – to inspire anyone, pigment-challenged and otherwise. Thomas Sowell pioneered economic research and analysis of relationships among sub-groups n various societies all over the world. Tell us what African-Americans are doing for the world, don’t sing us another lament.

Logical Dude

February 25th, 2011
3:47 pm

I think a museum is important to remind the young: “This is how we once were.”

The good, the bad, the normal, the special.
Being someone who grew up in different parts of the country, I didn’t understand why some people just HATED other people just for being different. Why did some of my relatives behave differently toward “other” people?

That is how the young growing up today will fee. Why did one group randomly kill people in another group? Why were there laws separating everyone? It seems quite stupid to the young, but having a museum educate the young is quite necessary for full understanding.

Thanks for the post Cynthia.

onpatroll

February 25th, 2011
3:47 pm

Tuskegee alone has enough stories to tell – from GW Carver to the Airmen…

you forgot about the syphilis. very inspiring.

Ragnar Danneskjöld

February 25th, 2011
3:48 pm

Walter E. Williams writes often on black history. One good one: jewishworldreview.com/cols/williamns110310.php3

I don’t know if there are any other Williams fans on this blog, but he just published his autobiography, “Up From the Ghetto.” Just finished it – he is my kind of smart-alec. Great story.

Good Grief

February 25th, 2011
3:48 pm

CT – I can’t back up Billings’s claim about the rulers being the ones to sell slaves, but African slavery has a long history, typically stemming from times of war, when defeated nations were taken as slaves to the victorious nation. That’s standard history. Every continent has seen it. The Mongols took other Asiatic peoples as slaves, the Atzec and the Maya took other idigenous peoples as slaves. Arabs have taken other Arabs as slaves. Caucasians have taken other caucasians as slaves. Sometimes through outright slavery, other times through indentured servitude, which was little better.

Logical Dude

February 25th, 2011
3:48 pm

OF course, right after I click “submit comment” i see a mispelling:

“This is how the young growing up today will feel”

ctucker

February 25th, 2011
3:55 pm

Logical Dude@3:38, Thanks for reading and contributing civilly

ctucker

February 25th, 2011
3:55 pm

Yes, Good Grief@3:48, It is standard human history.

sean smith

February 25th, 2011
3:56 pm

What difference does it make what african leaders did in Africa? The point of the museum is AMERICAN treatment of blacks.

ctucker

February 25th, 2011
3:57 pm

Ragnar@3:42, I was about to argue with you gross generalization that, “leftists like to wallow in misery.” But I am reading the comments about my post. What does that say about misery and me?

Mike K.

February 25th, 2011
3:57 pm

@ctucker
Not to ruffle your feathers, but the MET seems to indicate that Billings is correct. Isn’t your post about why an African-American history museum should include exhibits that reflect the reality of slavery even if it makes people (white or black) uncomfortable? The truth is Africans did play a major role in the slave trade.

At the very least quote like the following make one realize that Africans did play a role in enslaving black Americans.

King Gezo of Dahomey, who said in 1840: The slave trade has been the ruling principle of my people” and “it has been the source of their glory and wealth.

metmuseum.org/toah/hd/slav/hd_slav.htm

RJ

February 25th, 2011
3:58 pm

Just out of curiosity, how many other minority groups in America campaign to get museums and months dedicated to their contributions to America? Is there an Asian History month? Is there a National Association for the Advancement of Jewish People?

Amazing how blacks have all that stuff, and are the minority group complaining of bigotry the most.

I wonder if there’s a connection.

james

February 25th, 2011
3:59 pm

Needed. Grew up in Atlanta 70’s- wasn’t until college did I see film of the horrors of beating someone silly (or to death) for sitting in a white area. Life changer for me. History tends to repeat if some are allowed to try to change it.

They BOTH suck

February 25th, 2011
4:04 pm

@RJ

Which of those groups were brought here as slaves and degraded for several hundred years?

I know you have a meaningful point to make and want to tell the whole story, so just say it

Thanks

jt

February 25th, 2011
4:05 pm

It is important to note that ALL races have had a comman enemy througout history.

That enemy is those who wish to control. The civil war did not free the slaves. It made us ALL slaves.

Sorry about the unvarnished truth. Most of you can’t handle it.

They BOTH suck

February 25th, 2011
4:05 pm

Now that we have established that Africans sold salves that were sent to the America’s, we all want the the rest of the story to be told, right?

ctucker

February 25th, 2011
4:07 pm

Mike K@3:57, My feathers are unruffled. I would in no way object if the new museum includes history about the contributions that African rulers made to slavery. But the quote that you dug up — from one ruler of a small kingdom — in no way buttresses Billings’ view that “the vast majority of slaves taken out of Africa were sold by African rulers.” To go from one ruler to “vast majority” indicates very sloppy scholarship.

