We Have “A Long History of Broken Black Bodies”

Lonnie Bunch is the first African American and the first historian to oversee the Smithsonian – the world’s largest museum complex – and before taking on that role last year, he led the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Bunch speaks with Walter Isaacson about curating a response to this historic uprising.

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WALTER ISAACSON: Thank you, Christiane. And welcome to the show, Secretary Lonnie Bunch.

LONNIE BUNCH, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION SECRETARY: Thank you. Very pleased to be with you.

ISAACSON: We often think of history as some bunch of things that happened in the past. But, right now, with both the pandemic and the protests, we are living real history. How do you at the Smithsonian gather the artifacts that we’re going to use later to try to interpret an amazing moment of history like this?

BUNCH: I think you put your finger on what is so important. Part of the job of a museum complex like the Smithsonian is to make sure that we’re collecting today for tomorrow, not just yesterday. So, what we do is, we come together and say, how important is this moment historically? We think this is obviously going to be one of those lenses to understand 21st century America. So, we have begun to collect in a variety of ways. We collect the signs that people carry, the signs that were along the fence along by the White House, collected some of those materials. We have gone around, though, interviewed people, asked people to share with us the images they have shot on their own phone of the marches and demonstrations around the country, what their photographs are. And then what we do is, we always make sure that we’re reaching out to many of the families of people who have been affected by police violence. So, the goal is to give as many ways to understand this subject for the future by collecting today.

ISAACSON: You were the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. And there are so many exhibits there that touch us, especially today. Of course, for me, the most powerful is the Emmett Till exhibit. And I know you have been a friend of his mother too. Explain to me the curation of that.

BUNCH: Well, part of what I wanted to do was to make sure that the museum tapped emotion and that people saw that history shaped them yesterday and today. And when I was president of the Chicago Historical Society, one of my dear friends was Studs Terkel, the great oral historian. And Studs would come to my office. And he’d say, have you met this person? And I said no. And he said, well, have you met Emmett Till’s mother? And I didn’t know she was still alive. So, she came to my office, and we’re going to have an hour lunch. And she spoke for seven hours about what happened from the time she kissed her son goodbye to the time she buried him. And it was one of the most emotional days of my life. And I began to sort of spend time with her. And she used to tell me that she carried the burden — this was her word — the burden of Emmett Till for 50 years. And now other historians, other people need to do that. And I sort of felt, I needed to care. So, I left — unfortunately, she died. I left to come back to the Smithsonian. And there was a discovery of the original casket of Emmett Till. And the family called me and said, it’s being not displayed properly. It’s being uncared for. Can you do something? And I have to be honest. I thought, do I collect the casket? But then I kept hearing his mother saying to me that this was the most painful moment of her life, but, by having the casket remain open, she wanted the world to see what they did to her son. And through her actions, she basically rejuvenated the civil rights movement. So, I thought it was important to craft an exhibition that would let us mourn Emmett, but also see the power of his mother and what she did. And so we have created, where we have recreated the sense of that funeral, and people see it in the museum as maybe the most sacred space in the National Museum.

ISAACSON: Absolutely. And do you think that the murder and the funeral of George Floyd might also be such an inflection point? And, if so, how might you be able to deal with that at the Smithsonian?

BUNCH: On the one hand, as a historian, this is part of a long history, a long history of American democracy, embedded in it sort of systematic race, systematic racism and discrimination, and that there’s been a long history of broken black bodies. But I think the visibility that this has generated, the fact that diverse people around the world are campaigning to change America, that what you realize is that this moment is an inflection point. And to watch how people mourned him as he moved from Minneapolis to North Carolina to Houston was really a very powerful story, reminded me, candidly, of the return of Lincoln to Springfield. And people sort of mourned in different places and shared their love and their pain. So, I think that this is really — his funeral is really one of those things that obviously you document from a historical point of view, but it really becomes that symbol that says, it’s enough mourning. Now there’s time for action.

