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tv   Firing Line With Margaret Hoover  PBS  February 5, 2022 5:30am-6:01am PST

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>> our past, our present, and our future, this week on "firing line." >> this is a museum that use african-american culture as the lens to understand what it means to be an american. >> he's the 14th secretary of the smithsonian, the world's largest museum, education, and research institution. lonnie bunch is the first black secretary and the first historian to lead the 175-year-old organization, which includes more than 20 museums, from the air and space museum to the national portrait gallery. >> the smithsonian is part of the glue that holds the country together. >> a major achievement along the way? the conception, creation, and ultimately the opening of the national museum of african american history and culture on the national mall. >> i do want to give a shout-out to lonnie. >> bunch has learned to work with both democrats and republicans in congress. despite today's polarizing debates about american history, how and what should be taught?
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at the beginning of black history month, what does lonnie bunch say now? >> "firing line with margaret hoover" is made possible in part by... and by... corporate funding is provided by... >> secretary lonnie bunch, welcome to "firing line." >> thank you. glad to be with you. >> you are the 14th secretary to oversee the network of 21 smithsonian museums in washington, d.c., which also includes the national zoo. you were the first black american and the first historian to hold the post. and i'm speaking to you at the start of black history month.
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now, you grew up in belleville, new jersey, a mostly white neighborhood. so what led you to become scholar of african-american history? >> in many ways, i was trying to understand why, in the community i grew up, that there were people who treated me wonderfully and other people who treated me horribly. and i thought that if i could understand the history of this town, i might be able to understand what's happening with me. and that led me into this great interest to use history to understand how race has been a challenge for all of americans. and, in essence, what that taught me was that history became my muse. it became the thing that allowed me to understand how i could help a country find itself that has been divided over issues of race. >> i remember when we spoke last year, you told me the story of what happened when you were a child, where you had your first palpable experience of somebody treating you
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differently because of your race. what happened? >> it was 1967, and there was the riots that were going on in newark and i was walking in a part of town that wasn't where i grew up. and, suddenly, a policeman came up to me and said, "do you have any matches?" and i remember thinking, "matches?" and he basically thought that i was someone from newark who was coming in to belleville to burn it down. well, he threw me on the hood of the car i can still remember how hot the hood of the car feltgainst my face. and i remember being both frightened and angry. and what that hataught me my entire life is that i realized that if i turned left instead of right in many other places, i might not be here. so as an african-american, you understand the dangers of just being black in america. >> before your current role, you were the founding director of the national museum
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of african american history and culture. you oversaw the project from its conception through its opening in september of 2016. let's list to some of the opening remarks from president bush on that day. >> a great nation does not hide its history. it faces its flaws and corrects them. [ applause ] this museum tells the truth that a country founded on the promise of liberty held millions in chains. >> how important is it to hear leaders of both political parties recognize president bush's words there? >> i thought that president bush's speech at the opening of the museum was one of the most powerful speeches i'd ever heard, because he basically made the argument that a good country is not afraid of its own history. history is not something to run away from. history is something to learn from.
