A black crow is in the foreground, with symbolic illustrations of American institutions as part of the pink and orange background. Artwork by Lyne Lucien.

Kidada speaks with Kinshasha Holman Conwill, the deputy director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture; as well as writer, historian and curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, Paul Gardullo.

They reflect on The World’s Fair in Paris in 1900 and how they would curate a similar display of progress in 2022, alongside a discussion of the transformative power of museum exhibits, generally, and the value of African American exhibits, specifically. 

Additionally, they share what the recent backlash against the teaching of Black history means for their work and the future of trusted institutions focused on telling more inclusive, complete stories of America’s past.

View Transcript

Kidada E. Williams: This is Seizing Freedom. I’m Kidada Williams.

In our last episode, we followed W.E.B. Du Bois to the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. He had compiled data on Black achievement and struggle since emancipation. 

Through photographs, charts and infographics, he hoped to present to the world the reality of Black life in America and challenge notions of American exceptionalism. He hoped the data would convince other countries to pressure the U.S. to improve the lives of its Black citizens. 

Today, I’m speaking with Kinshasha Holman Conwill, the deputy director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture; and her colleague Paul Gardullo, writer, historian, and curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

We talk about the value of African American museums today, why museums remain trusted institutions despite their exclusionary history, and what it takes to curate a nuanced history of struggle and joy. 

I asked them both to bring a quote that encompasses their work. Kinshasha shares her quote first.

Kinshasha Holman Conwill: I brought the poem “Frederick Douglass” by Robert Hayden. “When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty. This beautiful and terrible thing, needful to man as air, usable as Earth. When it belongs at last to all, when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, sistole, reflex action. When it is finally one. When it is more than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians. This man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world where none is lonely, none hunted, alien. This man, superb in love and logic. This man shall be remembered.” 

KEW: Could you tell us why you chose it? 

KHC: I chose this poem for many reasons. I think no poet better captures the corporeal and the spiritual notions of Black freedom, than Hayden. He explicates the freedom story of Black people. And where else is it better, and more vividly shown, than in the poem named for one of the icons of that long freedom movement. 

It’s also—as Paul knows—the poem which our beloved colleague Fleur Peysour read at our Celebrate and Commemorate Freedom Program that we did the year before we opened. And so it stands as a monument to, a testament to a moment in the history of this museum. And Hayden’s ability to capture freedom and to call it this “beautiful, needful thing,” to me, is at the essence of what this museum means to me. 

Paul Gardullo: That was beautiful. I brought with me a short quote. And it’s by James Baldwin. James Baldwin, in 1963, gave a talk to teachers. He said, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” 

The reason I chose this is because I carry this quote with me—and I have since I started working at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2007—as a charge to tell a more full story; to fill the silences that exist in the archive around African American history and culture. Around American history. To bring more fullness and stories into the archive, to bring things that have been neglected. 

KEW: Wow. I think both of those are amazing. If a world’s fair was happening in Paris in 2022 and the National Museum of African American History and Culture was asked to create a display of progress, what would you select for display and why? 

KHC: I would select some of the same icons of Black life in 1900 and have it reflect forward and backward. We know that Dr. Du Bois was prescient. He had one of the most agile and amazing minds. So when he talks about the 20th century—the problem being the problem of the color line—he is looking down and looking at the world and saying, “Why is that still the problem?” 

So, Twain evidently said history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. I think it also repeats itself. It repeats itself in tragic ways. It repeats itself in the sense that we are still talking about basically the lynching primarily of Black men. But not unlike in the 1900s, we are talking also about the lynching of Black women. And we are talking about that contestation between progress and the forces of regression and repression that push against us. 

And one of the things that I always find troubling in analyzing Black life is that people feel it’s an either or. So there is progress within that…So I would really want to mirror Dr. Du Bois. I would want to show some of those tomes, some of those incredible documents that have been produced by African American people, by John Hope Franklin and by Lonnie Bunch and by scores of other writers—particularly contemporary writers like you Kidada, like Hassan Kwami Jeffries, like Kimberlé Crenshaw, like Chad Williams—who have looked through your keen eyesight at the long trajectory of the Black freedom story and have seen it resonate. 

And that evidence that Du Bois put in that exhibition was to show that we are people, yes, who’ve been buked and scorned, who have been treated as less than human. And yet, as the great Maya Angelou tells us, “And still we rise.” So I would look at everything he put in that exhibit and look at what its contemporary counterpart is. And I would ask that the audience seek that connection of past and present, hopefully looking at a future that continues to struggle for a more complete sense of Black freedom.

