'Picturing Children' Shows More Than A Century Of African-American Childhoods : Code Switch The National Museum of African American History and Culture's director Lonnie Bunch talks about a new book from the museum's collection showing a snapshot of life for African-American children.
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'Picturing Children' Shows More Than A Century Of African-American Childhoods

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'Picturing Children' Shows More Than A Century Of African-American Childhoods

'Picturing Children' Shows More Than A Century Of African-American Childhoods

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, you just heard a brief mention of the Smithsonian's newest museum, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. It opens to the public in two months. As part of the museum's launch, founding director, Lonnie Bunch is overseeing the publication of a series of picture books featuring photographs from the museum's collection. It's called "Double Exposure."

Previous installments focused on pictures from the Civil Rights movement and portraits of African-American women through the years. The most recent is called "Picturing Children." It offers a window into what it's been like for African-American children to grow up over the last century. When I spoke with Lonnie Bunch recently, I asked him how this book even came about, especially in the middle of working on a project of this scale.

LONNIE BUNCH: I realized that when we began to build the museum, one of the most important things we could do was to make history accessible. And one of the best ways to do that - it was through photography. That would allow people to sort of see the history from a human scale, and it would allow people to be able to look within their own families and realize how important their photography is.

So we thought about photography as crucial. And then as we looked at all that was happening with children, we thought it was really important to take time to look historically how children have been depicted and to give people a sense to understand that the strength of a nation is tied to how well they treat their children.

MARTIN: One of the things that you say in the foreword is that this series of books echoes the efforts of W. E. B. Du Bois who presented to readers of The Crisis images of African-Americans. He was very committed to that. And one of the things you say about that is that it was also important to counteract this kind of pervasive image of African-Americans as kind of poor and downtrodden because you said that it would threaten to overwhelm African-American self-perception. Could you talk a little bit about that?

BUNCH: I think what's important to me about these images we've chosen - some were taken by African-American families, which really speak volumes about, despite one's economic status, how one wanted to picture themselves, how one wanted to show that nothing would stop them from being a family, that despite economic circumstances, they still could dress right, speak properly. So in some ways, part of what is important to us is that this book allows us - for the public - to look at these images and get a sense of how African-Americans saw themselves.

MARTIN: It does cover a lot of ground, though, I mean, there are pictures of enslaved families. There are pictures of children picking cotton. There are also pictures of children with President Obama. There are pictures of Serena and Venus Williams as children, you know, playing with their dad, and also children with signs that say Black Lives Matter. What was your kind of philosophy in choosing which pictures you would select? I mean, from - you have - what? - some 20,000 pictures in the collection?

BUNCH: That's correct. We have over 20,000. And, obviously, we wanted to do a sweep of history. We wanted to not just focus on contemporary, but to look back. And part of what we wanted to do by looking at some of the images of enslavement is really talk about that despite that time on the cross, family was so important.

There's an amazing image that was taken in Alexandria, Va., of black women who were enslaved. But you see them holding their children. You see the sense that how important family has always been or the fact that children have always played a role in helping to protest, to move America forward, whether it's the pictures of children at the children's march in Birmingham in the 1960s or young children holding signs for black life matters today. The reality is that for African-American children, sometimes it's been hard just to be a child, that you've had to both be part of the workforce, and you've also had to be part of the struggle for fairness.

MARTIN: Is there any one of these pictures that is just really close to your heart?

BUNCH: Well, there's a picture of - probably taken in the 1940s of people picking cotton, and you see the adults bent from the weight of picking that cotton and the labor. And then you see a picture of a child who's got almost a bemused look on his face. It's almost as if he is sort of trying to understand what the future lies before him.

And that, for me, that picture is so powerful because here you see the child's innocence. You see the sort of playfulness in his face, but you also see the future that's in front of him, which is because the way society has defined him, that he would probably later in his life be picking cotton just like those other adults.

MARTIN: Is there anyone that makes you smile every time you see it?

BUNCH: Oh, what I love is the way these families dress their kids. And so some of the images of these young kids with their short pants and their well-polished shoes and they're perfectly combed hair - because it reminds me of being a kid and my mother dragging me to get my portrait taken, how much I hated the fact that you stand still and make a fake smile. It reminds me of a historical tradition of people capturing the memory of their child and using that image as a way to project an optimistic future.

MARTIN: Yeah, there is this - it's interesting, though, because we've been learning more about just how important photography has been to the African-American experience. I think we've recently learned that, you know, Frederick Douglass, for example, was the most photographed American of his time. That push and pull, though, between wanting to show the best, however one defines the best - right? - and wanting to be very real about the truth of the hardships that push and pull I think you see in this collection.

BUNCH: Oh, I think that's absolutely right because what's important to also realize is that African-Americans, sometimes in a very sophisticated way like Frederick Douglass or W. E. B. Du Bois, other times in an intuitive way recognize that they had to use the best technologies in order to struggle for freedom and fairness. So photography becomes that tool as early as the 19th century to present issues of strength or images of strength or to present sort of images that would motivate people to struggle for equality.

And it goes all the way through the Civil Rights movement. I mean, one of the most innovative parts of the Civil Rights movement was utilizing the media photography and television in order to sort of bring home to people thousands of miles away the reality of the lives they lived.

MARTIN: Well, Mr. Bunch, before we let you go, the museum is opening in just two months. It's scheduled to open on September 24 and can you just describe for those of us who are not founding museum directors...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...What it's like to be so close to opening after all these years?

BUNCH: This is one of the most exciting and most humbling times candidly in my life. I mean, the fact that it's been 11 years since we began this initiative and the fact that we are now so close is very meaningful. It's meaningful because of the way the public has embraced us. I can't go anywhere without somebody pulling out a membership card and saying I support the museum or I'll sit on an airplane and somebody will say, God, that building is so beautiful.

And what it really reminds you of is that all the efforts that no one will ever know but the staff that have worked here - all those efforts are really worth it because we've been able to create a space that we hope that as long as there's an America that space will be there to help people wrestle with issues of race, to better understand who we are as Americans and ultimately to find moments that make them pause and moments that make them smile.

MARTIN: That's Lonnie Bunch. He is the founding director of the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture. We've been speaking with him about the publication of "Picturing Children." It's the fourth book in a series of publications "Double Exposure," featuring photographs from the museum's extensive collection. We spoke with him at his offices, and I hope we'll speak again closer to the opening of the museum, Lonnie Bunch.

BUNCH: I'm always there for you.

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