Logical Dude

February 25th, 2011
4:18 pm

Having a wife that minored in African-American studies, I know a little bit about the African rulers issue.

Yes, it happened. But it also happened with the back-room politicising of Europeans playing both sides. Oh, THEY sold some of your people into slavery? How about YOU selling some of THEM?

Still, I’m not sure if it was “a vast majority”. From retyping my wife’s papers (I can type faster), it seems more about various tribes than about whole nations.

I Report (-: You Whine )-: mmmmm, mmmm, mmm! Just sayin...

February 25th, 2011
4:38 pm

Will we have a black on black atrocity wing in the museum or would that not suit our purpose?

Ooops, I forgot, that’s America’s fault too.

Never mind.

Pragmitist

February 25th, 2011
4:42 pm

It is obvious,

banksters or the war machine do not care what color or race that their puppet is.

I Report (-: You Whine )-: mmmmm, mmmm, mmm! Just sayin...

February 25th, 2011
4:42 pm

Hey, let’s start an aborted late term fetus museum, uh, oh yeah, they aren’t around to tell us about the horror.

Never mind.

Pacer

February 25th, 2011
4:47 pm

The museum can make an important contribution to American history. But if it’s not done right it has the potential to be divisive. Dwelling too much on the slavery/lynching/evil white slave owner aspect will lead some people to see it as a play for victimhood. Better to accentuate the advances that black people have made in the U.S. in a relatively short period of time.

Jimmy62

February 25th, 2011
4:51 pm

What’s sad is how many women are treated like virtual slaves in Islamic countries (not all, but many), and when that reporter was raped in Egypt, instead of using it as a chance to talk about how badly women are treated over there, it was mostly used as a chance to attack Republicans.

It’s sad how much focus we still put on people who were slaves 150 years ago, while so few seem willing to speak out against how badly women of any race are treated throughout the middle east.

Mike K.

February 25th, 2011
4:51 pm

@ctucker
Well, I’m no Africa scholar either, so I can’t say whether the majority of American slaves were initially captured by Africans, but the link to the MET I provided indicated that slavery was big business in Africa (see the quote below). Plus, wikipedia (admittedly, not the greatest source) claims that Europeans rarely went far into the heart of Africa because of their susceptibility to disease.

“Slave exports were responsible for the emergence of a number of large and powerful kingdoms that relied on a militaristic culture of constant warfare to generate the great numbers of human captives required for trade with the Europeans. The Yoruba kingdom of Oyo on the Guinea coast, founded sometime before 1500, expanded rapidly in the eighteenth century as a result of this commerce. Its formidable army, aided by advanced iron technology, captured immense numbers of slaves that were profitably sold to traders. In the nineteenth century, the aggressive pursuit of slaves through warfare and raiding led to the ascent of the kingdom of Dahomey, in what is now the Republic of Benin, and prompted the emergence of the Chokwe chiefdoms from under the shadow of their Lunda overlords in present-day Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Asante kingdom on the Gold Coast of West Africa also became a major slave exporter in the eighteenth century.

Source: The Transatlantic Slave Trade | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art “

Democrats Say Racist Things To

February 25th, 2011
5:01 pm

The museum is fine. I probably wouldn’t go as there are already to many museums in D.C. as there is and would not have the time during a visit. But what amazed me was that you only highlighted what you consider racist comments from white GOP politicians. How biased of you! Let me refresh your memory.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) referred to President Barack Obama as “light skinned” and “with no Negro dialect” in private conversations during the 2008 presidential campaign.

“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
Sen. Joe Biden

Bill Clinton made about Obama to then Sen. Ted Kennedy saying, “A few years ago this guy would have been getting us coffee.”

“You cannot go to a 7-11 or Dunkin Donuts unless you have a slight Indian Accent.”
-Senator Joe Biden

Recently deceased Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd (W. VA) was a member of the KKK

There is also some interesting black on black racist quotes.

Racism is colorless has allegiance to no party.

Billings

February 25th, 2011
5:07 pm

Ms. Tucker @ 3:35.

Tunde Obadina’s “Role of African Slave Traders.”

I’m off to meet friends.

Billings

February 25th, 2011
5:10 pm

As an aside Ms. Tucker. Even after Europe abolished slavery, the African leaders continued to sell their own people into slavery.

Now I do have to leave.

arnold

February 25th, 2011
5:13 pm

I remember a few years ago in Tampa, FL a former slave ship was to be set up to enable visitors to see an actual slave ship. It was beaten down by the black community. I never understood how that would have been a bad exhibit for anyone to see.

There are many sides to the truth. Hiding from the past will never be beneficial to understanding the past.

