But today is Juneteenth, and on June 19th, 1865, Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to announce that the enslaved were free. The meaning of this day and its significance in American history is front of mind this year, and there's no one better to discuss this than Secretary Bunch. Secretary Bunch, welcome.
MR. BUNCH: Oh, my pleasure to see you as always.
MR. CAPEHART: We have a couple things in common. You and my mom share a birthday, but also, we're both--we were both born in Newark. So, it is great to see you again after a long while.
Let's talk about Juneteenth. Everybody is talking about Juneteenth this year. The President told The Wall Street Journal that he, quote, "made Juneteenth very famous, nobody had ever heard of it." Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill Senators Kamala Harris, Democrat of California, and John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, are introducing a bill to make Juneteenth a national holiday. So, Secretary Bunch, historian, why should Juneteenth be a national holiday?
MR. BUNCH: In many ways, Juneteenth is both a local story and a national story. It really is in some ways the second Independence Day in this country. For many people, Juneteenth raises the fundamental question of the power and impact of freedom and the fragility of freedom. So, for me it's an opportunity to both look back but to look ahead to make sure that that notion of freedom and the fragility of it is always protected and celebrated.
MR. CAPEHART: So, Secretary Bunch, what lessons from Juneteenth could be applied today. I know, yes, the fragility--the fragility of freedom and the fragility of democracy. But what are the direct lessons that we could take hold of today?
MR. BUNCH: I think first of all it's important to realize that what this day should remind us is that freedom wasn't given. That in essence, African Americans' struggle both in terms of self-liberation, on running away, join the Army, but in essence they fought for their freedom. It wasn't just given to them. But it should remind us that the legacy is that we have to continually struggle to ensure that freedom is made accessible to us all. And I think that what I see more than anything else as a historian is that African Americans have built on Juneteenth and used it time and time again to struggle, whether it was the struggle against segregation, whether it was struggling against anti-lynching laws, or obviously struggling during the civil rights movement. So, what this day should remind us is that we should celebrate the moment but recognize that it's incumbent upon us to protect this freedom.
MR. CAPEHART: Now, yes, celebrate the moment. But one of the reasons, probably the main reason why we are talking about Juneteenth, one is because the President is going--is going to Tulsa. He was supposed to speak there today. And I want to talk about that and Tulsa, the significance of Tulsa. But we're also talking about Juneteenth because of the protests that have been in the streets nationwide since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. You have called protests the highest form of patriotism. So as a historian, how do you view these nationwide protests? Are we at a turning point in American history, or something else?
MR. BUNCH: I think that clearly this is a moment that's part of a long historic arc, right? That we can talk about the broken black bodies that go back from enslavement all the way to today. What I think you see, however, is an understanding that if you want to hold this country accountable, if you want to help this country fulfill its dreams, if you want to help this country live to its stated ideals, the you've got to protest, you've got to push it. I mean, I'm always struck by the notion of Frederick Douglas, who once said that, you know, you can't appreciate freedom without agitation, without recognizing there's a struggle for it. And so, what I'm seeing is a struggle in the streets to make a country better, to help a country finally get to that tipping point to say how is this a great leap forward? How does this change the basic assumptions we have about what this nation is? And so, there's a part of me that is hopeful and a part of me that's not.
MR. CAPEHART: Okay. So, I get the hopeful part. Expand on the part that makes you not hopeful?
MR. BUNCH: I mean, on the one hand, let me frame it this way, that I'm seeing changes that I never would have expected. I'm seeing police chiefs and police officers finally talking about their own culpability and what does this mean in the criminal justice system. I'm also seeing things that I never thought like Aunt Jemima going away from the syrup bottle.
But on the other hand, we've seen this moment before. I worry a lot that this is not going to sort of become 1969, and that in essence, if you remember after the long hot summers and the changes of the civil rights movement, Richard Nixon is elected on a law and order platform. And that law and order platform turns people's attention away from civil rights, from finding fairness and freedom, and it really is a contributing factor to the mass incarceration we see today. So, I worry a little bit that this is a moment that could be taken away if we don't continue to push and see leadership at all levels demanding to say this is the tipping point, this is the time.
