Making a Home for Black History
August 29, 2016
"A phone call," he began. "To a young lady by the name of Wendy Porter." She had e-mailed him, saying that she had Nat Turner's Bible. Ellis smirked slightly and rolled his eyes. "Well, there are a lot of folk who call and make all kinds of claims. So I said, 'Mmm-hmm.' But then she told a little bit about her history, and she mentioned Nathaniel Francis. And I said" -- deeper this time, slower -- " 'Mmm-hmmmm.' "
Nathaniel Francis owned the property on which Nat Turner was captured, in October, 1831. There, on Francis's land, the slave preacher hid, having led a revolt of fellow-slaves that drew its inspiration from the Bible in question and ended in the deaths of at least fifty-five white residents of Southampton County, Virginia. Turner was tried and hanged in the nearby town of Jerusalem. It is not clear to Ellis or to his staff just how Francis came to have Turner's Bible; later, by searching through library documents and photographs, they learned that his family had held on to it until at least 1900. As if to complete the circle of haunted serendipity, Wendy Porter's stepfather was related to one of Nathaniel's descendants, Rick Francis, a prominent member of the Southampton County Historical Society, which owns the sword that Nat Turner had with him when he was captured.
"So," Ellis said, tracing ecstatic connections on his desk with his fingers, "everything just started to fit together." He travelled to Virginia Beach to see the Bible. Porter, who was seven or eight months pregnant, greeted him at the door of her home and introduced him to her mother, who took him to the dining room. Porter's mother went into a closet and pulled down an object wrapped in a thinning dishtowel. She placed it on a table in front of Ellis. Sitting in Washington, Ellis pantomimed the gesture, sliding an invisible book across his desk, to me.
When Ellis unwrapped the Bible at the Porters', the binding was long gone. What he saw was its first yellowed page, the edges rounded by much use. He turned a few pages, gingerly, then stopped. He looked at the mother. "We only bring it out during family reunions," she said. "And only when someone asks do we bring it out so that they can see it. Then we wrap it up and put it back in the closet."
She looked at the Bible. "We thought that this was something -- we knew it was important," she said. "Yes, Ma'am," Ellis replied. Then she spoke again, as if urged, Ellis said, by some outside force. "It was time for it to leave here," she told him. Ellis looked me in the eyes when he repeated what she said next: "Because there's so much blood on it."
In the introduction to "America's Black Past," an anthology published in 1970, the historian Eric Foner wrote that, among this country's "myths and misconceptions, one of the most pervasive and pernicious . . . is the picture of blacks as inactive agents in history." An active history, like the one that lay behind Nat Turner's bloody Bible -- full of inscrutable decisions and odd happenings, shaped but not determined by suffering -- often stays hidden. The Bible will soon go on display at the new museum on the Mall, our latest opportunity to bring such a history into the light.
The museum's mouthful of a name -- and its inelegant initialism, N.M.A.A.H.C. -- testifies to a bureaucratic slog that began in 1915, when black veterans of the Union Army, together in Washington to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the war's end, and fed up with the discrimination they found in the capital city, organized a "colored citizens' committee" to build a monument to the civic contributions of their recently emancipated people. In 1929, Herbert Hoover appointed a commission, which included the civil-rights leader and educator Mary McLeod Bethune and the N.A.A.C.P. co-founder Mary Church Terrell, to come up with a plan. Unfunded and largely ignored, the commission languished, and was eventually dissolved by Franklin D. Roosevelt. The effort began again in the nineteen-seventies, with several abortive attempts at legislation and much controversy within the Smithsonian Institution, under whose aegis each national museum is administered. Finally, in 2003, George W. Bush signed the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act, which had been sponsored in the Senate by Sam Brownback and in the House by John Lewis, the project's most consistent contemporary champion.
In 2005, Lonnie Bunch was hired to be the museum's founding director. Bunch, now sixty-three, previously served as the associate director for curatorial affairs at the National Museum of American History, and then spent five years as the president of the Chicago Historical Society. We spoke this past April, on a muggy day in Washington, in his office at the Capital Gallery Building. He told me the story of how, after being hired by the N.M.A.A.H.C., which had "no collection, no money, no staff, no site," he was greeted at an earlier set of offices, at L'Enfant Plaza.
