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Lonnie G. Bunch III:
I am the hope of the enslaved

Lonnie carries the deep well of history in his sparkling eyes and the deep resonance of his voice. He uses history as a tool to give us a fuller picture of who we are so that we can grapple with our past. As founder of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, Lonnie curated the story of the USA’s – and many other countries’ – tortured racial past. He is now the first person of colour to act as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. We have to let this time of change seize us, he says, and be comfortable building on the unknown.

Made by Jo Barratt. Conceived by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.

Music is made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.


What has always given me a sense of contentment has really been history and going to historic sites. For me, maybe one of the greatest moments was on a plantation in South Carolina, the old Friendfield rice plantation. I had really never spent much time on actual slave plantations. And although this plantation had no connection to my own past, I remember driving down this dirt road and there were basically what I thought were swamps, what they were, were rice fields that were built by the enslaved people. And as I turned the corner standing in front of me were seven or eight cabins that the enslaved lived in, cabins from 20 years before the end of the civil war in the 1840s. It took my breath away. I could feel the pain. I could also feel the strength of the people. And I met a man there, Princey Jenkins, who was in his nineties.  And he had lived in one of the cabins with his enslaved grandmother. And he told me how they lived. And to me, this was an amazing moment to be able to connect the present to the past. He talked about how the enslaved people did what they called a hard sweep in front of the cabin to get rid of the grass so there’d be no vermin. He talked about in the back of the cabin, where the enslaved grew food to supplement what they were given. And as he told me all these stories, he told me stories of work, of pain, I could smell history, but I also came away unbelievably moved by the strength of people and the strength of my own ancestors. Here were people that lived in these horrible conditions, and yet they made it a home. Here were people that knowing that their lives were controlled by others, found ways to exercise that control, found ways to make sure they live their lives the way they wanted to.

We saw kinds of animals that as a kid from the city I’d necessarily want to see, and he took me to a place and it looked like there was just broken porcelain, pieces of toilets and sinks. And he told me, no, this was a slave cemetery where you would put those pieces of porcelain to sort of both connect you to where you were buried, but also to your homeland. And at that moment, I felt whole, maybe for the first time. I felt proud of being African-American. I felt humbled coming from people who believe in an America that didn’t believe in them. And I found myself so moved that I was crying, but it was crying out of joy and contentment to realise that I had opportunities they didn’t have, but I had their strength. And that made me feel so good. And I felt that every time I worried, every time I got scared, every time I had a big challenge, I would think about my enslaved ancestors, I would think about the Friendfield plantation. I would think about how initially it was frightening, in the woods it was full of mosquitoes, but ultimately it became a touchstone that I always go back to. And then I always think if they could survive, so can I. If they can believe in America that didn’t believe in them, so can I. If they believed that one day they would be free, then I have to commit myself to living their freedom in the fullest. Because that moment, which was almost 25, 30 years ago, that moment made me realise that I am the hope of the enslaved. And therefore I felt that deep sense of commitment to the past and a real understanding that all would be okay as long as I dipped into that reservoir of the past.

History has always been my North star. History and family. It really shaped my belief that I needed to use my life, I needed to use my training, I needed to use my love of history as a way to challenge a nation, as a way to expect America to grapple with its tortured racial past as a way to say that history is a tool, you know, a weapon that if we drink deeply from that reservoir, we can make profound change. How can you not believe in change? When history tells you look at these people who were brought over in chains, but who believed that there would be freedom who not only believed, but worked at it in some ways, what history, especially history of Black America, how that gives me great comfort and confidence is because whenever America was challenged to live up to its stated ideals often it was the African-American community, whether it was demanding the end of slavery, whether it was battling segregation, whether it was the civil rights movement that led to laws that help Blacks, but helped all Americans.  What history gives me is a sense of hope. And what history does for me is that history allows me to define reality and to give hope to others. 

After building the National Museum of African American History and Culture, working there for 14 years of my career, that gave me such joy because I knew what that was doing was changing America’s identity and the world who comes to the national mall in Washington, DC, yes they’ll see the US Capitol and they’ll see the Lincoln Memorial and they’ll see all the Smithsonian, but they’ll now see a fuller, richer way to understand who we are as Americans, by having a museum that allows us – that forces us – to grapple with our tortured racial past. So I find myself in a situation where I struggle to find that hope of history, because I see so many things that challenge me, the death of Breonna Taylor, the death of George Floyd, reminded me as a historian that I’ve seen this moment many times and I’ve seen it historically thousands of times, where there are broken Black bodies, where there is an outcry, a push for change. And sometimes there is profound change, but that change is more like a sprint rather than a marathon. It is short lived and I get tired over and over again of fighting the same battle.