MR. CAPEHART: You know, you mentioned--you mentioned some of the things that are happening particularly in corporate America. Aunt Jemima finally being retired, other things that corporations are doing. I believe I saw a report that, what, about half of the Fortune 100 have pledged something like [audio interference] billion dollars to African American causes or causes related to social justice. Do you view those as "real" is the word that comes to mind, or fleeting? Is this just a feel-good thing, from your perspective, that they're doing and then as time goes on that commitment will go by the wayside?
MR. BUNCH: I think part of the key difference of, say, today from other moments when the corporate community contributed is that you now have a much more diverse workforce in these corporations. You have people saying, well, what are we doing as a corporation to help make a country better and what are we doing to improve our own sense of equity and fairness? So, what you're seeing is I think something that is real. I think that it's too soon to tell, you know, will this last for years and years. But I'm optimistic that I'm seeing people put money to this, seeing people then make corporations begin to make changes. And I think that this is a moment of possibility. But again, this is a moment where we've seen in the past where after a period of time the heat, the boiling heat comes down and people turn their attention in other ways. I do believe that the kinds of diverse people that I'm seeing contribute to this struggle, the fact that you're seeing a diverse group of people in the streets, you're seeing people from Europe saying that this is an issue for them, as well as the United States, gives me hope that we can keep the heat up.
MR. CAPEHART: Now we have a confluence of historical events here. We've got Juneteenth, which is today. But as I was talking, mentioning before, Tulsa and the President going to Tulsa. Talk about the significance of Tulsa in the American story but particularly in the African American story.
MR. BUNCH: Well, in many ways Tulsa represented the sense of possibility that African Americans believed coming out of slavery, coming into the 21st century. The Greenwood section of Tulsa was really a kind of--they used to call it the Black Wall Street. It was a place ripe with black businesses, a strong sense of community, a sense of economic prosperity. Really, an example of the best of what can happen to African Americans. But it ran afoul as always of a rumor that an African American abused a white woman, the police came in. It led to a kind of lawlessness attack where it destroyed so much of Greenwood. Hundreds were killed. Hundreds were chased away. Whole buildings were destroyed. What it really told me is that the Greenwood Massacre is really the sort of yin and yang of America. On the one hand, it is the best of what happens to many black Americans in terms of creating this moment. But it's also said that it's run afoul of the sort of system and the notion of what black Americans should be able to do. And I think the pain of that is really something that people still feel, and especially because what it symbolizes to me is the insecurity of freedom, the uncertainty of freedom, that here you're doing everything you're supposed to do and it's taken away from you.
MR. CAPEHART: And the Tulsa Massacre is called the single-worst incident of racial violence in American history. Talk about the significance of President Trump wanting to go--well, he's going to Tulsa, but wanting to go to Tulsa and give a speech on Juneteenth in Tulsa.
MR. BUNCH: Well, I think that it is my belief as always that everybody should be educated and that if this helped the President learn a little bit more about African- American history, so be it. But I also think it tells you that there's such a divide in this country in terms of knowledge, in terms of understanding the African American experience, understanding African American history. This is a sacred time. Tulsa is a sacred city. And I think it's important for it to be celebrated as a place that was rebuilt, that African Americans didn't let the destruction stop them, but it also should be a cautionary tale about the limits of freedom.
MR. CAPEHART: So, yes, everyone should be open to being educated, should be educated. But as you wrote--as you wrote in your book, when then President-elect Donald Trump went to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, when you were there as the director, you wrote, "The President paused in front of the exhibit that discussed the role of the Dutch in the slave trade. As he pondered the label, I felt that maybe he was paying attention to the work of the museum. He quickly proved me wrong. As he turned from the display, he said to me, you know, they love me in The Netherlands. All I could say was, let's continue walking. There is little I remember about the rest of the hour we spent together. I was so disappointed in his response to one of the greatest crimes against humanity in history. Here was a chance to broaden the views and the understanding of the incoming President, and I had been less successful than I had expected."
