GUY RAZ, host:
When it's finally built in 2015, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture will stand right under the shadow of the Washington Monument.
But until then, founding director Lonnie Bunch has already opened up the museum online. He also spends much of his time these days traveling across the country, and even and the world, searching for artifacts that tell the story of Americans of African descent. And from time to time, he stops by our studios to show us what he's found.
Lonnie Bunch, good to have you back.
Dr. LONNIE BUNCH (Executive Director/Curator, National Museum of African American History and Culture): Oh, it's my great pleasure.
RAZ: Now, it's been a few months since we've last talked, and I understand you have been all over - not just America - but all over the hemisphere. Where have you been? And what have you found?
Dr. BUNCH: I think they made a mistake of giving me a passport.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. BUNCH: So I've been everywhere from Africa to Cuba...
RAZ: Oh, wow.
Dr. BUNCH: ...throughout the Southwestern United States.
Part of the goal is to just beat the drum for finding artifacts that can help us to tell the story. And because we have to tell a story that is both local and international, places like Cuba are partly on my list as well.
RAZ: Hmm. now, Im so excited 'cause we're in the studio, and Im looking at artifacts that youve actually brought with you. Let's just start with one of them. What do you have here?
Dr. BUNCH: What we have here is a powder horn from the era of the American Revolution, for the old guns, you know, they would keep the powder in it. But this is a either a cow horn or a buffalo horn. But whats so special about it is whats on it. It's the horn of Prince Simbo, who basically was a Connecticut African-American who fought for the Connecticut line, part of the American army, in the revolution.
And what I love about it is these artifacts are, first of all, unbelievably rare, but rarer still when it comes to an African-American. And it really speaks volumes about the commitment of African-Americans to liberty.
If you look at this, what you see is these wonderful engravings, and one is a dove. In his mouth is the banner of liberty. So think about the double-edged meaning of liberty to somebody who was born a slave in, you know, 1781.
What we really know about him is that he is somebody who was enslaved, earned his freedom, after the war, like many of the veterans, they would've received a few bonuses and the like, and that he is really a symbol of a story that very few people know. How important the African-American presence was during the era of the American Revolution.
RAZ: And looking at some of the artifacts here, there's a piece as an obvious contrast, there are shackles there that are obviously symbols of enslavement. Tell me about this piece.
Mr. BUNCH: We often find very little material remains of enslavement. But what's powerful about this is this is a shackle from a ship that actually transported slaves on the middle passage.
Mr. BUNCH: So, part of why we collect this is to be able to humanize that great tragedy. Whether you look at this and realize that one person was kept in this for weeks as he or she was brought from Africa to the new world, it suddenly makes this real and it inspires you to be amazed at the resiliency of the people that went through this.
RAZ: And you just look at these U-shaped rusted shackles and you could just think of the depravity.
Mr. BUNCH: That's right.
RAZ: When - I mean, you say that there are very few artifacts remaining from this period of time. Why is that?
Mr. BUNCH: I think there are a couple things. First of all, during the period of enslavement in the United States, a lot of the clothing, the shoes, were really not of the highest quality. So these things sort of disappeared, were reused...
Mr. BUNCH: ...and just disintegrated. The same thing with the slave cabins. Many of them became tenant farmer's homes and sharecropper's homes, so pieces got changed and exchanged. And so...
RAZ: And maybe people didn't want to remember that time.
Mr. BUNCH: Well, I think the other issue is it is really such a challenge to get people today to want to talk about the period of enslavement and remember. And so what you find are many African-Americans who initially want to say the key is to focus on freedom, not enslavement. And then for others, there are people who feel this is a period of embarrassment.
And so for me, what I hope happens is that somebody sees this and realizes the strength of somebody who survived that, who then tried to keep family, culture and soul together. And in some ways, while this is a symbol of shame and pain, it's also a symbol of resiliency.
RAZ: And Lonnie Bunch, I should take this opportunity to let our listeners know that they can see all of these artifacts that we're talking about at our Web site, which is npr.org.
There's a book that I'm looking at here among the artifacts that you brought, and it's a book, I understand, that was donated in honor of you. This is a photo album. Tell me about what we're looking at here.
Mr. BUNCH: Over here, this is a photo album that was put together by a congregational minister named Keith Jones who lived in Wethersfield, Connecticut. And this is somebody who became a family friend over the years, and he would, at various gatherings, open this up and he would show me these amazing images.
Because what you find in here - these are mainly cabinet cards, late 19th, early 20th century - and what they document is a kind of African-American middle class that was invisible to most people. So, he would turn the pages and I would sit there and think, my God, it would be wonderful to have this stuff, to have it in a museum.
And my surprise is that when he passed away, I went up to visit his family and they said he wanted to make sure this came to the Smithsonian. And so...
RAZ: These are, I should describe, these are portraits, mainly portraits of African-Americans in suits, in coats, babies in these beautiful gowns.
Mr. BUNCH: What I love about this is really, first of all, the sense of pride and the sense that this becomes a way to counter the stereotypical images. 'Cause remember, this is late 19th century - 99 percent of the images most people had were of stereotypical imagery of poverty-stricken African-Americans...
Mr. BUNCH: ...sharecroppers. And this is important because there was this driving middle-class community that was really trying to create an image that first said we're as equal as you.
RAZ: Yeah. Absolutely fascinating. There's one more piece you brought, and I've been waiting for this until the end of the night. I've been looking at this, Lonnie, and I can't believe it's in this very small studio with us. This is a fedora worn by Michael Jackson on his victory tour at Giants Stadium in 1984. He threw this hat out to the audience and somehow, that person who caught it gave it to you.
Mr. BUNCH: That's right. We know that part of what a museum has to do is tell all the richness of the culture. And who symbolizes not just African-American culture, but American musical culture but Michael Jackson. And we all remember those images of Michael Jackson in his fedora, the way he was moonwalking...
RAZ: Oh, yeah, taking it off, putting it on.
Mr. BUNCH: That's right, that's right.
RAZ: And inside the hat, there's actually a label, I understand. And it says: Made exclusively for Michael Jackson. Somebody made this exclusively for him.
Mr. BUNCH: So think about this whole process because it also tells us about the image Michael Jackson want to convey. He knew he wanted that look. He went to the hat maker that he really wanted. I just look at this and I see Michael Jackson.
RAZ: That's absolutely amazing. Lonnie, you promise to bring along some more artifacts as they come in over the next couple of months?
Mr. BUNCH: Count on it.
RAZ: That's Lonnie Bunch. He's the director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
Lonnie, thank you so much.
Mr. BUNCH: It's my pleasure, as always.
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