ISAACSON: This confluence of the pandemic and the protests, do you think that will help us or maybe even force us to focus more on the black experience in America?

BUNCH: In some ways, the dual pandemic, obviously, that has told us that – – about health care disparities, obviously, the impact of the sort of death of George Floyd, the decline in our economy. I think what it’s done is said to people that, once again, we need to shine a light on all the dark corners the American experience. And one of those corners is the African-American experience. And I think what happens, what I’m hopeful is that, first of all, you’re seeing more people talk about history, asking, help me understand what Juneteenth is, or what’s the history of protests in America? So, anything that gets people trying to understand how history shaped who we are today is extremely important. I also think that what this has done, though, it’s really said, we, as a country, cannot avert our eyes to what’s right in front of us, to the fact that so many of the people who die from COVID-19 are people of color, and that this sort of kind of systematic racism that we’re seeing unfold with the police department is really a lens into something bigger, a lens into saying that this might be one of those moments. This might be a clarion call to say, can we move America forward, like we have done and other times in the past? So, I am hopeful that this will be a tipping point. But, also, as you know, as a historian, I worry about how long this will be sustained. And will there be the kind of leadership at all levels that will allow us to make this kind of change?

ISAACSON: Recently, in the past few years, we have seen a revision of history, including in the great “New York Times” project and other things, that focus more on the centrality of race to the American experience. Do you think this is proper? Or do you understand some historians who are pushing back and saying we have overdone that?

BUNCH: You know, I think I understand the historical debate, but the reality is that race, the African-American experience is central to the American experience, and that this is a story that has shaped us all. And I think our notions of citizenship, our notions of freedom, our notions of economic possibility, our notions of who we are as a nation have been shaped in fundamental ways by the African-American experience, by grappling with questions of race. So I think that you cannot overstate how central this is, that what I want to see happen is that all of us, regardless of race, regardless of who we are, understand that our identity as a nation, our identity as really community has been shaped by the interactions with African-American experiences. And so, in some ways, I would push back to say that we can learn even more about who we once were, and really reimagine who we can become by learning more and paying more attention to how important the African-American story is, not as an ancillary story, not as an exotic story, not as an interesting story, but a central story to who we are as a people.

ISAACSON: And how central was slavery and the institution of slavery in the founding of America?

BUNCH: Well, in some ways, slavery is embedded in everything. I mean, if you look at the history of this country, you realize that everything from foreign policy, to economic considerations, to culture, to education was shaped by the institution of slavery, and that not only is it the economic engine of the country, but, as you know, that on the eve the Civil War, more money was invested in slavery than in banking, commerce and business combined. It really was the economic engine of the country. But it also then shaped the way the country moved forward. It shaped the way people began to think about, how do you control an African-American community? Slavery is gone. Suddenly, there’s the convict lease system, where many people are actually controlled and put in the criminal justice system. So, what you really see to me is that slavery is something that, one, Americans are just now beginning to come to grips with, and seeing it as a story of all of us, not just as an African-American community. And, two, I think that, in many ways, some of the patterns, the attitudes people have towards each other, the sense of sort of violence and the use of violence to control communities, all these have roots in the period of enslavement. And so, in some ways, slavery, as — I always love this quotation where a former enslaved person said, though the slavery question is answered, its impact is not. It’s in our streets, it’s in our courts, it’s in our highways, it’s in our restaurants, it’s in our lives all the day every day. I think that, in some ways, until we grapple with the legacy of slavery, it will be in our lives all the day every day.

ISAACSON: There’s been a move — it started here in New Orleans two years ago — to remove some of the Confederate monuments, Robert E Lee’s statues, which we did down here. And some people push back and say, well, you’re erasing history, you’re losing history. What do you think of that? And is there a role the Smithsonian can play in maybe taking some of these statues as artifacts, and curating them in the context of history?