That was visit was January 2017. Here we are, June 2020. Do you think the President has been open to being educated about history, but also the hard parts of our history?
MR. BUNCH: You know, I can't answer that. I don't know what he's been educated by. What I do think, however, is that this is a moment that is illuminating this history, that's allowing everybody, forcing everybody to confront it. And I think that's really the powerful moment to have a president try to talk about Tulsa, even though he's learning more about it, I think it's important to realize that this is a moment for people to better understand our history. And that excites me.
MR. CAPEHART: But, Secretary Bunch, how important is it that we have a--to the national discussion and also our historical arc, that we have a President of the United States who, time and time again, shows that not only is he not cognizant of our history but is willing to pour salt in the wounds of our history? I mean, we're used to having presidents who are uniters in moments of tragedy and crisis bring us together, and yet there are plenty examples of the current president doing the exact opposite.
MR. BUNCH: All I can say to you is that, look, this is a moment, from my vantage point, where the country is open to learning about its history, to confronting its tortured racial past. And anything that allows us to better understand who we once were and help us contextualize this moment and maybe use history, especially the African American experience, to point us towards a better future is something that I'm very supportive of.
MR. CAPEHART: So I want to dive in a little deeper on something you mentioned before in terms of the hopefulness that you see coming out of the nationwide protests, and that is having police chiefs around the country saying that they need to do better and acknowledging the pain and the frustration out there in the country. The relationship between the African American community and law enforcement has, broadly speaking, not been good and stretches all the way back probably to, you know, we came to these shores in 1619. Is it possible to change four centuries of a relationship in the span of, you know, one moment in time where people are in the streets demanding change?
MR. BUNCH: You know, all I can do is say that one of the great strengths of the African American community is that they were able to dream a world anew. They were able to dream an America that was yet to be. And so, there were people who would have never thought that slavery would end, people who believed that legal segregation would always be there. So, I've got to believe that change is possible. I think that by looking at the way police chiefs are talking, but more importantly by looking at the way communities are keeping the pressure on, I think there's hope for change. So, I have to believe that that's possible based on history. But I think the jury is still out.
MR. CAPEHART: So, Secretary Bunch, I want to go to a couple of questions that we got from viewers. This comes from Katy Kortis [phonetic] from Montana. And her question is: Do you have any suggestions for making this relevant to middle class white students in Montana (because I believe they really need to understand such important events), and of course that she is referring to Juneteenth.
MR. BUNCH: I think that there are institutions, educational institutions, museums around the country that have put their content online digitally that allow people to understand better this history, because I think that she's put her finger on what is an important point, and that is that this is not a story and this is not a moment for black people. This is a story and a moment for all Americans, and that the more Americans understand their past, understand their commitments, understand how we all are shaped by race, that gives us the kind of foundation to effect change.
MR. CAPEHART: You know, that actually brings to mind something that we've heard over the years, which is--particularly from white Americans--you know, my family didn't own slaves. One, why should I care about that? That's in the past. Why is that relevant now? What's your answer to that line of thinking?
MR. BUNCH: As James Baldwin said, we are trapped by traditions of history that we don't even know. My notion is that everybody is shaped by the experience of slavery. Think about it. All aspects of American life--politics, economic life, cultural life--was always shaped by slavery. In fact, economically, at the beginning of the Civil War, more money was invested in slavery than in business and railroads combined, and that in essence the traditions of enslavement, the treatment of black people in terms of the police and in terms of mass incarceration, has always been shaped by that history. So, I think that everybody, regardless of race, is shaped in profound ways by the African American experience.
