February is Black History Month in the United States, when Americans are encouraged to learn about and appreciate the many contributions African Americans have made to American society. Those efforts got a boost this week (January 30) when the Smithsonian Institution announced its plan to build a National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall, where, in about 10 years, it will join many of the capital city's other famed national museums and monuments.
There is much to do before the museum is actually built. An architect must be chosen, the collection must be assembled, and half the museum's $300- $500 million price tag must be solicited from private donors. But an ebullient Lonnie Bunch, the director of the new museum, says that his first job will be "to stop smiling."
"This museum really desires to create an opportunity for millions of Americans to revel in and understand African American history," he says, "to understand the poignancy of slavery, to tap their toes to Louis Armstrong, to understand the courage of those involved in the civil rights struggle, but also to understand that those stories are quintessentially American." Mr. Bunch queries, "If one wants to look at the core values of resilience and optimism and spirituality, where better than the African-American experience?"
Lonnie Bunch says the museum will work hard to portray the realities of the black experience in all its complexity. He notes that African-American culture is not monolithic, or unchanging. Indeed, as the current influx of African and West Indian immigrants to America makes clear, just what it means to be African-American is in flux and always has been.
Referring to America's colonial period, he says, "You suddenly have all these different Africans who spoke different languages, who didn't know each other, who were traditional enemies, suddenly coming together to create a new African-American culture." While he acknowledges that today is different than the 19th or 18th century, he says, "there are great parallels."
For Kinshasha Holman Conwill, the museum's deputy director, African-American history is not about dry facts. It's about life as it has been lived, experienced and shared. That is, it's a story.
"It's a story that starts with the presence of an African American person in the New World, and it comes down to the present," she says. "And it's a story of triumph and of tragedy. And it's a story of music, it's science, it's history and art."
It is a story Conwill especially wants young African-Americans who may be unfamiliar with their heritage to hear.
"When people don't know that they have a past, it's hard for them to imagine a future," she says. "It's often told popularly as a story of enslavement. But that story is also one of resistance to slavery. That story is also one of heroism, of people like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, who, despite being enslaved, were able to accomplish a lot."
Young African-Americans today face many challenges. "They are not literally in shackles, says Conwill, "but lack of education is a kind of enslavement. So I think this helps young people see, 'My goodness these people triumphed over extraordinary odds!'"
China Finney, 18, from Brooklyn, says she welcomes the idea of a national museum of black history. "I would like to see raw history, " she says, "not textbook-type history, but history that is realistic and could really educate people."
At its best, says Director Lonnie Bunch, the National Museum of African American History and Culture will be a sort of mirror, "a mirror that says, on the one hand, 'this is where you have lived up to your ideals and here's where you have not.'" But more than anything else, he adds, "This museum will help us all understand that, no matter how we feel about different issues, this is a culture that profoundly touches us all."