As somebody who’s done okay in his career, has a wonderful family, I also know that if I turned left sometimes instead of right, I could have been George Floyd. And I remember the times that police had thrown me off the hood of the car for no reason. I remember the sense of fear that you don’t know at this moment, whether you control your own destiny, whether you’ll survive. So in some ways, part of what I feel right now is both an amazing commitment to use everything I have to change a country to force it to look at itself, but to force it to look at itself is in a way like a marathon, that this is a time of change, but it’s a time that has to really seize us. And I guess the question of how optimistic I will be is based on a kind of election, whether America, as we’re struggling to define and to fight for the soul of America, whether or not we will seize a future based on a past that says we will struggle, but we will try to be a place that’s freer and fair. Or will we harken back to a past that didn’t exist for many, a past where injustice, racism, hatred, in some ways where the laws of the land. It is a difficult moment to decide whether or not I can be optimistic, but history, history history gives me hope. I do go back to that first trip to the Friendfield plantation outside of Georgetown, South Carolina, and feel the strength of Princey Jenkins. But it also made me desire to know more about my own enslaved ancestors, Candice Bunch, a woman who was born in slavery and died in 1870. All these people who basically believed and gave me life, they then forced me in this moment to not despair, to worry, but to work hard, to help a country live up to its stated ideals.  

I feel as if I’ve seen these stories, these fears, this division before, but I have to believe that good people will find their goodness, good people will cross lines, racial, political lines, and demand that a country is what it says it is, a place a fairness a place of liberty a place where you can find life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, great words, words to aspire to, words we often we fail to live up to. I’ve got to believe I’ve got to believe.  

When I think about the love I’ve experienced so much of it is about giving. A giving of one’s soul. Being the kind of person that would do more for others than you do for yourself. For me, the notion of being able to give is really one of the things that has motivated me and moved me forward. The best emotion I have is this desire to fight for fairness, everything I’ve ever done has been predicated on the notion that this is a world that should be fair for everybody. And for those that don’t reap the benefit of being fair, they should be having people, allies fighting for them. I always wanted to be that ally. I think compassion is crucially important because it’s compassion that makes people recognise that change is needed. And it’s the ability to feel empathy that motivates people. So it’s compassion to push people forward, empathy to motivate people.  

There are kids playing in a neighbourhood, very diverse kids, Black, White, Asian, Latino, and as they play, their parents come out and smile. They smile because all these kids have the same opportunity, that they’re playing with each other, regardless of race, but they never have to face that moment where race becomes the barrier or where gender becomes the barrier. So in my future, what you have are people who believe in the greatness of a nation and who struggle to ensure that fairness is for all. We’re in a neighbourhood where all the houses are very different looking, but they all give the same sense of home and ownership and a sense of family. The question really is what does the future hold. While I can imagine a future that’s fair, a future that is ripe with a sense of dignity, a future that ensures that no one will be discriminated based on gender or race, I worry that that future is still so far away because when I look to think about where we’re pointing towards the future, I worry about the climate that we’re in, both the political and the environment. If the arc of justice in the future is going to point towards fairness, it’s going to take a long struggle. And I worry that people have the perseverance, the strength to do that. 

I think what we have to really realise as we look towards the future is that unless we are working every day to change a nation, to change the world, the future that many of us imagined, that future where more people are smiling than crying, that future will never happen.  

In some ways, transformation has really been about my whole career, whether it is helping a country become transformed over issues of race, whether it’s building a national museum that few people believe could happen. For me, it was always about what is the work we do that is transformative. I want people to be comfortable not building on what they know, being comfortable to reach beyond what they know, to recognise that it’s okay to say I’m not sure how to do this, I’m not sure what the future holds. But to me, the worst thing in the world is to tread water, is to not move forward because of the unknown. All you’re doing when you tread water is letting the unknown seize you, to let the unknown control all that you think. And then ultimately what you want to do is move forward. Because in that forwardness, you’re creating a little friction, and you’re creating a little light. And it’s that light that allows you to move forward.  

It’s crucially important that we embrace change and ambiguity. I think the thing we leave behind are simple answers to complex questions. The key to the future is embracing an ambiguity of uncertainty, but to have a vision, of a better nation, a better world, but to recognize that to get there, you’ve got to embrace ambiguity. For me, it’s always about building bridges, helping people in need, helping people see things that they wouldn’t imagine, helping people who’ve never thought about issues of race to understand, helping people who don’t understand the ceilings that are built on gender, helping people see those ceilings. So I feel strongly that I’ve had a generation or two of people who recognise that the most important thing is fighting the good fight for the greater good of the soul. I will continue to teach, to challenge, to educate, and I expect people to embrace the new and to understand better that it’s incumbent upon them to make the changes. What we really need to do is recognise that in an almost childlike way, we’re in this together and then in essence, we all fail unless we all succeed.