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so i thought that what president bush said on that day is language that i have kept with me ever since. >> you wrote a book about the process of building the museum. it's called "a fool's errand." but, of course, you pulled it off against what seemed like big odds. talk about a moment where the weight of the process struck you. >> where it really hit me time and time again was that i would be walking down the street, and people would come up to me, often elderly african-american women, and they would say to me, "you're lonnie bunch. thank you for what you're doing." and they would hug me. and i felt this pressure to get it right. i felt this pressure to try to craft a museum that, on the one hand, would be this rich opportunity for people to understand african-american history and culture and for americans to grapple with their own
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tortured racial past, but i also wanted it to be a museum that was a story for us all and that that pressure of trying to tell a people's story, but a nation's journey was really something that was a pressure i felt the entire 11 years that we worked on this. >> you recount, in moving detail, a story from the time when you obtained artifacts from the life of harriet tubman. how did that early acquisition restore your faith that the story you wanted to tell could be told? >> well, i get this call from charles blockson, the great collector, who ys he has material harriet tubman. and i candidly don't believe him. i mean, i'm a 19th century historian. who's got stuff on harriet tubman? but he said, "come to philadelphia. at the very least, i'll buy you a cheesesteak." so i figured, "okay, what the heck? i get to go to philadelphia." and charles blockson is a big man, tall, and he comes in with a tiny box
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and he pulls out pictures of harriet tubman's funeral that no one had ever seen and he pulled out this knife and fork, homemade, that harriet tubman took with her when she went into the south to help the enslaved free. and then she had the shawl. there's a picture of her three days befe she died in that shawl. and then he pulled out a hymnal that had all those spirituals that harriet tubman would sing, "steal away jesus," "swing low, sweet chariot," to alert the enslaved that it was time to come to freedom. and i am just crying. after i stopped crying, i said to him, "so, what's it going toake for this materia to come to the smithsonian?" and i'm thinking it's going to cost a lot of money. i don't have money. and he basically said to me, "all you have to do is shake my hand." and i shook his hand, and he gave all this material to the smithsonian. and that's what was so powerful about this museum -- that people around the world gave things to the smithsonian. over 70% of what we discovered
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was in basements, trunks, and attics of people's homes. so, in many ways, it was almost as if people were waiting for this museum to be able to share their -- not thei stuff, but their stories and their family. and that, to me, was the most humbling part of doing this is to recognize that i wasn't building a museum. i was holding people's culture in my hands. and i wanted the staff to treat it with the respect that often that culture didn't receive, but it was going to receive in this new museum. >> i think the question of artifacts is actually quite interesting, because there was a bit of an assumption, at least at the outset, that perhaps the significant collections that would be relevant to this museum simply didn't exist. but you recognized that if harriet tubman's artifacts could exist, howany more artifacts could exist, as you just said, still in the basements and trunks and attics of people's homes? so, you said what you needed was a strategy to help access
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those artifacts in order to build the collections. how did you do it? >> well, you know, i'm not going to take credit for being that creative. i literally fell asleep one day in front of the television and i woke up, and there was something called "antique roadshow" on. i never heard of it. and i thought the notion of asking people to bring out their materials was a brilliant idea. as we helped them conserve, as we went around the country, suddenly, people would bring out amazing artifacts and say, "don't you want this?" and so, in essence, it allowed us to find amazing stories about the way women worked, about farming, about the military. and once we found those collections, be it harriet tubman or the unnamed farmer, that allowed us to build a museum and to tell a story in a way that was my real goal, and that was to humanize this story, to not make this the grand story of slavery or migration, but to make it the story of individuals or families
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so you care, so you saw that this was a story that shaped you regardless of whether your family had been here 200 years or got here 20 minutes ago. this was the story of us all. >> what artifact is most meaningful to you, personally? >> [ laughs ] oh, my gdness. you know, in many ways, there were two. a family called me and said they had a tin wallet. well, it turned out there was a man, joseph trammell, who was enslaved in virginia. when he gained hisreedom, he had his freedom paper. and he would keep that paper in what he called a handmade tin wallet. just a -- sort of a box that he made, because he knew that he had to protect it, that he had to carry it with him, but he didn't want perspiration to destroy it because he knew that if he lost that document, he would lose his freedom. and that, to me, moved me so much to have
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this tiny, little box, but it allowed me to talk about the importance of freedom and how tenuous freedom was for many people became, in my mind, one of the most important artifacts we ever received. and then i have to be honest. the other artifact that people love that i wasn't all that excited about was, i had called chuck berry to ask for one of the guitars that he wrote "maybellene" on. and instead, he said, "you can have the guitar if you take my candy-apple-red cadillac." now, i had no interest in a candy-apple-red cadillac, but the staff was so much smarter than me, and they said, "no, this is really important." so they convinced me. we collected it. we put it on display. it's now one of the most popular artifacts that people want to get their pictures taken from -- chuck berry's 1972 candy-apple-red cadillac. so, we went from crying to laughing, but what it allowed us to do was to tell a full story of a community. >> yeah. in the summer of 2020, after the murder of george floyd,
