WASHINGTON - Can Lonnie Bunch bring black history out of its ghetto?
Will the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which he heads, lead to "reconciliation," as Atlanta congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis predicts? Or will it merely exacerbate the perception of a separate experience outside the nation's central story?
Bunch was appointed founding director in 2005; he has spent the years since working to build a national museum dedicated to the contributions black people have made to the great American experiment. He says the facility, scheduled to open on the National Mall in 2015, should be a place "that provides people the opportunity to go deeply into the African-American experience and understand that ... it is a quintessentially American experience.
"What I've learned as a historian is how central African-American history is to everything (the nation) has done. ... To me, it's almost as though the history and culture we want to explore is too big to be in the hands of (the black) community. It really is the best way to understand America."
Bunch echoes Lewis, who spent 15 years pushing Congress to fund the project, which finally won approval in 2003. "We will never be able to appreciate the fullness of the American experience unless we include the whole story of the African-American experience," Lewis told Museum News.
But history is not a simple matter of dates and places, battles and victors, kings and conquerors. Its many corners and contours reflect different truths, depending on where you stand. And no history is more baited and booby-trapped with conflicting interpretations than the history of race in America.
Just ask Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who has been mocked for his memories of a genteel and noncontroversial civil rights era in the Deep South. Or ask Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who was chastised last year for issuing a proclamation honoring Confederate History Month without mentioning the Confederacy's central cause: slavery.
Bunch has many constituencies -- including black Americans -- who want a history that avoids hard truths. He recalled an e-mail from a black man who called him a "Judas" for daring to suggest that exhibits about lynching would be included in the museum.
It's no coincidence that Black History Month celebrations are often simplistic tributes to inspiring figures or paeans to well-known icons such as George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington or Rosa Parks. Even the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been sanded down to caricature -- a preacher who had a dream. Neither black Americans nor white nor brown seem to clamor for a full telling of this country's much more complicated history -- rife with violence, greed and betrayal as well as courage, charity and reconciliation.
Black Americans have been not just victims but also villains in the country's complex drama. For example, Native Americans have a very different interpretation of the role of the Buffalo Soldiers -- "negro" cavalry who participated in the so-called Indian Wars -- than many black Americans do. Black Americans tend to see heroes, while many Native Americans see invaders.
If some white Americans would be dismayed by a frank and unflinching exhibition about slavery, so would many black visitors be unhappy about a mention of the small number of black slave-owners, whom Bunch said he intends to include. Any discussion of the role of complexion in black America, where generations favored the fairer-skinned, would likely also ignite -- well, the word "controversy" doesn't quite cover it.
"I got more controversies than the pope has holy water," Bunch said, laughing. "The biggest challenge I have is not raising money, not even finding collections, but recognizing and negotiating the competing audience visions of the past and (black) culture," he said.
In the midst of that swirl of visions, Bunch says, he clings to advice from black historian John Hope Franklin, who always advised him to seek the "unvarnished truth." There ought to be a place for that on the National Mall -- and in America's story.
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