PG: I’m going to try to keep it simple for 2022, because I think what I’ve learned from watching visitors’ interactions with the material culture of Black life is that sometimes it’s in the most simple of objects that we find the most power. It’s a small tin box crafted by a man named Joseph Trammell. Joseph Trammell was a free African American who was impacted directly by the fugitive slave law in the 1850s and ‘60s. And he had to secure his freedom papers. And so he crafted his own, handmade tin box to put his freedom papers inside to carry with him so he could not be taken. So he could not be taken from himself, from his family.

And that box made its way through generations of his family until it came to us, in a gesture of immense trust. And so for me, that box is such a huge demonstration of the power of a person to maintain their own sovereignty amidst the worst of circumstances. And then the trust of a family in an institution such as ours who’s committed to telling the truth. So that’s an object I would put on display.

KEW: Du Bois was worried that the exhibit didn’t immediately change what white Americans or even the larger global public thought about Black Americans in the way that he hoped. So Paul, this question is for you. Do exhibits at museums really have that kind of transformative power? Is there something the Paris team might have done differently? 

PG: Well, look, I believe that exhibits have transformative power. What kind of transformation they make is a question. All, all exhibitions are a conversation between the curator, the material, and the viewer. And I think Du Bois knew this. I think all exhibitions are also public, and Du Bois knew this as well. 

He had just come out of his…a very academic career, right? He had just, you know, moved out of his dissertation and was continually confronted by the limitations of academia and the need to speak to more people and for more people. And this is why he moved into the arena of things like the Paris Exhibition, right?

The ability to speak with an authority that could counter what he saw as the propaganda of history—he didn’t label it as such for a couple more decades—but what he saw as propaganda being perpetrated, right, across society was what was going on. 

And so the the exhibition in itself in Paris was a form of expression for him and and this utilization of design, in ways, of sociological evidence that people hadn’t seen before; the utilization of photography and portraiture of people who had been demeaned and stereotyped in their lives, and in lithographic form, and showing them in the ways in which they wish to be seen.

And it was a demonstration in public, and in conversation with its visitors, in ways that other world expositions—I say, or I believe—were not doing. When you had Black people being exhibited in human zoos at the same time to see this engagement, to represent Black people with such respect and to demand a conversation about that was profound. And so any failings that that exhibit may have had are undone, in my opinion, by the process with which it was done and the intent. 

KEW: And I would add, like, the fact that it stood the test of time, right? We can come back to this and we can understand this moment, and subsequent projects have since gone back to add on to this. 

The curators of the exhibit made a decision to leave out information about Reconstruction’s overthrow—about lynchings and massacres, disenfranchisement and segregation. Can one really understand the truth of who Black people were and what they achieved without knowing the larger context in which they did it and others didn’t? 

KHC: Exhibitions do things that have intended and unintended consequences, yes? Because there is a context. So I’m taking from Paul that Dr. Du Bois was much more successful than he thought he was…and if only because, as you both indicated, this exhibition is still being talked about over 100 hundred years later, because it was so amazing. 

So in a way, Du Bois did not have to include those other pieces because that was the then-lived story of Black life. He did not have to say, “World look, Black people are being lynched. World look, Black people are not being allowed to vote. Black people are being segregated. Post-Reconstruction, there is slavery by another name.” 

There is a servitude and a cruelty in the treatment of human beings called African Americans or Negroes or Colored people that is astonishing in its breadth and depth. It is, it is breathtaking the kind of cruelty. And he is a kind of prescient fellow. He probably imagined it would get worse.

So he did not need to include that in the exhibition. That was the fact of life. So the making it the counterpoint was a brilliant way to have the viewers of the exhibition focused on what he wanted them to focus on. 

KEW: So, how do we strike that balance today when people say they don’t want any more histories or any more stories of Black people’s pain? 

KHC: You know, the lessons of the hour…the question of the hour as we were building this museum was: Do we give people what we think they want? Or what we think they need? We asked them what they want—and sometimes there was an intersection—but we more focused on what we thought they needed because we had done research that showed us what wasn’t taught, what people didn’t know. And I think that institutions in the public trust need to do that. 

PG: What I’ve heard from some visitors is that they said, they say, “I thought I was coming to a museum of white guilt. But I found a museum of Black love.” Now, we also have a lot of painful stories in our museum. Love and joy do not come without pain in American history for Black people. That doesn’t mean that Black joy isn’t deeply, deeply valuable and needs to be seen and celebrated. 