In many ways, what the African American experience has pointed to us is that almost every time the country has made great leap forwards in terms of fairness, in terms of democracy, in terms of citizenship, African Americans were embedded in that moment. So, in some ways we are all shaped by words from Frederick Douglass or Ella Baker. We are all shaped by the African American experience every day of our lives.
MR. CAPEHART: The next question, it comes from someone who's name you will recognize, and it comes from Khalil Gibran Muhammad from New Jersey. He is professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. He's also the former director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. His question is there on the screen. Does the Smithsonian have a new education strategy to teach white Americans about the history of race and racism that reaches beyond the new museum? And that's the National Museum of African American History and Culture, of which you are the founding director.
MR. BUNCH: He's absolutely right. And we have to be broader than people coming to Washington. One of the things we've done at the Smithsonian, thanks to support of a corporation, Bank of America, we're able to initiate a major initiative called "Race, Community and Our Shared Future," which is really about sharing digital access to our collections, to this history, creating virtual townhalls that allow people of different communities, different races to come together to grapple with this. It allows us to bring the best scholarship of people like Dr. Muhammad who can sort of help us talk about this on a national level but then focus it locally. So, I'm committed to making sure that the Smithsonian is a value at this very difficult time. And part of that value is drawing the broad educational resources that we have that we can help America better understand itself and understand this moment.
MR. CAPEHART: And then there's this question from James Pritchet [phonetic] from here in Washington, D.C., and more relevant to what's happening today, and that is: How will the Smithsonian include the Floyd murder and aftermath into the museum programs?
MR. BUNCH: Well, first of all, it's important to remember that the job of a museum is not just to look back. It's to collect today for tomorrow. So many times in my career there were stories I wanted to tell and museums didn't collect the material. So, I'm committed to making sure that the Smithsonian collects this moment in a myriad of ways. Part of it is making sure that we're part of the collecting of all those signs and drawings that were on the fence in front of the White House, but also that we're doing oral interviews with people on the street. We're asking them to share their photographs, share the videos they're taking, to make sure that we understand how we do this. And we're doing things in a way--my own daughter is an ER doc in Chicago, and so she's going to share with us all the protective equipment that docs wore during this period. So, our goal is to make sure we can ensure that we can tell the story now, but that 50 years from now other scholars will be able to interpret this and make it accessible to the public.
MR. CAPEHART: We've got about eight minutes, and I'm going to try to cram in as much as I can before we have to go. Let's come back to those demonstrations and the protests that have been happening around the country. A lot of people have been making mention of the fact that it's not just black people who are out there protesting, that a lot of these crowds are white, predominately white, which to your point about being hopeful, it's what makes me hopeful. Why do you think there is greater diversity of those taking part in those protests and also talking about issues of race today?
MR. BUNCH: I think part of it is social media--right?--that people are able to sort of not just see this horrible murder of George Floyd but have the kind of conversations about it, bring people together to demonstrate. But I also think that there is a profound sense that this is so wrong that people who care about America, especially younger Americans, feel this is their moment to make a difference.
And so, I'm very--I think I'm very hopeful because of that diversity. I'm also very hopeful because I see what's happening in Europe. And as you know, part of what happens in the United States is we want to be seen as the champion for the world. And so, as Europe begins to criticize us, as Africa begins to criticize us, I think that's also going to have an impact on how we move forward. But I think that this is a wonderful example of how people who are younger recognize this is an opportunity to confront a wrong. And I'm moved by the fact that this has gone on day after day after day. I remember protesting the war in Vietnam, our civil rights demonstrations. They didn't go on day after day after day. This gives me hope that there's a commitment to keep the struggle, keep fighting until we make the changes we want.
MR. CAPEHART: Now, Secretary Bunch, this has been a tough time, not only for the country but for African Americans in particular. And maybe I'm putting myself on the couch, it's been hard. It's been very difficult. This is your--this is your line of work, cataloguing and chronicling our history, African American history but also American history. And a lot of it is dark. How do you or how have you been able to keep your head up? What advice would you give those of us for whom it's part of our job to chronicle this history, but there's some days when the burden, the load just becomes too heavy?
