'Picturing Children' Shows More Than A Century Of African-American Childhoods
After more than a decade in the making, the Smithsonian's newest museum is scheduled to open this fall. The National Museum of African American History and Culture will open to the public after a dedication ceremony Sept. 24.
As a part of the museum's launch, founding director Lonnie Bunch is overseeing the publication of a special series of picture books featuring photographs from the museum's collection, called Double Exposure.
Previous installments focused on pictures from the civil rights movement and portraits of African-American women through the years. But the most recent installment, Picturing Children, comes at a particularly poignant time in the country, not so long after the country continues to mourn the deaths of young African-Americans like 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
Picturing Children attempts to show what it's been like for African-American children to grow up over the last century, and even before.
Lonnie Bunch spoke with NPR's Michel Martin about selecting photographs from the museum's collection for the book and what it means to finally open the museum.
On the role of photography in history
I realize that when we began to build the museum, one of the most important things we could do was to make history accessible. And one of the best ways to do that was through photography. That would allow people to sort of see the history from a human scale, and it would allow people to be able to look within their own families and realize how important their photography is. So we thought about photography as crucial.
And then, as we looked at all that was happening with children, we thought it was really important to take time to look historically how children have been depicted. And to give people a sense to understand that the strength of a nation is tied to how well they treat their children.
On African-American self-perception
I think what's important to me about these images we've chosen, some were taken by these African-American families, which really speak volumes about — despite one's economic status — how one wanted to picture themselves, how one wanted to show that nothing would stop them from being a family that despite economic circumstances. They could still dress right, speak properly. So in some ways, part of what is important to us is that this book allows us for the public to look at these images and get a sense of how African-Americans saw themselves.
On choosing pictures from the museum's collection of 20,000
We have over 20,000 and obviously we wanted to do a sweep of history. We wanted to not just focus on contemporary, but to look back. And part of what we wanted to do by looking at some of the images of enslavement is really talk about — that despite that time on the cross, family was so important.
There's an amazing image that was taken in Alexandria, Va. of black women who were enslaved, but you see them holding their children. You see the sense [of] how important family has always been. Or the fact that children have always played a role in helping to protest, to move America forward. Whether it's the pictures of children at the children's march in Birmingham in the 1960s, or young children holding signs for Black [Lives Matter] today.
The reality is that for African-American children, sometimes it's been hard just to be a child. That you've had to both be part of the workforce, and you've also had to be part of the struggle for fairness.
On a picture that makes him smile
What I love is the way these families dress their kids. And so some of the images of these young kids with their short pants and their well-polished shoes and their perfectly combed hair. Because it reminds me of being a kid and my mother dragging me to get my portrait taken — how much I hated the fact that you stand still and make a fake smile. It reminds me of a historical tradition of people capturing the memory of their child and using that image as a way to project an optimistic future.
On wanting to show the best of history versus the truth
What's important to also realize is that African-Americans, sometimes in a very sophisticated way like Frederick Douglass or W.E.B. DuBois — other times in an intuitive way — recognize that they had to use the best technologies in order to struggle for freedom and fairness.
So photography becomes that tool as early as the 19th century to present ... images of strength. Or to present images that would motivate people to struggle for equality. And it goes all the way through the civil rights movement. One of the most innovative parts of the civil rights movement was utilizing the media of photography and television in order to sort of bring home to people thousands of miles away the reality of the lives they lived.
On the museum opening on Sept. 24
This is one of the most exciting and most humbling times, candidly, in my life. I mean, the fact that it's been 11 years since we began this initiative, and the fact that we are now so close is very meaningful. It's meaningful because of the way the public has embraced us. I can't go anywhere without somebody pulling out a membership card and saying, "I support the museum." Or I'll sit on an airplane and somebody will say, "God, that building is so beautiful."
And what it really reminds you of is that all the efforts that no one will ever know but the staff that have worked here. All those efforts are really worth it, because we've been able to create a space that we hope that as long as there's an America, that space will be there — to help people wrestle with issues of race, to better understand who we are as Americans. And ultimately, to find moments that make them pause and moments that make them smile.
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