Keep up the good fight!

February 25th, 2011
5:38 pm

Having visited most if not all of the Smithsonian buildings and a few other museums in Washington, I can say that the Holocaust Museum was one of the most inspiring, tragic, haunting, uplifting and depressing museums and I look forward to seeing it again. I believe this museum has the same potential.

I do think it a shame that some posters have to try to trot out the African nations involvement in the slave trade as if it absolved others. It is indeed a part of the history. Yes there were likely some slaves who fought for the south in the Civil War. Yes, there is even mixed history with General Sherman’s treatment of the slaves on his march to Savannah. The shameful history of the south in the 50’s, 60s and to some extent today. The shameful history of South Boston in the 70s. The continuing race issues that remain a part of this country. All of it needs to be told and we as a nation need to start to truly heal the wounds of slavery instead of hiding the scab.

Billybob

February 25th, 2011
7:19 pm

Trusslady and Tucker,
I have no problem with what this gentlemen is trying to do. I hope he succeeds in creating an amazing exhibit, BUT…….how about a prominent display of the millions upon millions of conservative americans that have had our eyes open for decades, yet get no credit for it………and, in the interim, continue to get hammered as racist by the left and the media to this very day, while the left absolves their own(democratic) party leaders……and the truth shall FINALLY set you free….

Moderate Line

February 25th, 2011
7:56 pm

Trusslady

February 25th, 2011
3:14 pm
The “unvarnished truth” is what we all need to see and hear. Not the Gone With the Wind movie interpretation. That being said, I don’t think most want to see the truth, black or white. There is fear in being forced to open your eyes.
++++
I believe TrussLady so right. How often do you read or hear about the Japanese internment when you see something on FDR or when he attempted packing the court. It is interesting how people who like Reagan gloss over Iran-Contra and those who don’t like him place more emphasis on it.

Museums and history are more of a reflection on their creators than what actually happen.

Thulsa doom

February 25th, 2011
8:10 pm

Nice article by cynthia whom I rarely agree with. African involvement doesnt absolve white europeans but it is a fact that there were five great afrivan slave trading kingdoms. One ruler had a 100k army there is no way small crews of slave ships went deep into the interior to battle nations. They simply met the african slave traders at the ports. But this is indeed rsrely taught because black leaders dont want to avknowledge the large role of african slave trading kingdoms

B Cosby

February 25th, 2011
8:11 pm

It’s just wrong to have a museum funded by the taxpayers that is dedicated to one race. The national debt tells us that. Is there an Irish-American museum in the works, a Chinese-American, Japanese-American, etc? Can we say, for example the Japanese have not contributed the U.S. history, for example? The Chinese-Americans, pretty much built the U.S. railroad system, is that not an acomplishment? Is Africa paying for half of the museum? What about things like the Viet Nam Vetrans Memorial? It was built by donations, not the government. This is a prime example of why people of the United States have a tendancy to demonstrate racism. It’s forced down their throats by 13% of the population. Maybe that 13% should fund the museum, not the remaining 87%. How many former slaves will visit the museum? Slavery ended 150 years ago, thankfully! It’s time the United States moved beyond the whole mess. Get healed and toss the crutch!!

Jack

February 25th, 2011
8:15 pm

Best not to have an opinion in here if you are not a scholar.

Thulsa doom

February 25th, 2011
8:16 pm

And will this museum have any input from black conservatives like thomas sowell who is an historian and economist? Probably not. And john hope franklin is not without controversy. Something tells me that the input of black conservatives will be nill.

Mr Charlie

February 25th, 2011
8:22 pm

No, Thomas Sowell and Clarence Thomas will be represented in the ‘Uncle Tom” wing.

Auburn Fan

February 25th, 2011
8:29 pm

As a white guy from the south that never had anything to do with slavery, why do I get the feeling that this is just going to be “The Blame America” museum?

“We will never be able to appreciate the fullness of the American experience unless we include the whole story of the African-American experience,” Lewis told Museum News.

Auburn Fan

February 25th, 2011
8:31 pm

Mr Charlie that attitude is really great. Please explain why they are Uncle Toms?

Thulsa Doom

February 25th, 2011
8:33 pm

One last thing about the unvarnished truth. Some people really don’t want to hear the truth- it doesn’t matter to them as they see everything solely through the prism of race. Give you a good example.

The Tuskegee airmen were reputed to have never lost a bomber when they were flying as fighter escorts. That’s always been the claim and the history anyway.

And then a year or 2 ago a black historian looked into it with the aide of a white historian. They combed the flight logs and records and found that indeed they had lost several planes. Doesn’t diminish their service as Americans though. But people still just didn’t want to hear the truth and the black historian received death threats and was called the usual names like uncle Tom.