MR. BUNCH: You know, there are days when you're in the midst of preserving this history that you pick up a book and throw it against the wall. There are days where you recognize that this moment is not just professional, it's personal. You know, you remember your own interactions with police. You remember the moments when race tapped you on the shoulder. And so, I think part of it is actually being candid with yourself about how you're feeling, about how this has shaped you. But also, for me, where I take sort of strength is the resiliency of black folks, the sense that people survive the institution of slavery, that people were able to sort of keep families, keep hope alive. And so, for me, it's reaching back and saying that this is a community that shouldn't have believed in America but believed in an America that didn't believe in them. And so that kind of sort of sense of stepping forward, drawing back really helps me.
And the other thing really for me is, I dip into my own family and I think my grandfather who started life as a sharecropper and refused to let that define him and how his actions changed the trajectory of a family. So, I find the hope there.
MR. CAPEHART: And what do you say to white Americans who are out there in the streets and may not even be in the streets but who are trying to understand and figure out how do I become an ally--and an effective ally, not just an armchair ally but someone who actually can be a part of change? What would you say to them?
MR. BUNCH: I think, first of all, educate yourself to the struggle. Understand this history, understand this moment, but also recognize what are the things you can do in your local community, the involvement that you can, whether it's providing support, whether it's getting involved in local demonstrations, and that in essence what I really hope people recognize is that this is a moment for all who care about America, who care about the best of America. This is a moment for them to step forward and find whatever way possible to be part of the struggle, but recognize that it's not a momentary struggle, that this is the commitment for the rest of your days to help make the country better.
MR. CAPEHART: And finally, Secretary Bunch, as we've been discussing, President Trump is going to be in Tulsa speaking tomorrow. Apparently, he's going to be speaking on race. Pull him out of it. In this speech tomorrow, what would you hope a President of the United States would say to the nation on the subject of race coming from the city of Tulsa?
MR. BUNCH: Well, I think what you want to hear from any leader is that, first of all, race is central to understanding who we are and we make a major commitment to addressing it. You want people to recognize this is a story that shapes everybody, not just black people. And what you want is you always want hope. You always want somebody to help bring us together. And so ultimately, what I always want to hear is somebody who recognizes the challenge, the difficulty of grappling with race, but recognizes that that is a major part of what he or she as a leader needs to do as we move forward.
MR. CAPEHART: And in the two minutes that we have left, how are you going to celebrate Juneteenth?
MR. BUNCH: I'm going to call my daughters and we're going to talk about family, because one of the things that I think is a legacy of Juneteenth has been the importance of family. You remember that as soon as people heard that slavery was over, many of them went to find their families that they had been separated from. So, for me, this is a day to reflect on slavery, to recognize that slavery is something that is central to who we are and that we should not be embarrassed by our enslaved ancestors. But it's a day to revel in family.
MR. CAPEHART: Secretary Lonnie Bunch, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, it is great to talk to you. Thank you very much for coming here.
MR. BUNCH: Thank you. It's my pleasure to be with you.
MR. CAPEHART: All right. And that's going to do it for us on Washington Post Live.
Please join us next week at Washington Post Live for a full lineup of guests and issues, including on Tuesday, June 23rd, my colleague Robin Givhan will interview Kerby Jean-Raymond, founder and creative director of Pyer Moss; and Lindsay Peoples Wagner of Teen Vogue--one of the only black women at the helm of a major fashion magazine--for a conversation about the fashion world's own problems of racial inequality and discrimination.
And then on Thursday, June 25th, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talks to my colleague Robert Costa.
So, we will see you next week. Happy Juneteenth. I'm Jonathan Capehart, opinion writer at the Washington Post. This has been Washington Post Live.
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