BUNCH: I have always felt one of the most impressive places I have ever been is sort of Memento Park in Hungary, where they took the Soviet statues, put them in a park and contextualized them, so you understood what they have meant and what they meant — what they mean. I am somebody who comes from a community whose history has been erased. So, I don’t ever want to erase this. But, for me, removing some of these monuments is really about a more accurate history, helping people understand that many of these monuments are less about the Civil War, and more about segregation, white supremacy, battling against the kind of changes that occurred in the early 20th century and really during the civil rights movement. So, for me, this is not about changing history or erasing real history. What for me this is, is about a great corrective, about helping people understand a more accurate history, a more complex history, a more challenging history, but a history that really says that, right now, we have always felt that, in some ways, the South lost the Civil War, but won the peace. And here’s a way to basically make sure that we’re telling a fuller history, not erasing Southern history at all, but placing it in the context of what actually happened and the impact of things like the Lost Cause, what impact that had not only on America, but on African-Americans as well.

ISAACSON: In the reaction, both to the George Floyd killing and, for that matter, to the pandemic, what has impressed you?

BUNCH: I will tell you, I was really taken by a couple of things. One, I was taken by the diversity of people who took to the streets, the diversity of people who began to write op-eds and say, wait a minute, this is not only wrong, but it really opens the lens into other issues dealing with race that we need to explore. And I think that the fact that you suddenly see, at least for the first time in my life, police chiefs, some police officers beginning to say, you know what, what happened was wrong, we have got to find a better way to be more community-driven, was a very positive thing. And I guess, for me, the last thing was that I was struck by a lot of the new surveys and polls that are being taken. As you know, for many years, less than 50 percent of the American public thought that race or discrimination was crucially important. Recent polls suggest that almost 80 percent of Americans now recognize how important it is to grapple with the question of race and fairness. I think that’s all for the good. I think the question really is, at what point do we make sure that this becomes a long-term endeavor, rather than a short- term moment? How do we make sure this is one of those tipping points where you see a country lurch forward? Because, as you know, as a historian, there are moments where the country has lurched forward. And so this could be one of those. And I’m hopeful that it will be.

ISAACSON: And what has disappointed you?

BUNCH: What has disappointed me has been that I have not heard enough of an outcry from political leaders at all levels of the governments, saying, this is the issue of my tenure, this is the issue of my administration. There have been people who have done amazing things, but I want to see it trickle down to all kinds of leadership.

ISAACSON: Are you disappointed that President Trump hasn’t framed the moral issue in the way that you have just described it?

BUNCH: Let me just simply say that I think all Americans of all political stripes should see this as a moment where you seize it and say, America is a symbol to the world of what’s possible. Here’s a chance to burnish that symbolism. Here’s a chance to say that we recognize we are a work in progress, and that, ultimately, we need to continue to struggle to find our — to make sure that we can be the country that our founding fathers said we were.

ISAACSON: What does this current moment tell you about the question of, why does history matter?

BUNCH: I think, in some ways, I have always felt that history was the best tool to give people advice, information, understanding how to live their lives and how to understand a situation. If anything we can contribute as historians, it would be to help the public embrace ambiguity, because that’s what history is, right, and that if we could help the public not look simply for simple answers to complex questions, but to understand the shades of gray, the nuance, to understand that change doesn’t happen overnight, that it’s a long process, and to understand that, in essence, America is a work in progress, then I think people are going to see history, not as simply nostalgia, but as a valuable tool to look for inspiration, a valuable tool to give guidance on how we move forward, but a valuable tool to teach us that the great strength of a nation is to always work to be made better. And that’s what you see throughout our history.

ISAACSON: Secretary Lonnie Bunch, thank you so much for joining us.

BUNCH: Oh, it is my pleasure. It’s a great honor to be with you.

About This Episode EXPAND

On this Juneteeth, Christiane speaks with historian Eric Foner and author Carol Anderson about why the day is particularly meaningful this year. She also speaks with Malcolm Gladwell about the current moment in race relations. Walter Isaacson speaks with Lonnie Bunch, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, about putting the day in historical context.