What’s important for us to understand is when we look at an object like a sack that was embroidered by a granddaughter telling the story of her grandmother and what she did with that sack when she was sold away from her daughter into slavery—that she placed into that sack pecans, a braid of her hair and all of her love—we have to remember that that is a story of love, despite pain; in the midst of pain; in defiance of pain. 

KEW: While spaces to acknowledge the painful aspects of American history—as well the joyful ones—are vital, I asked why Black history needed a space of its own rather than being integrated into The rest of the Smithsonian’s museums. 

KHC: The story is too large as Lonnie Bunch, founding director, has told us. And he made a great analogy in the early days about: “Why is there not just one museum of all the armed forces? There’s an Army, there’s a Navy, there is a Marines…”, and there are multiple, multiple, multiple ones.

And so that totalizing notion of history is one that you must reject, almost practically, if you’re looking at Black history and culture. Because there is no chance, even with the best of intentions, that the history of Black people will be dealt with in an inclusive way that is deeply meaningful, that is nuanced and nimble. Can’t happen.

PG: Can I add to that a little bit, because I think it goes to this…to this idea that what a museum has been historically, what an archive has been historically, and what our museum is and promises to be. And museums and archives have been incredible bastions of knowledge, but they’ve also been institutions of power. They’ve been institutions that have silenced voices and histories of marginalized people for too long.

To a large part, the foundational collection of this material—this history that had been occluded, and denied, and suppressed—was still living out on the landscape of America, and the world to a large extent. That is a space that had to be new. 

KEW: You all get a lot of questions about race. How do you all talk about it? Is there a mission informing the answers? Does The Smithsonian have a specific end goal for the people asking the questions about race and for the larger society?

KHC: The goal of the museum is very simple: It’s to make America better. Our education programs are imbued with the notion of teaching the various audiences—not browbeating them—but showing them the path to what it means to be people who are dedicated to the humanity of all people. That leads people toward a path that says—as many Black people’s lives have said—despite cruelties, enslavement, any other injustices…the path that this museum embodies is the path not only of resiliency, but almost of redemption. 

And it is not the museum to cure the racist, but it is the museum where everyone of any race can see the humanity of Black people and can see in that humanity their own. So it is not a didactic, browbeating, um, lesson. It is not propaganda. But if you leave that museum and you don’t get the notion—however you interpret it and express it—that…that Black people are simply supremely human and that our connection with other people within our own country and within the world is based on that humanity…Race may be a construct, but what we know—and what I bet your listeners know—it’s a powerful one. It’s a robust one. So race is ever-present, and race is in the context of what we do, but it’s in a larger context of racial justice, social justice and the deep humanity of Black people.

KEW: This is Seizing Freedom, I’m Kidada Williams.

Historians and curators Kinshasha Holman Conwill and Paul Gardullo have been working on an exhibit called Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and Its Legacies. It opened last September. 

They produced a companion book to the exhibit, with the same title, that features contributions from Black thinkers and writers. Full disclosure, I contributed an essay to the book, and I can’t wait to see the exhibit. So I asked Kinshasha and Paul to give me a little preview. 

PG: Our exhibit looks at Reconstruction through an African American lens, and asks plainly: “Is full freedom guaranteed when slavery ends?” For African Americans in the 1860s and 1870s, that was not a guarantee. That was another fight that had to be won. And that fight that took place over the course of several decades is an enormously, enormously important period of time that reshaped American history. And it’s not known! And that period, and that fight has repercussions today. We are still grappling with so many of these issues.

KEW: Is there a section that seems to resonate strongly with audiences in a way that surprises either of you? And if so, what do you think that reveals?

KHC: I have heard from friends and relatives how much the “Legacy” section resonates. But, importantly, it resonates (at least with people that I know) because it relates to the full exhibition. And many people have talked about how its power comes from the…its context. So were it just legacies—which are robust, painful statements, visuals—it’s that it’s in the context of this historic museum. 

So while people are heartbroken and some people say they could barely look at the section on Trayvon Martin—it is just too painful—it is not just that it is the story illuminated in exhibition of the death of this beautiful child, but that when looked at in a historic context, it is almost unbearable, but they want to bear it. Because Paul and his colleagues have done such a brilliant job that you can’t look away.

PG: Yeah, I mean…Kinshasha is right. I think rather than a section, one of the most powerful things about the exhibition is this juxtaposition of the present and the past. It’s something that we’re not able to do much in the permanent exhibitions of the National Museum. In part, because the history exhibitions are so bent on telling a new narrative of American history that hasn’t been presented before. And so, we rely heavily on chronology and helping to march people through that history, beat by beat, moment by moment, soul by soul. 

