Bernard Kinsey is one of the most influential men I know. He had been a special inspiration to me as I started my career at Xerox. He and the late Dr. Guy Dobbs were the men I thought I would be - when the arc of my ambition was to be on the management team at Xerox. So when I heard his name mentioned in association with an art collection here in Los Angeles, I had to take the invitation. I got way more than I bargained for.
It turns out that Kinsey and his wife Shirley have been collecting some of the premier artifacts of African American history. I'm not just talking about your standard knick knackery, but extraordinarily rare and precious documents. Among the many precious items he has is the original signed decision of the US Supreme Court for the Brown vs Board of Education case. Yes, it's that deep.
The evening's events took place over in my old neighborhood at the Ebony Rep. I didn't know about the Ebony Rep so much as I did the Ebony Showcase Theatre. It has been a long time and the space has come a very long way. This is a first rate stage in a beautiful building. Even the portrait of Nate Holden, an old pol of extreme repute, looks extra fine and distinguished.
I had no idea what to expect. I thought I was buying tickets to an exhibit; instead I was treated to 90 minute seminar on black history tidbits of delectable and fine provenance. Kinsey, an ex-executive rattles off history in a phrasing that is altogether new and rare. He plays it like Joe Friday - just the facts without interrupting them with the inspirational implications. He has taken the material which has heretofore served as chitlin circuit fodder of Hoteps exploiting black undergraduate club money to a new level of accuracy and responsibility. Does he have an artifact from the slave castle? Hell yes he does. Does he dwell on the emotional impact of it like Whitney and Bobby? Hell no he does not. Kinsey comes correct with an agenda of obsessive love, which is just what you expect from a philanthropic collector. He is not just a dry presenter. Far from it, but he handles the narrative surrounding the meaning of these historical artifacts with the proper respect and responsibility, the right mix of scholarship and passion. He does so without commanding us or insulting our intelligence, and as usually the case for presenters in public buildings on video, he never has enough time.
Kinsey, a classic salesman, tells you what he's going to tell you, tells you, and tells you what he told you. He operates on two basic principles and has a couple ethical rules. It is this framework that channels the same passion he shares with less disciplined and more emotional and racially chauvinistic presenters of similar material. The rules for life are "From whom much is given much is expected", and "Live a life of no regrets". In their presentations they will not call Africans 'slaves' but always say that they were 'enslaved'. Secondly, they always refer to these historical Africans as brothers and sisters. He summarizes his love and solidarity with his brothers and sisters in the present and the past through the parable of the eagle who thought he was a chicken. For Kinsey, the greatest failure is the wasting of time and consequent missing of opportunity.
These driving forces impel the Kinseys to be collectors of evidence and artifacts of stupendous firsts whose existence defy the chickenheaded stereotypes of black underachievement. Kinsey desires to animate the understanding with verbs and emphasize the animism of history. He clearly engages his subjects on many levels and wants his audience to as well. Now he has made the mark in his years of collecting which signifies him as a world class contributor - his collection is going to be featured at the Smithsonian in October of this year.
In 1987, when I was still working at Xerox and engaged in discussions on its black oriented email distribution, one of the constant conflicts I had was with what I perceived to be the limited scope of recognition of black achievement. It was part and parcel of my gripe with the Talented Tenth and it boiled down to a frustration with the narrow set of heroes and role models highlighted for emulation, past and present. The breadth of the Kinsey Collection is satisfying to me as it covers not only those we know, but many others we never heard of or exist vaguely on the borders of our memory. James Forten was presented by Kinsey as a great businessman - whose sailmaking business was the envy of Philadelphia. His funeral was second in size only to that of Benjamin Franklin. Kinsey also reveals the parentage of Benjamin Bannaker. He tells the story of a white woman who purchased the freedom of two black men and married one of them. Her daughter did the same; purchased two black men, married one and that daughter was the mother of Benjamin Bannaker.
