“The Real G’s in Black Art History and Culture: And a Word to The Met Museum” by Debra Hand
There are some real G’s making moves in Black Culture. Their actions shout, “I’m playing Chess, not checkers!” When Denzel’s character first yelled these words in Training Day, it became one of his most quotable lines, perhaps because it’s so relatable. At some point, we all want to shout those words at somebody…at those who underestimate us, or think they can shut down our ideas. In Denzel’s case, he was letting it be known that he was thinking way ahead of anyone who dared to come up against him. He was warning his opponents that they were no match for his power.
But in real life, people who change the world face waves of opponents – human, emotional, financial, etc. Often their journeys are lined with doubters who simply can’t see the visions of those who think hundreds of steps ahead of everyone else. Unlike Training Day, in real life it’s not always just a simple matter of checking your opponents with a clever line of scripted dialog. Sometimes you need other people to complete the mission and it’s more a matter of learning to convert people who doubt your ideas into people who are excited about helping to make them a reality.
So when I think about Congressman John Lewis and what it must have taken to convince the nation that it needed to build the world’s grandest tribute to African American history, art, and culture, I know there must have been thousands of pitch meetings, heated dialogs, and strategic negotiations, but also there had to be thousands of relationship-building moments.
Looking at the Congressman’s prize jewel, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), I think of not only its magnificence, but also what it means for a Black man to be a real “G” in America. This is a monument that began with the determination of this one man, and now, there it stands.
To get the bill passed to build the museum, it would take Congressman Lewis 25 long years of working both sides of the aisle to sway a majority vote in both houses of Congress. With every move, he had to be incredibly strategic. If Denzel Washington was playing chess not checkers — then what in the world was John Lewis doing? He must have been color-flipping a Rubik’s Cube with one side of his brain, and plotting rocket-launching Calculus with the other. Because to go from this kind of grand idea to a reality in an America where the least important item on the Congressional agenda is acknowledging the great history and contributions of Black folk – well, what strategy can possibly get you there? The game John Lewis needed, he’d have to invent, and then revamp continuously as the game went along.
No problem. John Lewis was a “G” of the highest order. And so the game began.
In 1988, he made his first move. According to Smithsonian library archives, Lewis “introduced a Bill to establish a national museum devoted to the subject of African Americans.”
Immediately, the bill was met with opposition and ridicule. But Lewis was in it for the long game, and according to Smithsonian Library records, “Lewis introduced the bill every single year from 1988 to 2003, when it was passed. His determination was unparalleled.
After the first couple of years of Lewis introducing the bill, I can only imagine that, by now, members of Congress were side-eyeing each other when Lewis took the floor. Everyone thinking, “Here comes Lewis and that doggone museum bill again.” And I can just see Lewis thinking to himself, “You’re doggone right. And I’ll be introducing it until the end of time…every chance I get until you do what’s right!”
It appeared he might just have to introduce the bill until the end of time, but finally, in 2003, two decades and some change later, the bill would pass both houses.
I can’t begin to imagine the joy that must have filled John Lewis’ heart, but even with this great feat, that was only the beginning. Another 13 years and another real “G” was needed to take it from there.
Que, Lonnie G. Bunch III.
It would now be up to him to take this grand dream from a thought to real life.
In 2005, Lonnie Bunch was appointed as the Founding Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
Now that’s an impressive title, Founding Director, but let us zoom in on the word “Founding” for a moment. I’m not sure how the word was broken down in the job description, but basically the word meant, “Lonnie Bunch, you need to go and found, find, acquire, invent, or otherwise cause to exist, ALL of each and everything needed museum to make a museum be standing there out of thin air. You need to found tons of building materials, architects, artifacts, specialist teams, engineers, and giant, giant piles of money.” For Lonnie Bunch, the game couldn’t be checkers, chess, Rubik’s cube, or rocket science. He had to, straight-up, come screeching out the crib in a bat-mobile, with cape flying. This was a job for some super-power type stuff. He was gonna have to “go where no man had gone before” with a sale’s pitch few were try’na hear, undoubtedly. Imagine those calls.
“Honey, who was that on the phone?”
“Lonnie Bunch. He wants to know if we’ve got $10 million dollars we can let him have?”
“He wants to teach the world American history through Black folks.”
“We already watch the news, let him call Oprah.”
LOL! That’s how I imagine the calls went anyway. People not quite seeing the vision right off…like, lots of them.
In writing about the journey of building the museum, Lonnie Bunch, himself, titled his book, “A Fool’s Errand.” So I’m thinking there were at least a few kryptonite–wielding villains snapping at his heels throughout the ordeal, whether figurative, financial, or otherwise. And we know the financial part of it was hardly “otherwise.”
Nevertheless, despite whatever tried to stop him, block him, checkmate him, shut him down or out, Lonnie G. Bunch III pressed onward. “Under his watch, the museum grew from a project with no staff, collections, funding, or site, to become a cornerstone of American history and culture that has welcomed more than six million visitors since its opening and houses a collection of 40,000 objects. It is the largest museum devoted exclusively to examining and teaching African American history and its impact on the nation and world,” according to Congressional records.
Lonnie Bunch, like Congressman John Lewis, wasn’t playing checkers, or chess. In fact, he wasn’t playing at all. He was being a real “G” in real life.
As for Denzel, he continues to prove he doesn’t just play a “G” on TV. According to Essence Magazine, he and his wife, Pauletta, raised over $17 million for the museum.