This exhibition allows for the present to come into conversation with the past. And when that works powerfully is when people see testimonies recorded from things like the Ku Klux Klan trials of the 1870s, voiced by contemporary actors. Or, advertisements published by people looking for their family members made in the 1870s. And then they move into a legacy section where they’re seeing similar stories today. 

And they’ve been able to see how people bore witness to the problems in their own time. And now we’re asking them to bear witness to their problems. And we have a space for them to write out how they might reconstruct America. And we’re receiving thousands of responses.

KEW: I want to see every single comment, but we’ll come to that. A good portion of the exhibit is explicit about connecting this history to the present. What lessons should we take from the freedom fighters of Black Reconstruction?

KHC: Never give up. Never give up. So, of course, we’ve talked at the museum about how Make Good the Promises is an extension of the slavery and freedom exhibition, and all the history exhibitions. When you look at the date of the March on Washington and its strategists wanting to make sure that it coincided with the Civil War, so that 1863 and 1963 resonate. 

So, the extraordinary sense of history, the lived history, the embodiment of history, of those brave people that we talk about—the shattered lives that you talk about, Kidada, in your essay, of people that are not known to anyone, but the testimony of Black people who talk about their children basically being beaten to death—those testimonies are part of how we build that story so that the lessons are the lessons of extraordinary courage and a determination. 

Who goes on after their child is murdered? Mrs. Till Mobley goes on. Right? The parents of Trayvon Martin go on. The parents of the little known or unknown folks who were enslaved. There are no more courageous stories, no more inspiring stories, that I have at least encountered in my life than the stories you see in Make Good the Promises, both the exhibition and in the publication. If that doesn’t make you want to get up in the morning and be better, I don’t know what will.

KEW: While Kinshasha and Paul, and other historians, stitch together the testimonies of Black people to build these exhibitions, in the past year, we’ve also seen an extreme resistance to the teaching of Black history—and any history—that counters the popular narrative of America as a beacon of freedom and unparalleled progress. 

“Critical race theory” refers to a legal framework taught almost exclusively in law schools. It was coined in the 1970s, and it refers to the idea that racism isn’t just the work of bigoted individuals but that it is embedded in the fabric of American society, including all of its institutions. Today, the words “critical race theory” have become part of the national lexicon, and a source of white alarm. 

Several states have proposed measures to ban books written by authors like Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Ibram X. Kendi. School board meetings have become sites where the accurate teaching of Black and Native people’s history is contested. So what does this mean for institutions like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the work of people like Kinshasha and Paul? 

KHC: I think some of this…some of the greatest knowledge comes out of some of the worst misunderstanding. First of all, you don’t teach critical race theory. You do critical race theory, right? And it is not for the fifth grader. So…and, as some people say, another word for it is telling the truth. That’s what you want to do. And I know that people who’ve visited the museum in general—and I’m sure we will find it in the comments that Paul spoke of—talk about how they’ve been changed. 

They see an object, they read about a story and it changes them. Because it often turns on its head assumptions that even the best of people may have. And that notion of The Promises is so powerful. Dr. King invoked it at the March on Washington where he talked about, you know, insufficient funds. And people like Skip Gates talk about the fact that the Constitution is not self-enforcing; that in order for there to be any meat on the bone with the Constitution itself, and even with the amendments, that it takes human beings making sure that happens. 

So whether that’s a Sherrilyn Ifill at the Legal Defense and Education Fund, whether that was the great Bob Moses and other members of SNCC…So, I mean, our Slavery and Freedom exhibition first told people that there were these documents, yes? So we have those or the replicas. Make Good The Promises brings you up to date. You know that, where are we now? And how do you look back in order to look forward?

KEW: And see, what I love about that is that it speaks to a point that I like to tell my students that Dr. King made. All we want is what you put on paper. Right? They said, you know, we don’t want anything new or special. All we want is what you put on paper. And it’s a sort of recurring theme throughout Black history, even through Reconstruction. What they’re saying is that we want what you put in the Declaration of Independence and in the original Constitution. And you know, and so for the Civil Rights movement, what we see is them saying, yes, we still want what you put in the Declaration of Independence and in the original Constitution, but we also want what you put on paper again during Reconstruction.

PG: Right. And what we need to understand and help people understand is that what got put on paper following Reconstruction—or following the Civil War, rather—with those Reconstruction amendments was fundamental…a fundamental shift in our nation’s history to make it something that it hadn’t been before. And that fundamental shift wouldn’t have happened without the pressure of millions of Black people pushing for fuller freedom. 