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the african american museum's rapid reonse team was in lafayette square, collecting posters, art, photographs, stories about the protests. you've said, "protest is the highest form of patriotism." so are these items part of the museum's collection now, and will they be on exhibit someday? >> i think it's important that part of the museum's job is to collect not just going back, but collect today for future curators to use, because i always felt that, in many ways, if it wasn't in a museum, we ran the risk of forgetting. and so we now collect this material. some will be displayed over time. some will just be there for curators to use in the future. what is so important to me is to recognize that museums collect in part to tell stories, but in part to make sure a nation remembers. and i wanted to make sure the issues around black lives matter
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and george floyd were remembered, and that's one of our ways to do it. >> as we all know, there is an ongoing conversation in america about how to teach race, how to discuss race. this happens in corpote america, this is happening in our classrooms, and there's no doubt it will play a role in our upcoming 2022 elections and in 2024. have you thought about, secretary bunch, how best to depoliticize how race is taught in the united states? >> my job is to tell an accurate, complete, and inclusive history and that, in some ways, this history about race is not a negative history. while there are negative moments, there are horrible moments, what i also find is, by talking about race, we begin to see how a country changed. we begin to see how african-americans and many of their allies helped the nation
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live up to its stated ideals or at least strive to reach those ideals. so, for me, talking about race is, first of all, not talking about a particular community versus not. it's talking about america, because we are all shaped by it. and then to be able to help people understand that, in some ways, that by looking at that difficult past, what we're also doing is finding hope, fiing people who believed in an america that didn't believe in this, finding people who actually said, "let us work together to live up to the ideals of a jefferson or of a washington." so, for me, talking about history is, one, something that we have to do, because, in many ways, if we don't, what we're doing is not understanding ourselves. we're not understanding ourselves as americans. that's why i think it's so important for historians, for museums to tell this story, because people trust museums. they trust them to be accura. and so what i want to do
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is make sure that we're usin good scholarship anconveying it in a way that people understand that this is not about pointing blame. this is about finding understanding. this is about helping all americans confront their past so they can find that better shared future. >> you know, you write about a lawmaker whoou call an ally and a friend, particularly in the process of constructing the museum. and that is, of course, south carolina representative james clyburn, who was once also a history teacher. and he was also a guest on the original "firing line" with william f. buckley jr. in a debate entitled "should blacks vote democratic?" >> what do you see, mr. clyburn, the republican party, the party that is most enthusiastic about keeping alive those processes of upward mobility, which have served an awful lot
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of people who came to america as bereft as the blacks were after the 13th amendment was passed? >> oh, there's absolutely nothing wrong with black people as individuals ting advantage of any individual remedy that may come from the republican party or the democratic party, for that matter. but it seems to me that it's the democratic party that has come forward with those group remedies, such as the voting rights act. >> i know you stay out of politics as the secretary of the smithsonian. you work with congress, whether it's controlled by republicans or democrats. and throughout your book, you reference, you know, this experience of building the museum relied on support from both republicans and democrats. can you give our viewers any confidence that this kind of bipartisanship that you experienced in the construction of the museum can extend to other debates? >> i think the creation of the museum is the best example of what happens
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when america is at its best, wheneople cross political lines. i mean, i think powerfully about the day the museum opened, and i look and i'm on the stage with the chief justice. i see the speaker of the house, paul ryan, the minority leader, nancy pelosi. i see people from all walks of life who basically said "we will come together for the greater good," and crafting a museum that will help us understand was part of the greater good. so for me, every time i look at the partisan nature of the world we're in, i remember that day and recognize that people are able to transcend politics for the greater good. the challenge is to define that greater good that brings people together. >> you gave president trump a personal tour of the african american museum shortly after it opened and wrote that you were optimistic that the visit could contribute
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to a "broader understanding of race relations in america." how do you reflect back on that tour now? do you have a story about the tour? >> alright, i was wrong. you know, the hope was that the role of a museum is really to educate. and i think that when i took president trump through, there were things i think he learned that were different. so, am always hopeful that history can be a valuable tool to bring us together. but it hasn't done as much a job as i'd hoped it would over the last three or four years. >> another decision you made was about including bill cosby in the museum. you know, in 2016, he had been accused of rape and sexual assaults, but you included him along with information about his accusations. and later, cosby was convicted. that conviction was overturned, due to process issues. you know, how has your thinking
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about that decision to include cosby evolved? >> i think that a job of a historian is not to erase history, but to really clarify and use history. and it was really important for us to actually say, "here is a role that cosby played in helping to sort of change the image of black people on television." but it was really important to also say that his reputation was forever damaged. at the time, we didn't know that he was guilty, but ultimately changed that so it's clear so that people can make the adjustment themselves. they can say, "here is somebody that contributed something important, but here is the other side of this" so that people understand the complexity of someone like bill cosby. >> president biden has made a commitment to nominate the first-ever blacman to the court, calling it "long overdue."
