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Tonya Bolden: 2016 National Book Festival

Tonya Bolden: 2016 National Book Festival


>>From the Library of
Congress in Washington, D.C.>>Amy Puryear: It’s a pleasure
for me to introduce Tonya Bolden. She is an award winning author
of over 20 children’s books, and she’s written about the
emancipation proclamation. She’s written about Martin Luther
King, and she has won a number of awards and today, she’s
going to talk about the museum that opened today of African
American history and culture. Please welcome Tonya Bolden. [ Applause ]>>Tonya Bolden: Hi. Good afternoon. Can you hear me? Okay. Good. Good afternoon again. Thanks for being here. Thanks for coming with love
and joy and faith and hope. I really think we’re
in a crossroads, and I should have asked
one of my hosts to take my pocketbook,
but that’s okay. And earlier today — oh, it’s cool. It’s fine, baby. Earlier today, I had
some time in the hotel, and I was watching, I guess, NBC. And I’m watching, and
I’m saying, “Don’t cry. Don’t cry.” John Lewis comes. I’m like, “Don’t cry. Don’t cry.” And I said, “You’re going
to be all puffy eyed.” And I was like, “Oh, well. Hide behind my glasses.” But let me start with this. A museum is a treasure trove of
things, things lost then found, things perennially prized, things
— objects once deemed worthless. Whatever a museum collects,
paintings, pottery or play things, its aim is the same. To safeguard remnants of history
and culture that inspire, enlighten and kindle the curiosity of the
children and adults who come through its doors,
generation after generation. Smithsonian’s National Museum
of African American History and Culture is a treasure trove of
paintings, photographs, posters, [inaudible], pottery, documents,
dolls, diaries, books, balls, bells, benches, medals, medallions
and more. Objects that deepen
our understanding of the black experience in America and so strengthen our
grasp of American history. This is the story of
how that magnificent and monumental museum got built. So it was February, 2014. I received an email through
the account that’s attached to my website, which means somebody
I don’t know who doesn’t know me because friends have
the other email. So I get this email, and the
subject line is something like possible project. And this woman introduces herself. Her name is Sheila Keen,
and she’s with Viking. I do not know her, but she
knows my work, and she says, “I’d like to talk to you
because — about an idea.” She basically said that I
think it’s right up your alley. So we talk. And the project was this
book, How to Build a Museum. The museum that took 13 years to
build but 100 years to come about. Now, I had all kind of problems
— because, right, we’re always — you have something in production. You have something
on the first draft. You have something
else, this [inaudible]. And you always have all this stuff. Plus it was February, which is
like equal employment opportunity for black writers and illustrators. So I’m thinking I’m feeling
overwhelmed, but I just said to self so you won’t sleep some. I could not not do this book because
the museum represents everything that I’m about, like large —
like a thousand times over. So I said I’ll get a little less
sleep, but I have to do this book because history is my passion and
because [inaudible] the last museum in the mall is the first Smithsonian
Museum built from scratch. And so I think in many ways
[inaudible] is sort of reflective of black lives upon these shores. It was a long time coming. A hundred years to come about. People were campaigning for
this back in 1915, 1916. Meanwhile, other museums
and galleries go up and people continue to
believe in the dream. The dream really started as
a monument to black veterans in the American Revolution
and all the other wars onward. And they couldn’t — they didn’t
have any friends in court, but they kept campaigning
and the dream got bigger. So this was a book that I had to
do because it is about, as I said, everything that I’m about
[inaudible] I think sums it up. Now you know the [inaudible]
symbols. I think it’s usually presented
as a bird with a neck, a very limber bird, but the neck
is sort of turned back [inaudible]. And some people —
what does it mean? Some people say go
back and pick it up. Some people simply say remember. I like to use it as remember. I know that’s something that [inaudible] is all
about is remembering. But there’s a minister, a Baptist
minister, in Brooklyn, New York. He translates [inaudible] as