And I think that’s incredibly important for people to see and to learn about and to know. And to see it from the perspective that we have that looks at freedom fighters, as you put it, as not just…yes, as politicians, yes, as statespeople…but also people who are fighting for their families. Also people who are holding community together.

And so we provide…a well for people today, an opportunity to go back and look at the past and to see that it’s not so past, but that it’s also full of inspiration. I think we provide people with tools to develop their historical consciousness and to think about how their choices are really choices even if they choose not to act.

 KEW: Recently, I read an article from the president of the American Association of State and Local History, which states that the public trusts museums more than historians, history teachers, and even books. So what do museums do that the rest of us don’t do, or can’t do?

KHC: One of the things that we’re lucky to have—and it doesn’t happen by happenstance—that you brilliant historians don’t have is we’ve got a brick and mortar place to come. And, and in the case of Smithsonian museums, we’ve got a free brick and mortar place to come.

So we get millions of visitors because you can—yes, you have to get a pass, but it’s easy to get a pass—and you can get in and you can spend hours looking. So, that is a major advantage. I don’t think it’s for any lack of effort or excellence on the part of historians, but I think we have some natural advantages that you do not.

PG: I agree with Kinshasha. I’ve got a little different take on it. I think museums are places where people learn their history and are incredibly popular. To me, that says we better be best; we best be really good. And I think that from where we sit, we’re determined to tell better history because of the trust that people already have—rightly or wrongly—in museums. 

And so this brings us back to, I think, where we began, which is, you know, the politics of culture. The politics of culture are incredibly powerful. The politics of culture have given us the Lost Cause. Let’s be real about it. The Lost Cause was perpetrated—yes, through academia—but also across the landscape, right? It ain’t the truth, but people trust it. So it’s our job to make sure that we’re telling the truth, and we’re telling it powerfully because we understand how powerful an impression and a sway it has. 

KHC: And may I just say, um, gentle listeners and gentle Paul, there are terrible museums too. There are museums that are totally untrustworthy. And there are museums that are propaganda edifices and some of the same battles that are being fought in academe and in the public square are being fought in the walls of museums that insist on telling the story of the West, the story of the Civil War, um, that is…let us just say, highly questionable. But that doesn’t take away from what you said, it’s just a slightly different thing. So I also don’t want museums to get, um, get away scot free. 

KEW: Right, but they do have a history of exclusion and erasure. They have not always been neutral, you know? And so what we’re seeing now is we’re starting to see—possibly—some signs of effort or some signs that museums are trying to grapple with this history, with this legacy of exclusion and erasure, so that they can earn or re-earn and maintain the public trust.

KHC: Yes. And part of what they, what they prohibited was the very people we’re talking about. You could not go into museums if you were a Black person because the museums were segregated. So the history within, the culture within, was segregated, but the physical buildings were also segregated. And so that erasure, that discrimination? You’re absolutely right.

KEW: We’re asking a number of guests what they think or hope free Black futures look like. Do you have a vision? And do you see museums as having a role in that, or even yourselves as individuals or curators? 

PG: I would suggest when we’re talking about free Black futures, we cannot disconnect them from the past. And I think that is vital for us as we think about these questions about what to do with museums. These questions about what to do with monuments. That, yes, some…that dismantling of structures of slavery, of colonialism, of oppression is vital to progress. But we need to be focused as well on what we’re building, what we’re building together. 

KHC: Whenever I think of the future, I think of my nieces and nephews. With this museum, when I was asked about the future or the purpose of the museum, I said that to me the work was about making a world where my nieces and nephews could walk in freedom, could walk tall, could walk proudly, could walk unfettered to the extent humanly possible. 

Black futures to me are futures in which  young Black men are not looked at as predators. So, the making good on the promises, you know, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And freedom to be fully human, whatever one’s sexuality, gender, race…but particularly for Black people.

And to have it as self-determined—affirmed and supported by others—but to not be defined by others, because that’s one of the greatest enslavements of Black people, was that the very definition of who we are was defined by others. So I want to Black bodies free from harm, free from desecration. And I want to…I want a bright future of self-determination. 

KEW: Kinshasha Holman Conwill is the deputy director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Paul Gardullo is a writer, historian and a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and Its Legacies is open now.

Episode Resources

The following resources were utilized in the research and creation of this episode:

Seizing Freedom is a co-production of VPM and Molten Heart