"I go over there -- door's locked," he said. "So I go to security and say to the guard, you know, 'I'm the director of this new museum.' He says, 'We don't know who you are -- you can't get in.' So I go to the manager's office: he won't let me in. I call back to the Smithsonian and say, 'What's going on here?' They say, 'We don't know.' So I'm standing in front of the door, really ticked off, thinking, Why'd I take this job? But then this maintenance guy walks by, and in his cart he's got a crowbar. So I take the crowbar and break into the offices."
I may have looked skeptical. "Nobody was ready for us," he insisted. "I had to break in."
The difficulty of the past decade's work is a theme with Bunch -- he says he plans to publish a book about the experience, called "A Fool's Errand" -- and this story was perhaps offered as an allegory, both for the tortuous process of opening a national museum and for the history of black people in America. Or, at least, one version of that history: first a promise; then a series of closed doors; then despair; then, at last, access by way of force instead of grace. "I'm a kid born in Newark," Bunch said, arching an eyebrow, "so I know how to fight."
That pugilist's impulse, along with an intimate understanding of the politics and the pace of the Smithsonian, has, from the beginning, informed Bunch's approach to the technical and diplomatic aspects of his directorship. When he was deciding whether to leave his job in Chicago, he spoke with Richard M. Daley, the city's former mayor. Daley, characteristically blunt, asked, "Why would you leave to run a project?" The question stayed with Bunch, and led him to conclude that, even without a physical space of its own, the museum must exist, not aspirationally but in fact, starting soon after his appointment.
Rather than focussing solely on fund-raising and acquisitions, Bunch pulled Robert Moses's old trick: quickly driving stakes into the ground. He commissioned a series of books, online displays, and travelling exhibitions, including one that opened last year, in a gallery on the second floor of the National Museum of American History, called "Through the African American Lens." The eclectic show serves as a preview of the museum to come; among the objects on display are a sword and a canvas tent used by the Union soldier George Thompson Garrison; a desk from the Hope Rosenwald School for rural black children, dating from the beginning of the twentieth century; and a set of colorful costumes from the original Broadway production of "The Wiz."
The museum did not own a single artifact when Bunch began, so he instituted a program called Saving African American Treasures, a take on the PBS favorite "Antiques Roadshow." Professional conservationists specializing in paper, textiles, and other delicate materials travelled around the country, helping interested amateurs to, as he put it, "preserve Grandma's old shawl, or that wonderful photograph." Bunch's hope was that the tour would inspire a certain generosity of spirit, as well as some "buzz" about the museum's ambitions. It did. Bunch's curators have now collected more than thirty-five thousand objects, most of them donations. They range from a chillingly anonymous pair of rusted slave shackles to a frilled shawl of lace and linen given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria; from an advertisement for a Memphis slave market that featured a "general assortment of Negroes" to a pocket watch owned by the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison; from Muhammad Ali's headgear to James Baldwin's passport, crowded with stamps. One room in the museum will contain the coffin of Emmett Till.
The collection's dependence on viscerally affecting items reflects the Smithsonian's tendency toward a broad, largely artifact-based history -- Here's somebody's Buick! Here's something Walt Whitman once touched! -- meant to induce gooseflesh, or thoughtful moans. Its curators know how impatient tourists and students can be. Eleven of the Smithsonian's twenty enormously popular museums are situated on the Mall, and the lawn is perpetually bright with camera flashes and school-group T-shirts. "People are gonna give you two hours per museum," Bunch told me with a shrug.
But artifacts cannot speak for themselves; the meaning of a museum is determined by acts of interpretation. It's natural to see the museum's opening as part of a continuum that began in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, with the advent of black-studies programs, or even earlier, with the work of Carter G. Woodson, an author and scholar who was the son of slaves -- in other words, as part of the history of black history. Bunch, however, rejects this idea. "What I argue is: This is not a black museum. This is a museum that uses one culture to understand what it means to be an American. That, to my mind, is the cutting edge."
He spoke in terms like this throughout our conversation, with an unrelenting deliberateness, as if from a page of talking points. "This is a story that is too big to be in the hands of one community," he said at one point, describing the story that is America. And then, speaking of the sojourn of black people in this country: "This is, in some ways, the quintessential American story." And, later, contrasting the efforts of his staff with other, more possessive ethnic histories: "Instead of simply saying, 'This is our story, period,' we want to say, 'This is everybody's story.' "
Bunch's framing of black experience, as a lens through which one may better see some static American text, sidesteps more than a century of scuffles over the nature, and the meaning, of that experience. Between the accommodationism of Booker T. Washington and the activism of W. E. B. Du Bois, the romance of Zora Neale Hurston and the social realism of Richard Wright, the defiance of the Black Lives Matter movement and the caution of "respectability politics," there has always been something along these lines: go along or fight back, persuade or condemn, love or leave, use a common language or create one of your own.