The other thing that’s rarely said is that the black pilots escorted the 3rd wave of bomber runs which encountered very little resistance as most of the German fighter opposition was used up in the first 2 waves. Resistance in general was much weaker by the time the Tuskegee airman started serving in the later years of the war anyway.

None of this diminishes their service. Its just the truth of what really happened. And if you tell that truth as the black historian did then you’re gonna find out just how horrible people can be when they see everything in terms of race.

Thulsa Doom

February 25th, 2011
8:36 pm

Mr. Charlie,

Thomas Sowell and Judge Clarence Thomas will be put in the Uncle Tom room? Funny but unfortunately you may just be right. That is if they’re mentioned at all. I’m out. Ya’ll have a good weekend.

Auburn Fan

February 25th, 2011
8:39 pm

I would donate money to this museum if after it was built we could all agree that African-Americans are no longer victims. When I look around this country I sure don’t see any victims anymore. I see opportunities for every person regardless of what color you are and how you got here.

Mr Charlie

February 25th, 2011
8:43 pm

I also hope there is a wing that shows how Africa has progressed over the 200 years under the leadership of native Africans, maybe a “what African Americans lifestyles would be like” if they were not sold into slavery. Again, truths we don’t want to hear.

B Cosby

February 25th, 2011
8:50 pm

Auburn, you are right, except I would not donate any money. People are victims of their own choice. Like I stated earlier, I see black America using history as a crutch. There are plenty of opportunities! Just reach out and get a hold of one. I see the heroes of the museum being Malcolm X, the Black Panters, Spike Lee, etc.. Not those that actuall contributed to growth and equallity. Next thing you see will be a Muslim museum with a monument of the twin towers falling in front of the building, no less funded by the U.S. taxpayer!

Mr Charlie

February 25th, 2011
8:52 pm

I mean, if it was not for slavery, Michelle Obama’s life very well might have amounted to perfecting the art of balancing pottery as she shuttles from the river to the village.

Lets not forget that Barak has a half brother named George who lives in a tiny shack Keyna.

Again, if we are going to discuss the truth, lets be sure to talk about the entire truth. Lets discuss the opportunity that America has provided to former Africans that never would have existed had there been no slavery.

buck@gon

February 25th, 2011
9:32 pm

WEEKLY DUMPSTER DIVE
AT THE AJC
SETTING FREE PRIVATE DOCUMENTS ABOUT OUR “FAVORITE” EDITORS.
Ms. Cynthia Tucker
Atlanta, Ga

24 February 2011

New Hope Publishing
New Hope, Alabama

Dear Ms. Tucker,

Thank you for your second submission to our house for publishing. I regret to inform you that we can not accept your Universal Christian Hymnal for publication. We are sorry to tell you that there are several problems with the book, should you try to have it published elsewhere.

I must be honest. The first time we received this we did not believe you were serious, most of the hymns not being written to the more traditional institutes of God and Church.

The first song we might give as example was My Obama. Clearly this song is a knock-off of How Great Thou Art, with only a few lyrical adjustments made, such as “jobs thy hands have saved.” When we saw this, we thought some of the local college Democrats outside handing out condoms were also pranking us, and as a result we cut power to the building and did a quick check to see if anyone was hiding in our ceiling with recording equipment. Your song, “Yes Joe Biden loves me,” gave our secretary a giggle because, in part, she had no idea whom you were talking about. We thought that you could use O-Ba-Ma lyrically instead of Joe-Bi-Den, and it might work just fine.

Several of the Christmas tunes you plagiarized were not only made un-Christmaslike, but obviously un-Christian. We all realize the historic assumption of high office made by the current President, but renaming The First Noel, The First Brother President was pretty–well, you obviously had the audacity of hope on that one.

While we wouldn’t publish secular songs in our publishing house, we wanted to let you know that Up in the White House (based on Up on the Housetop) seemed to us like a parody.

We thought that your score to “Barack Hussein Obama mmm, mmmm, mmm” was a fine attempt on your part to arrange music, but we must admit that song is just non-lyrical rap to begin with. You can’t do much with it. We give it back to you with the assurance that we won’t try and copy it for our own use.

I’m sorry to be the one to be the bearer of bad news, and I’m also disappointed that we had to cancel our ajc advertising last year, but we can’t go any further with what you have given us. As I said, we are a publishing house for church hymnals and our focus is pretty narrow. Why not give George Soros or the SEIU a call. You could also publish on the internet.

Some of us sung a round of “Swing Low Sweet AirForce One,” just to put this whole consternation causing affair to rest, with fellowship and beer and wine—which we never do, by the way.

Anyway, best of luck in your efforts,

Sincerely,

Ron Reagan