This story is part of The Race Issue, a special issue of National Geographic that explores how race defines, separates, and unites us. Tell us your story with #IDefineMe.
Lonnie Bunch, 65, has been an author, an educator, and a historian. Each vocation shaped him for the job he has today: founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Bunch recently was interviewed by National Geographic Editor in Chief Susan Goldberg.
Susan Goldberg: The museum has been an overwhelming success; visitors have to order tickets months in advance. To what do you attribute that passionate interest?
Lonnie Bunch: I think part of it is that so many people really wanted to understand the full history of the United States. A lot of people find this a pilgrimage. The most amazing thing is to watch grandparents talk to grandchildren about an event they lived through or to see people cross racial lines to find common ground over things that once divided us. It really has become a place whose time is now and whose story is so important to all of us. The human scale allows people to feel that they can talk about issues. Suddenly they’re thinking, That could be me. That could be my grandmother. You have an engagement you don’t normally have.
SG: The discussions about race in the United States right now have taken on a hard edge, a pointed edge. Do you think that this museum is helpful in allowing people to have a place to talk?
LB: We are in a divided America, where race and issues of white supremacy are at the forefront of our conversations. I think the museum is a place that helps us explore things that are difficult, helps us explore where race matters and how it’s divided us. I also think people come because they believe that by looking at the history of America through an African-American lens, they’re finding moments of optimism, moments to believe that no matter how bad things are, you can effect change if you’re willing to struggle and to demand America live up to its stated ideals.
SG: April is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. If Dr. King could come back, what would he think about things now?
LB: Dr. King would feel that there has been great progress. We had an African-American president. You have people like me running museums.
But I think he also would be saddened by the fact that we’ve not found what he called “the beloved community.” We’ve not found the community where there is economic justice. We’ve not found the community where race matters, but matters less.
I think he would be impressed by the growth of a black middle class and also the growth in the number of African Americans going through college and being educated. He’d be pleased to see that there are better notions of integration in certain areas.
I think he’d be disappointed in that we’re still so segregated in our schools, that the cities are places where often the American dream doesn’t exist for many people. He would be really pleased, but also perplexed at why, 50 years later, these issues still divide us. I think he would be encouraging us to protest, to push, to demand. I think he would demand that we continue to make America better by challenging it.
SG: Do you think he’d be proud of what he’d find on many of the streets, in the United States and around the world, that now bear his name?
LB: He would’ve hoped that his street would’ve run through neighborhoods where people were reaping the best of America. He would be proud that his name would inspire people to be better. I think he would be really impressed that his dream still lives.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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