Bunch may be a fighter, but he seems eager to avoid such a clash -- the cost, perhaps, of doing business with Congress, on whom so much concerning the museum depends. (More than half of the funds for the building have come from the federal government; the balance has been provided by a star-studded group of private donors, including Michael Jordan, the television producer Shonda Rhimes, and Oprah Winfrey, whose contribution of more than twenty million dollars is commemorated by the museum's Oprah Winfrey Theatre.) Bunch told me about a meeting he had with Jim Moran, a former U.S. congressman from Virginia, who initially opposed the museum: "He says, 'O.K., Lonnie, I don't wanna be rude, but I don't think there should be a black museum just for black people.' And I said, 'Neither do I.' Blew him out of the water."
With benefactors like these, there may have been little incentive to engage more directly with the most heated debates about black identity and culture, or to empower the scholars best known for leading, and reflecting upon, those exchanges. Seven years ago, one such scholar, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested by a white police officer while trying to gain entrance to his own home, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This led to the now infamous "Beer Summit" with Gates, President Obama, and the arresting officer. Gates later offered the museum the handcuffs used to detain him. Bunch initially declined the gift, before reversing himself.
"We listened to all the best scholars, even if we didn't always end up doing what they thought we should," Bunch told me. Eric Foner has offered his expertise to Bunch and his team throughout the planning process. "They've made a very big effort to engage scholars, at all points of planning," Foner said. "This museum cannot satisfy everybody -- I don't suppose any museum can -- and I think the more Lonnie can point to input by current scholars, well-known scholars, this will help to deflect whatever criticism might be coming their way."
Perhaps Bunch hopes that the mere location of the museum will, in its way, speak more freely. The symbolic axis of the Mall has always been a source of silent but tangible power, particularly with respect to the history of black Americans, beginning with the slave pens that once dotted the land and culminating, perhaps, in the subtle stage design of the March on Washington. "The Mall is America's front yard," Bunch said, when I asked him about the importance of the real estate, "but it is also, in some ways, the place where more people come to understand what it means to be an American than anyplace else in the country." His familiarity with the Mall, and its conventions, led to one of the museum's most striking features. "I wanted a darker building," he said. "I didn't want the white marble building that traditionally was the Mall. What I wanted to say was, there's always been a dark presence in America that people undervalue, neglect, overlook. I wanted this building to say that." Then, as if to balance out this quick foray into confrontational talk, he added, "I also wanted a building that spoke of resiliency and uplift."
The museum stands on the last available plot on the Mall, just east of the Washington Monument, finished but not yet full. Designed by the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, the building is a glass cube, sheathed in three broad, overlapping aluminum bands coated with bronze. Adjaye and his partner, Philip Freelon, call this outer cladding a "corona," a reference to the beaded crowns characteristic of Yoruba art, from West Africa. The corona is decorated with a kind of lattice, a stylized version of the filigree ironwork made by slaves in New Orleans and South Carolina, giving the museum the look of a temple devoted to a vaguely benevolent god. The aluminum bands open as they ascend; trace their angles upward, and they might be arms raised in joy. Follow them downward, and you see the tips of arrows, pointing toward a burial ground, or to a thick knot of invisible roots. The Mall is one of the most tightly regulated spaces in the country, and Adjaye was barred from building any higher; an extra story would have obstructed the sweeping east-west sight line from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. More than half the building is underground.
For pedestrians on the Mall, the museum is hard to see from more than a few dozen yards away, especially during the spring and summer -- the Mall's famous row of American elms is particularly thick on the plot where the building stands. It is set back from the street, on the other side of a neat, rectangular lawn; up from the grass pokes the top of a glass-enclosed circular fountain, called the Oculus, which allows sunlight into the museum's Contemplative Court, belowground, where visitors can pause to consider the treasures -- and, if necessary, recover from the traumas -- experienced so far. Over the building's shoulder looms the Washington Monument, its red eye blinking down as if from the height of the nation's founding.