the way out is back through. What does he mean by that? The way out is back through. You all shy? [ Inaudible ] Okay, yeah. And I think, for example,
the way out is back through. It’s saying you have
— history is vital. It’s saying as MLK said
we are made by history, and Baldwin said history is
literally present in all that we do. So if you take someone
[inaudible] remember, you take someone of African descent. The way out through lingering shame
and fear and doubt and despair is to go back and pick up that history
and find out whence you come. I think the wonderful thing
about the museum that makes it so fantastic is it really, really
shows that people of African descent in this country are not bit players. And I’m constantly always
telling people that if we came from a nothing people, people
like me wouldn’t exist. [Inaudible], I think too as you know
the museum basically is saying what I always try to say in my books is that black history is
everyone’s history. I also think that all the
histories are everyone’s history. I always say that the building of the transcontinental
railroad is my history. The trail of tears is my history because we are all
made by the history. And so you may have someone
who’s not of African descent who may not know intimately
any black people and so maybe they hold
stereotypes about them. And maybe they think when they see
them from afair up in the helicopter that they all look like bad dudes. And maybe, though, if you go to
the museum and you read more books, maybe you’ll see wow, black people
are as different and complex. Yeah, there’s some bad dudes among
us and some bad girls among us and all that, but there’s also
Jacob Lawrence and Thurgood Marshall and geniuses and [inaudible]
and all of that. That’s why we need the
history because it’s about educating ourselves, and I
think we’re at a crossroads now, and the only hope — I think we
have to decide whether we want to go into insanity and stupidity or if
we really want to take another stab at getting this country to
live up to its own ideals, to catch up its own ideals. So again, everyone
needs the history. Needs to understood, too, as
the museum will show that yes, there’s slavery and Jim Crow. There was pain. There was tears. There was sorry. But it’s also about the jubilees. It’s about celebrating. It’s about praise. It’s about uplift. The whole design of the
museum is praise and uplift so that you say yeah, you had
the slaughter and the beatings and the brandings on the cheeks and
people getting their ears cut off because they tried to run
away or getting a finger — [inaudible] of their index finger
chopped off because they tried to learn to read and write. But you also had people escape
like Josiah Henson carrying his kid on his back until his
back got raw and bled. You have going on down the line,
you have people like Michael Shiner. I did a book about him, Michael
Shiner, about his journal. In D.C., he was an incredible man
with agency here in Washington, D.C. Then later on down the
line, you have the people who fought the 54th glory
corps and on down on down. You have Charles Dorsey,
Tommy Dorsey. You have Thurgood Marshall. You have Jacob [inaudible]. You have — and we go on and on
and on to the point where you have in the White House
Barack Hussein Obama. And one of the things I did
last night as I was privileged and honored to attend the Library of
Congress gala for the book festival. And there, it was the first
— I belive I’m correct — public event presided over by
the 14th Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, a black woman. [ Applause ] And that tells us that
so much is possible, and I think it was Obama
referenced this in his speech. Somebody did, but I’m
always telling kids is that Jim Crow was not that long ago. My parents lived in a
Jim Crow South Carolina. Civil War was not that long ago. So yes, we have enormous promise —
problems, but if you’d look at it, you can say, “Wow, we have
made some giant strides. We have made some progress.” And we can’t let people
turn us around now. Now — not at this moment
because what we’re talking about is not just white
people and black people. We’re talking about all the people because this nation is
becoming something different. I did a school visit in the Bronx,
and I didn’t know what the kids were because there were some that were
part Latino, part black, part white, part Japanese, and I
looked at all these colors and all these beautiful kids. And I said, “This is beautiful.” And they all — I can imagine when
they have international night, that school must be really jumping. But I looked at it and said,
“This is a good thing.” Because all the multiculturalism