There are all sorts of narratives that are supported by the facts of African American history. I'm most interested in that of institution building and institutional failure. For the singular pressing fact of this thread of history to me is how all of these outstanding individuals came to naught. We know of Henry Ossowa Tanner, but where is the Tanner legacy today? If we didn't go to this particular event on this particular night, what would we know of it? After all, the correct premise is that this material is something that isn't taught in schools. It is my judgment that America has failed to take up the lessons of their triumph or that somehow their families crumbled. It is a long-standing bias for me, one whose value I am unsure about. In the context of Black History Month, we are inevitably compared to other ethnics and told there is something we must do that we haven't. Kinsey remarks about the 3 billion dollar cotton industry that was, before the Civil War, 55% of the American GDP. And it was through this wealth that great fortunes, including that of the Lehman Brothers, were begun. Where are the black Lehman Brothers, and where is our old boy network? When Reconstruction placed hundreds of blacks into positions of political power, was their intent to endow us with the NBA? No, of course not. Then why is it that is what we have rather than their legacy? The link was somehow lost, broken, stolen, forgotten. I don't know exactly how to feel about this when I give it any thought. Mostly I accept that within African America we have yet to aggregate to a significant Dosh point. We are insecure in our institutions and too much a part of the public. I often wonder if it could be any other way and I don't know the answer, but I think some part of that answer is in Kinsey's mind.
The California Afro American Museum is famously endowed by the State of California, a state whose bonds are rated slightly above junk and are ever on the edge of default. I can remember writing under the influence of Thomas Sowell about how such an overwhelmingly non-private institution could come to naught. I was there the day Mike Woo and Maxine Waters cut the ribbon to the shiny new place thinking that it was all an Affirmative Action supporting a good idea but with other people's money. In that way I couldn't be proud enough and still await that thing I call Aggregation. Or perhaps I simply don't appreciate quite properly that which already exists. But the fact remains that the Kinseys stand alone, and their collection hasn't yet got a permanent home outside of their basement.
I had my 30 seconds with the man last evening at the premier and asked if there is a university sponsor; an unfair question perhaps. I stand to inherit my father's library, and though my ambition has flagged of late, I have always wanted to do what Kinsey has done. But he has the money and I don't. Somebody has the money that Kinsey doesn't and so where might his treasures fall if he should fail? Surely everyone in the house last night would desire to carry on in their bosom this preservation of African American history, whatever the narrative, but who has the Dosh?
Black Hollywood was much in attendance last evening and as I cruised the room I got the distinct feeling that there were a lot more people in that crowd that I should know. It took me quite a while to put the name with a face I instantly recognized - oh yeah finally it was Bill Duke. I stopped a moment to show an old picture to Ron Karenga - he remembered my father. Kevin Ross, of course was in attendance and proving, once again that he is the man to know in this town. A number of other luminaries I won't bother to namedrop were there as well. One in particular, with whom I am especially fond is also part of Kinsey's project. That is Dennis Haysbert. He, along with Angela Bassett are part of the voice talent who narrate the audio tour of the Kinsey Collection.
So there is success in the rush of blood to the heads of many black Americans who breathe deeply this vein of American history and achievement. For the sake of its own preservation, it is my opinion that private hands are best, and we all might hope that the letters of Zora Neal Hurston and the original copy of Equiano's Slave Narrative stay in the properly directed care that the Kinseys would have for it. That would take the sort of money I would be overjoyed to supply if I had my way in this world - that is the sort of Aggregation and old money responsibility that warms my belly to just beneath the point of fire. We all are worthy heirs, but only few of us are worthy curators, of these historical artifacts and their narrative.
We are all familiar with the phrase 'it's a big country'. Kinsey's breadth and depth remind us that it's a big race too. We 40 millions are a big people, a lot bigger than we often get credit for being. But there are only a small number who keep that in mind at all times by being faithful stewards of what has transpired in our sojourns in and out of freedom. It is easy to forget, fixed as our attentions can get on the loud and often debased here and now. Kinseys have taken their share and pulled from every corner of the world and our great nation that which binds us to 500 years of unique triumphs and failures in the cause of our own and everyone's dedication to liberty. The future depends upon our ability to maintain it piece by precious piece.
Yes Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, we follow you. God willing we will find a continuing and permanent home for these great reminders of our humanity and the never ending struggle to maintain liberty and justice for all.