Oh, and about that call to Oprah I joked about earlier…in real life Oprah reached over there in her little clutch purse and peeled off $21 million for this massive cultural layaway plan. Robert Frederick Smith dropped $20 mil plus some change, as did Bill & Melinda Gates. Shonda Rhimes and David Rubenstein came through with over $10 mil each, and Michael Jordan put $5 on it, mil that is. There were plenty of other G’s, both celebrity and regular good folk that pulled up for the cause. Americans of every color, age, and gender came together to say that our history and culture is critical to the story of America. In addition, many corporations stepped up with their wallets. A full list of donors can be found on the Smithsonian’s website.
Lonnie Bunch had a goal to raise $270 mil. He raised $386 mil.
When it was all said and done, land once occupied by plantations, was now occupied by the world’s greatest monument to African American contributors; a monument which houses the most comprehensive repository of our survival; our struggles, triumphs, inventions, creativity, and beauty.
Now, today, towering above it all is the great spirit and legacy of Congressman John Lewis, the preeminent “G” of “G’s” who not only stirred up “good trouble,” but in doing so, incited a half-billion dollar institution dedicated to educating the world with our truth and the full American story.
This national museum authority has been erected just in time to help thoroughly inform a new day of non-African Americans struggling for insight into Black history, culture, and art, as well as our impact on all American life, and the globe. Along with other Black museums and cultural institutions such as the DuSable Museum — principally founded by one of the greatest cultural leaders of the 21st century, Dr. Margaret Burroughs – the truth of our beauty is that much more available to nourish those seeking the truth.
As I hear other museum leaders like Daniel H. Weiss, President and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum, avow to correct the blatant omissions of narratives, art, and artifacts from the museum; and as he promises to change the museum’s direction, I have a suggestion: the same way you want your museum visitors to stand face-to-face with your prized van Goghs to experience his pallet’s sweeping brush strokes, raw textures, and vivid colors – that’s the same way you need to experience Black history and Culture. If you have not had the opportunity to do so, I recommend you begin your corrective processes by first standing inside the NMAAHC, face-to-face with the entire story of America; face-to-face with the beauty of cultural practices salvaged and evolved from the Motherland; face-to-face with the narratives and artifacts smelted in the crucibles of America’s whole truth. Sit with those realities. Study those faces as you have studied van Gogh’s famous self-portrait. Hear the echoes, experience the textures, see the items they left to us, tinted and etched by the realities of their times. You are the one who knows best that seeing van Gogh’s “Starry Night” in person immerses you in his story in ways unequalled by any other research. Go to the NMAAHC and stand in America’s full truth and, and as best you can, look out into the world through the eyes of those whose stories are told there. Look out of their eyes even at your own institution, and see the reality the Met has existed in, all along. This is the cognitive shift that will lead to real change.
Start there and you will know what African Americans have known all along — we have been relevant, we have been contributing, and we have been brilliantly creating the whole entire time. It is America who has been missing out on her own great attributes.
In a country that spends billions on telescopes to explore the mysteries of the universe and to discover the secrets of dark energy, it has yet to discover the power and beauty of all the dark energy existing right in our midst in America. Just as in the blackness of the vast universe, there has been “something” in the so-called nothingness, all along. This is what the work of John Lewis has left to all of us, and until America (and particularly those charged with telling her story) is willing to take an honest look in the mirror and examine her real face, flaws and all, she will never begin to understand her true power and potential.
Thankfully, the nation has not overlooked the power that is Lonnie G. Bunch III. In addition to building and directing the NMAAHC, in 2019, he was installed as the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Currently he oversees 19 major museums, 21 libraries, the National Zoo, numerous research centers, and several education centers. Secretary Bunch, along with Congressman John Lewis, has truly shown us all what real “G’s” are.
Maybe the next time you feel discouraged, you can look at that magnificent museum masterpiece on the nation’s Mall – a museum idea once scoffed at and rejected repeatedly — and remember that Congressman John Lewis stood there year after year and presented that bill to Congress from 1988 to 2003, when he finally succeeded in getting it approved. With that same tenacious determination, he fought for our civil rights. He fought unwaveringly to correct the wrongs of this nation until his final days. In one of his many, many grand acts on Earth, he left us with the NMAAHC museum, the likes of which the world had never seen.
Thank you Secretary Bunch for completing the dream, I know your book “A Fool’s Errand” is a must read. Thank you NMAAHC staff, and all the donors who made it possible to bring this vision into the world.
And to one of the greatest “G’s” Black history and culture has ever known I say, Rest in Peace, Congressman John Lewis. Thank you for your legacy of good trouble that’ll forever continue to lead and win new fights for a better America.
In closing, here’s a clip of Dr. Margaret Burroughs, the Queen Mother of G’s, reciting her epic poem “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?” She answered the question by starting the DuSable Museum in her living room. The DuSable grew to become a world-class institution, and one of the first of its kind.
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DEBRA HAND is a museum-collected sculptor, painter, and writer. She is the creator of the historic bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dunbar Park. Among the history makers who own her works are former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; Harry Belafonte; Cicely Tyson; Smokey Robinson; Yo-Yo Ma; Spike Lee; Seal; Sinbad; and the renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt; the late Winnie Mandela, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou also owned her work. Debra Hand holds a Master of Science Degree from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University. She is a self-taught artist whose talent was discovered by the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum. It was Burroughs who arranged for Hand’s first public exhibit.
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