is a good thing because then we all
learn from each other. And I can’t help multiculturally
because when I grew up — I grew up in the 60’s in a
place called East Harlem, also called Spanish Harlem. And at the time, it was —
it used to be Little Italy. So I had Latinos, mostly Puerto
Ricans around me, Italians, and they would have their festivals with the saints marching
in the street. You have people from the Caribbean. I remember one guy from
Trinidad would do steel drumming in the park at night. You had Africans, and
you had people like me, my parents been in this country. And to me, it was like life was
a festival and life was rich and my friend, Rosa,
introduced me to [inaudible]. And I thought that’s a good thing. I would never want
to make [inaudible] because that’s also a lot
of work or from Italians. I would see them marching
around with the saints, and I [inaudible] a
little something like that. And I think growing up —
because I wrote in a poem once — when I grew up, being multicultural
wasn’t an agenda or work. It was the every day way of life. And again, my father worked in
the garment center so I knew about the [inaudible] and
egg creams and all that. And to me, it was like wow. Spice, spice. So, that’s why I’m sort of
devoted to multiculturalism in a very gut kind of way and
because being in New York, I don’t know anything else. I see [inaudible] on the trains. I see Muslims on the train. I see Asian people. I see Japanese, Chinese,
and I just know that I think I’m a richer
person for being in a city where I can meet the world. Where’s my science — okay. Well, I’m going to stop. We can take questions or comments. Yes.>>In the museum, is there a
section celebrating African American illustrators and authors?>>Tonya Bolden: Well, I think
there’s — I’m not sure about that. I think there probably is
in cultural expressions, which as I understand it does —
the cultural galleries, I mean. The cultural expressions
may cover things, some hairdos to body language, then you have visual
arts, stage and screen. So I’m not sure how they’re handling
it, but I’m sure they will be because I know in my
book I have examples of black books and black art work. Next? Yes [inaudible].>>Obviously, you had to have a
lot of help from the Smithsonian and the designers and the curators. Can you talk a little bit about that because this book is
chock full of –>>Tonya Bolden: Right, and see
it’s — my favorite quote — Lonnie Bunch once said that
building the museum was like being on a cruise in uncharted
waters at the same time that you’re building the ship. So I’m also working on
the book at the same time that they’re building the
museum so things are shifting. They did give my editor and
I access with [inaudible] so we could see what
was in the collection for the different galleries
and from that, then we’re choosing what we think
most appeal to young people, and then because of the internet
too and because of the Smithsonian when it came to the
design competition, I had access to those documents
so I could really say, okay, this is the process and then
I was able to talk with people like Sharon Parks there to sort of clarify things about
the design shift. So it really was — I mean, I
think those people must be working for like ten years
eight days a week. I don’t now when they slept. So through that and
then, like I said, I was able to — I
love doing research. Research is what I love to do. So I was able to read
Lonnie Bunch’s book. I was able to access videos
of him to get a feel of okay, this is this man —
this is this vision. And just digging in and
then Googling things. Like I said, I always believe when the student is
ready, the teacher appear. Like when I’m really in the zone on
a project, stuff just seems to leap up at me and say here
you need this article. I said wow. But it was a little hectic
because when I started it, we thought the opening
would be 2015. So it was a really a little — you
need — so for example, it had — it [inaudible] come
out in September. It had to be at the
printer last March. Yes?>>Okay.>>Tonya Bolden: Oh,
can I hold — I’m sorry. I’m such a good [inaudible]
capitalist. How to Build a Museum
by me, Tonya Bolden, and it’s all about the new
museum that opened today. How many of you have
been to the museums? Anyone been to — can
you tell us about it? Tell us about what you saw. What was it like?>>It gave me goosebumps.>>Tonya Bolden: Really?>>My daughter has worked for the
Smithsonian so she had extra tickets for a preview last weekend,
and it’s phenomenal.>>Tonya Bolden: Really? Share a little more. What — ?>>There is Harriet