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as a historian, how significant is a change of the court like this one that the president is committed to? >> on one hand, it's crucially important because the group that often gets undervalued or overlooked are black women. so i think it's really powerful to say a black woman will sit on the supreme court. i think it is important that the court itself has a diversity of opinions, because i think the great strength of the court is when there are many different lenses that you can look at a legal issue at. so i get very excited about the possibilities, because, in my mind, it also honors black women and what they've done throughout our history. >> there is a major poll that found that an overwhelming number of americans -- 76% -- want president biden to consider "all possible nominees," not just black, women candidates. and it reminds me that ronald reagan, in 1980, campaigned that his
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supreme court vacancy would be filled by, "the most qualified woman" that he could possibly find. so, how do you square that? >> well, i think that, for me, thnotion is, let's be clear -- appointing a black woman on the court is not saying, "this is an affirmative action hire." it is basically saying, "here are unbelievably qualified women that we're choosing from." so i reject the notion that, somehow, that means that these women aren't qualified that they're considering, but that, in essence, it's just saying that we want to make sure that as we look at the diversity in the court, that we have an array of people who can provide different lenses into a particular story or a particular subject. >> the director of the smithsonianational museum of african art removed 18 pieces from display in july that were stolen by the british military when it raided the kingdom of benin, which is
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now in nigeria, in 1897. der your direction, the smithsonian has launched the ethical returns working group to create uniform guidelines around repatriation and future collections standards. this potentially has implications for many thousands of stolen artifacts in nearly every museum around the world. what needs to happen, secretary bunch? >> i believe that there's no single answer to this challenge. i think it's important to really understand that museums need to reflect and model the behavior they expect from everywhere else. and, so, there are a lot of collections that have been obtained in different ways, and that i think i'm not arguing to return all of these. there are a variety of things one does. one can return artifacts. one can keep them but interpret them in different ways. so the key is to really look at, "how do we sort of grapple
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with our own past? and how do we do it in a way that allows people to be educated, that artifacts are preserved, but that communities are also celebrated for their own histories?" >> with american history and how we teach our history, i think we all recognize that we're at an inflection point, and there seems to be increased interest in how we tell the story of our past holistically and inclusively. what is the smithsonian's responsibility to et this moment and hp shape the way we tell the american story? >> i think over the last several years -- you've put your finger on something really important -- there's been a great deal of interest in understanding our history, understanding racial history, understanding gender history, understanding our history writ large. and so part of the goal of the smithsonian is to do something that only we can do.
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we can tell american history through many different lenses, whether it's through the lens of the african-american community or the native american community or through the lens of fine art. that doesn't mean it's going to always be easy. in fact, one of the great strengths of history is that it helps people embrace ambiguity, right? that there aren't simple answers to complex questions. so what we want to do is give people that opportunity to understand the nuance, the subtlety, and to use that to come to history, to use it as a tool to help them live their lives. >> secretary bunch, what brings you hope? >> oh, history brings me hope. first of all, when you think about, if this was 1820, could anybody have imagined that slavery would end? but it did. this was 1920, could anybody imagine that racial segregation as a law would end? so, for me, that gives me hope
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that a country can change, that a country can be made better. but also what gives me hope is really sort of looking at my own ancestors. you know, my grandparents started out as sharecroppers and ended their life as sort of middle-class people living in new jersey. that gives me hope. and the last thing that gives me hope is the smile on my granddaughter's face when i tell her a story about history and she doesn't say, "oh, that's so boring." >> secretary lonnie bunch, thank you for taking time to join me on "firing line." it's been a pleasure. >> thank you. i enjoyed it, as always. >> "firing line with margaret hoover" is made possible in part by... and by... corporate funding is provided by...
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