Adjaye's structure is the latest installment in the Mall's meandering passage through trends in public art. The original design for the area, by Pierre L'Enfant, D.C.'s great planner-auteur, called for a shaggy informality. In his 1791 report to George Washington, L'Enfant imagined a lively promenade flanked not by museums and bureaucratic offices but by sites offering "diversion to the idle" -- theatres, assembly halls, and public academies. This vision was never realized: financial strain and political gridlock stalled construction almost completely during the nineteenth century.
In 1902, the Senate Park Commission, in a report titled "The Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia," reimagined the Mall. The architects and artists on the commission, stirred by America's emergence as an imperial power, designed the space according to the neoclassical principles of the so-called American Renaissance. That visual style defines the Mall's most iconic structures: the Washington Monument and the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. Soon, however, a younger generation, influenced by the blossoming of modernism and by the shattered idealism brought on by two world wars, crashed awkwardly into the frame. Their work reached a nadir in the nineteen-seventies, with the brutalism of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the chunky Air and Space Museum. If the grand planners of the Mall were slightly grandiose, the late-century modernists zagged too far toward a tacky, post-human future.
Adjaye's building might be the most successful modernist design on the Mall so far. This is partly because of its unashamed approach to symbolism. Touches like the corona's outer lattice serve as a reminder of the human work that has gone into the making of America.
Three stories beneath the building's airy upper views, on the museum's bottom level, is an exhibit called "Slavery and Freedom." Quotations from famous freedom-oriented national texts, presented chronologically -- the Declaration of Independence, Absalom Jones's Thanksgiving sermon of 1808, a stanza from the spiritual "Steal Away to Jesus" -- are carved into a vast, unbroken, slate-gray wall. The objects in the exhibit include a tin wallet containing neatly folded freedom papers, a slave identification button stamped "porter," and a Union Army recruitment poster from 1863, featuring Frederick Douglass's rallying cry, "Men of Color, to Arms!" The chronological presentation and the tension between the relics and the promissory texts leave an impression of inevitability: the terrors of the slave trade giving way, gradually, to emancipation, hidden, from the beginning, somewhere deep within the national heart.
Slavery and freedom have, in America, always been intertwined, spinning toward and away from each other in a kind of ontological dance. But the museum's hand-in-hand treatment of the concepts conveys an implicit promise to museumgoers of the uplift to come. This assurance is reiterated by the design of the "history galleries," which, under one high ceiling, occupy the entire lower section of the museum. A series of wide, gently sloped ramps lift a visitor ever farther, in time and in elevation, from slavery -- the title of Booker T. Washington's autobiography, "Up from Slavery," made literal, and almost eschatological. Above, like a promise flown in from the future, hangs a yellow-and-blue training plane operated during the Second World War by the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black American military pilots.
Slavery might be better presented without the escape hatch of freer air above. After all, this is how it was experienced: not as a step on the path to somewhere else but as a cruel normalcy, a permanent condition, the life that one's ancestors had lived, and that one's children would surely live, too. The Holocaust Memorial Museum, across the Mall, offers a sober acknowledgment: for millions, this was a lifetime -- an entire edifice, not simply a floor. "In Washington, D.C., there is no museum of American slavery," Foner noted, when we spoke. He added, "We have a museum of the Holocaust in Washington, which is a great museum, but, you know, what would we think if the Germans put up a big museum of American slavery in Berlin and didn't have anything about the Holocaust?"
At the point on the wall's time line that marks emancipation, there stands a one-room slave cabin, made of whitewashed yellow pine in tidy slats. The cabin was dismantled where it stood originally, on the Point of Pines plantation, on Edisto Island, South Carolina, and reconstructed here. The roof looks flimsy; the simple brick fireplace reaches almost to the ceiling. The floor is clean and smooth. Something happens there, standing where others lived and likely died: the years ahead disappear. The quotidian catalogue that springs to mind -- cooking, cleaning, sex, song -- gives way to an awareness that such normalcy could exist, was made to exist, amid such evil. You look askance at that word, "home."
Outside the cabin, the time line reasserts itself, and the ramps speed history up, leading visitors to an exhibition called "Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom," which presents the era of de-jure and de-facto segregation and is anchored by a gleaming green Jim Crow-era railway car. Soon, close to ground level, "A Changing America" takes us from the chaos of 1968 to the election of Barack Obama and the blood-fuelled rise of Black Lives Matter. Here you are surrounded by panels designed to look like picket signs, bedecked with quick-hit blurbs on "The Aftermath of King's Assassination" and "Feminist Writing," the Black Panthers and Black Power.