Tubman’s shawl that was given to her by Queen Victoria. Nat Turner’s Bible.>>Tonya Bolden: Wow.>>Just so many things, and
Hall of Athletes, everything. It’s phenomenal.>>Tonya Bolden: Yeah
because I heard that — what I understood Bunch wanted
everything to be on a human scale so that you’re not so much learning
about events, but you’re learning about people who experienced
these things.>>Athletes, artists, entertainers,
and it’s a multimedia experience. There are videos all around you. You can see cabinets with their
artifacts and right beside you, a video of Jesse Owens
and his memorabilia. It’s wonderful.>>Tonya Bolden: Wow. Thank you. Anyone else want to testify? Anyone have a question? Anyone been to the museum? You want to talk about it? Oh, yes, sweetie.>>How many times have you
been to the new museum?>>Tonya Bolden: I will go this
evening at five for the first time. I was here two days
ago to have a meeting. So it’s close — the panels were
going up, but I got only as close as the trailer outside the museum
that had the models because I think at that time because of
construction, they didn’t want to let people walk through. So when I go, assuming I make it
in time, it’ll be the first time, and I’m trying to brace
myself for the experience. Hello. Yes?>>Hey, I just want
to say I’m a huge fan. I’m trying to think of
a question on the fly. I will be going to
the museum on Monday, but when you’re researching
a book, what’s the — when you find something that
surprises you, what do you do?>>Tonya Bolden: When you find
something that surprises you? You follow it because I
think — see, writing to me, when I start a book, I may know ten
percent of what ends up in the book. I think you have to be
true to the subject. When you surrender to a
subject, you find what you find. I was writing about the boys once, and I found out some things
that I thought, oh wow. But then given him and his
context, I thought, okay, I’m going to mention
it a little bit. But I think you should
never have an agenda. I mean, other then to do good work,
and other then to enlighten people, inspire people, [inaudible]
curiosity. But other then that, I start
with a subject and say so what? That’s kind of [inaudible]. So you kind of sometimes —
especially if you know something about the subject, you have
to like clear your mind and just say why does this really —
why did Martin Luther King matter? You have to be able to —
don’t say that to other people because you’ll get stoned,
but you have to be able to say to youself why does he matter? Why does he matter? And especially in the 21st century. And that gets you to the
point of well King wasn’t just about Tonya can fly first
class, okay we have arrived. No, because he was about
something bigger than that, a [inaudible] in the community
so I think when you start with the question, so what,
and who is this person really, then you’re open to discover things,
and I think that’s the best thing about writing is that
it is an adventure. Sometimes you do not know
what you’re going to find, and you don’t like what you’re
going to find, what you find. I’m working on a project
now, and he had a quote. He said something that
I thought, “Well, that’s not very race man-like.” And then I said, “But you know,
maybe he had some ambivalence about identity,” and I include
the quote and let readers decide because we don’t want
to do propaganda. We want to make history come alive. We want to tell stories that
not so much just inform people, but I think that when I write about
King or Frederick Douglas or DuBois or Bethune or FDR’s alphabet
soup, I’m always wanting to not just give kids — young people information,
but point the way. Give them also a jumping off point. So in the new deal book, I wrote at the end people still debate
whether the new deal was a good deal, a bad deal, raw deal, and
then I say what do you think? And then I say your answer
will depend on what kind of government do you want. So it’s not just giving
them information. It’s saying you take this to the
— how do you feel about this? And emancipation proclamation. Was Lincoln racist? Was he not? What do you think? I’m not going to give
you the answer. What do you think? Or maybe there is no
one right answer as the question who
freed the slaves? Was it Lincoln, radical
Republicans in Congress? Was it the stiff neck
aristocracy, the slaveholders? Because sometimes I think we
need to let young people know that sometimes there
is no one answer. It depends on perspective
and sometimes it’s a mystery. Yes?>>How do you suggest
talking with very young kids about the most difficult
