DAVIDSON, N.C. -- Black history has stood separate and unequal, relegated to one month of recognition -- and there's a reason for that. For too long, the contributions of minorities didn't make it into the history books. So February was the mid-winter corrective.
Come Nov. 18, 2015, if all goes well, the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture will take an accounting of that history to the National Mall, alongside the Washington Monument and across from the National Museum of American History. It is a fitting place.
The unfinished journey -- which at every step reflects the contradiction between America's democratic promise and its problematic past -- won't proceed without controversy. It's a fact that doesn't bother the museum's founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch. "Our job is not to manage controversy, but to embrace it," he said.
"The greatest strength of America is confronting its past, and learning where it can grow," Bunch told me after a recent presentation at Davidson College. But the historian, author, curator and educator -- who has been working on the project since 2005 -- realizes not everyone would agree or nod along with the rhetorical question he asks in the museum's vision statement: "If one wants to explore the changing definitions of American citizenship, liberty, and equality, where better than through the black experience?"
One note Bunch received instead insisted that "America's greatest strength is its ability to forget." Some want the museum to follow the lead of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and confront past injustices and cruelties head-on. Others have just one request: "Please, don't talk about slavery."
How do you negotiate conflicting views of American history? "What stories do you tell," is what he has to decide, Bunch said, "and what stories do you leave out?" The museum will offerl human stories, on a grand scale. Bunch envisions a three-part narrative, devoted to history, culture and the regionalism that provided different paths for African Americans. It will draw on the expertise of a wide range of scholars and will take into account the personal tales -- the folk history -- he hears as he travels the country.
Bunch may not worry about controversy, but he has to manage all those memories -- always a tricky task -- and Congress, as well. While some people on Capitol Hill are "wonderful," he said, "others are (he pauses here) less than wonderful." That's when it helps to have allies such as Laura Bush in your corner and on your advisory board. Bunch was appointed by President George W. Bush to the Commission for the Preservation of the White House in 2002, and the former first lady, he said, "helps me reach out." The star power of board member Oprah Winfrey doesn't hurt, either.
The goal is "to build a museum that's worthy of the rich history, the struggle that's at the heart of the African-American experience," but also the laughter and the hope, Bunch said.
In a proposed 2012 federal budget
, $125 million of funding for the Smithsonian is dedicated toward construction of the $500 million museum. Half of the fundraising is from the private side and Bunch said that effort is on track.
While the actual building is still to come, the museum has a website
and sponsors exhibitions that both tour and alight at its gallery at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. At "Save Our African American Treasures" events across the country, workshop participants present historical family items they've tucked away and receive professional advice on how to identify and preserve them.
Bunch reviews pieces the museum may want to acquire, such as a picture of abolitionist Harriett Tubman, shown wrapped in a shawl given to her by Queen Victoria -- and the precious find of the shawl itself.
In Chattanooga, Tenn., he inspected a Jim Crow railroad car from 1929, with rows of elegant seats and a lavish bathroom in the section reserved for whites, separated by a curtain in the back from the hard benches for "coloreds." The reality of segregation was "not about location," Bunch said. It was a "100-year attack on the psyche of African Americans."
A pillowcase seemed only that until he looked at the stitched message from a mother about to be sold and shipped away. It was to her daughter and said the pillowcase held a dress -- and "all my love."
"The power of the authentic" is how Bunch describes the feeling he wants the museum to convey.
As the National Museum of American History's associate director for curatorial affairs, Bunch acquired the lunch counter from a Greensboro, N.C., F.W. Woolworth store, where four young North Carolina A&T State University students staged a sit-in
and launched a movement on Feb. 1, 1960. It was, he said, an "exhilarating" moment.
When he took on his latest project, Bunch said he went from wondering if anybody could do this "to thinking my whole career has led me to this," he said.
As he said in 2005 when explaining the vitality, relevance and importance of African-American history: "It is a mirror that challenges us to be better, and to work to make our community and country better. But it is also a mirror that allows us to see our commonalities. It is a mirror that allows us to celebrate and to revel, but also demands that we all struggle, that we all continue to 'fight the good fight.' "
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