Lonnie Bunch III, former president of the Chicago Historical Society and former Director of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, now secretary of the Smithsonian, a position overseeing 19 museums, 21 libraries, the National Zoo, numerous research centers and several education units and centers.
In his new memoir, A Fool's Errand: Creating The National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump, Lonnie Bunch details the obstacles and joys of stewarding the creation of the first Smithsonian on the National Mall dedicated to the black experience.
As he kicked off his national tour in Chicago, Bunch stopped by Reset to talk history, pain and hope.
On how the museum documents the African American experience
Bunch: What we wanted to do was to take a museum that would ... take you historically from the slave trade in the 15th century to today. So one part of it ... takes you through slavery through segregation through the civil rights movement, but then we also wanted you to feel the kind of joy that was in this community, so we talk a lot about the role of film, television, culture, music as well as giving you a sense of the history of African Americans in the military. And one of the things that was so important was to realize there wasn't a single African American experience. So we really tell stories through the lens of Chicago or Birmingham so that people get a sense that this is an amazingly complicated community. But maybe the most important thing we do is all of those stories are done in a way that said this is not a separate story about the black experience. It is really using the African American experience as a lens to understand what it means to be an American.
On the pain of putting slavery in a museum
Bunch: I wanted to find the right tension between moments that would make you cry and moments that would inspire you and find the resiliency because in a way, isn't that the African American experience? ... I think we hit the right mixture because I really felt that you shouldn't go through this museum without understanding the pain people experience, but also I want you to experience the optimism that was in that community. I mean, it was something powerful about helping people understand that African Americans always believed in a country that didn't believe in them, and that belief is part of what transformed the country and began to help it live up to its stated ideals.
On the museum's role in today's conversations about race and racism
Bunch: I realize that part of our job is — we can't solve every problem — but part of our job ought to be to be a place where we contextualize these issues, whether it's public programs, or talk about Charlottesville or racism, because our goal ought to be to contribute to giving Americans tools to live their lives, to have reasoned debate with knowledge. And so I really do think that if the museum is just about yesterday, then it fails, but if it helps us think about yesterday, today and tomorrow, then it becomes a place that is valued and contributes in a way to making a country better.
On where he finds hope
Bunch: I find hope in that we had ancestors who were enslaved who ultimate didn't give up. We had people who kept fighting in a way that they really didn't even know what the end game was, but they knew they would change a country, and there's no doubt in my mind. Unfortunately I'm old enough to remember Jim Crow segregation, and I remember as a kid going places in the South and seeing these signs, and so for me, there's no doubt that the country has changed. There's no doubt that the racism is strong and virulent and that, in essence, to combat racism, one has to be ever vigilant.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the "play" button to hear the entire conversation.