There is an irony in this approach: the leaders of these movements did not merely assemble a mountain of facts about life in America; they drew from those facts a world view. They offered interpretations of those facts, thus risking, even inviting, controversy and dissent. The new museum's one heavy-handed assertion -- the fact of black advancement -- is indisputable. But it makes no comment on which means, and which strategies, have secured this progress, or how it might be sustained and enlarged. The exhibits make a thorough sweep through the centuries; no one will leave without scores of wide-eyed did-you-know's to share. But by refusing to submit its wares to the refiner's fire of exegesis, or to make of the many ideas represented within its walls some new idea, useful for the future, the museum reduces history to a scattering of bright but unconstellated stars.
There is a feeling of relief when you reach the upper floors, where the "culture galleries" are housed, and where even Smithsonian-friendly artifacts begin to gather coherence. These items speak not with the wrenching power of the Point of Pines cabin but with a kind of roving intelligence, enabled by the symbolic wit of art. Take, for example, the MIDI Production Center, or MPC, owned by the late producer J. Dilla. The MPC, a tool for recording, mixing, and creating something new from found materials, evokes the process by which art can confound the course of events, not simply reflect or react to it.
The triumph of the building's interior is the gallery for fine art, which occupies the museum's fourth and most impressive floor. From a wide window, facing west, you can see from the White House, in the north, to the Ellipse, to the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial, with the Lincoln Memorial just visible in the distance. When I visited, the art was not yet placed, but the collection, which the chief curator, Jacqueline Serwer, along with the curator Tuliza Fleming and the museum's deputy director, Kinshasha Holman Conwill, acquired mostly from private donors, is a genuine treasure -- and a reminder of art's power to illuminate history's murkier passages. "There wasn't a place in the Smithsonian where you could go from Robert Duncanson to Carrie Mae Weems," Bunch told me, describing the museum's goal in bringing together black artists from America's past and its present. "I wanted us to be that place." Duncanson's stately "The Garden of Eden," painted thirteen years before emancipation, depicts a paradise, leafy and mountainous but also unsettlingly dark. The figures of Adam and Eve are distant and barely distinguishable from the wilderness beyond them. The painting conveys a post-Fall America, tinged with menace, in which sin and grace manage a dissonant coexistence. David Driskell's brown-toned canvas "Behold Thy Son," a work of anguished expressionism, was painted in 1956, a year after the lynching of Emmett Till. It depicts a body with a mangled face and outstretched arms, which could be Christ drooping from the Cross or Till at his funeral, where his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, insisted on an open casket.
The museum's greatest example of the synthesis of art and history, beauty and tragedy, might be "April 4," a work from 1969, by the abstractionist painter Sam Gilliam, in which the artist memorialized Martin Luther King, Jr.,'s assassination. The canvas, smudged with purple, conveys an uneasy mood, but its key feature is a wild splattering of red. The suggestion of blood says much of what can be said about King's killing, or, for that matter, anyone's: that it is senseless, that it is blank fact, that no word could ever rise to its finality.
The museum's history galleries may, over time, find a way to communicate the power of events with a similar force -- to achieve a kind of lift, away from the time line and into deeper places. Of course, as a public institution, it belongs to a nation still nervous about its meaning, and it depends, financially, on a Congress hardly interested in original thought along racial lines. It exists, massively, in three-dimensional space, not on the page or on canvas.
And the contemporary Mall, despite the loftiness of its monuments, is one of the country's great populist locales. The scene on a warm day -- Frisbees floating, sunbathers dozing, those endless busloads of schoolkids -- is a vindication of L'Enfant's original, bustling idea, a happy echo of America's largeness and its stubborn eccentricity. Seen this way, the appearance of the N.M.A.A.H.C. as a site of pilgrimage -- and, more mutely, as a dark presence at a distinguished address -- will not fail to do some good. Better that the children go home rattling off facts, however loosely grasped, about Jim Crow and James Brown than not. Still, for the new museum to become worthy of its expressive building, and to join the ranks of institutions that have helped us to better understand ourselves, it will need to borrow the tactics of art: a long and steady gaze, a bravery uncommon in bureaucracy, and a conception of experience not as a lens but as something that we must continue, indefinitely, to excavate -- interpreting as we dig.
The New Yorker
By Vinson Cunningham
Photo by Jeff McCrum