parts of American history?>>Tonya Bolden: I think young
people are more resilient then we give them credit for. I think you tell them the truth,
and I think what it is is not to just say there was a time when
people of African descent were held in slavery in this country. Then maybe look at have we had
slavery other times in the world? And then ask the question why? Why were they held in slavery? How — why were they held
in slavery for so long? Because I think just as when
you explore, how did this — how did this monstrosity happen? You’ll come upon the thinkers who
will say things like the desire to exploit and plunder came first and then came the racism
to get people on board. And I think — I’ve
talked to kids, and I said, if you look at all the conflict and
the horrors and all of this stuff around the world throughout
time, it comes down to one group of people wanting the other
group of people’s stuff. It’s not personal. It’s not — and they
have to [inaudible]. Okay. I’m from New York, right? Let’s say I have a campaign
to say, you know what? I’m going to get rid of
all these Washingtonians. New Yorkers are going to
have these townhouses, this convention hall,
everything, right? People will be like,
“You crazy, Tonya.” Right? But if I go back to New
York and day in and day out I talk about how Washingtonians are
dogs, they filthy, they’re ugly. They don’t know how to do anything. They’re inferior. You will have droves of New Yorkers
coming over here to take your stuff. So we need to understand
— help people understand. We’re talking about economics,
and of course to convince people to enslave people and brand
people and cut off their finger and cut off their ear, you have to
convince them that they’re not human because no one can do
those horrors to people if they think they’re human. So I think you tell
people the truth. I was saying recently
because somebody said — I said I was 12 or under
when accidentally — I was living in the Bronx or Harlem. But I accidentally in the magazine
or book came across the photo of Emmett Till’s corpse in
the casket, the open casket. And I remember getting
like — it was horrifying, and I remember my mother said we
were going to tell you about that but not yet, but they had
to tell me about it then. Now, I probably had a
sleepless night and nightmares, but it didn’t kill me, and
my parents, like I said, who are from the Carolinas
had to sit me down and tell me about some facts of life. And I started to learn
horrors my mother experienced like her grandfather who was
like a father being out at night when the Klan is riding
looking for a black man who supposedly did something and knowing my parents
lived with that terror. But I had to confront it, and I didn’t have nightmares
forever about Emmett Till. I still don’t like
to see that image. I got over it. Who knows what role that moment
played in later my becoming so fascinated with history? Kids can take it. And kids see — kids
understand better because they understand not
fair more than adults do. Adults — we can justify
things, but kids will be like that’s not fair
to take their things. But I think you have to break it
down and say behind all of this — I know a lot of times people quote
DuBois, and they say the problem with the 20th century is the problem
of color — he backed off of that. And the 50th anniversary of
souls of black [inaudible], he said it’s what’s
behind all of this, this desire to exploit and take. So if we start to look
at this as pure business, then we can see oh
behind all of this, one group of people wants
another group of people’s stuff. Did that help?>>Yes.>>Tonya Bolden: Tell
the children the truth. I think in the museum
there’s a building that — a button, a pin from the 60’s that
says tell the children the truth. Yes?>>Okay. We still have time?>>Tonya Bolden: Yes.>>Okay.>>Tonya Bolden: For you.>>Thank you. Thank you for being here today.>>Tonya Bolden: Thank you.>>I’m wondering as you
were doing the research on this book, which is beautiful –>>Tonya Bolden: Thank you.>>Was there anything
that surprised you? Because you’re very well read,
you know a lot of history. What meant the most to you? What’s something you learned?>>Tonya Bolden: Well, I think — I know one of the artifacts that
means the most to me is a sack. It’s in the book. And it was created in a hurry by
a woman named Rose in the 1850’s after she learned that her
daughter, 9-year-old Ashley, had been sold and would
soon be gone. And into the sack went some pecans,
some kind of nuts, I think a lock of her hair, a few bits of clothing, and she told the daughter
and all my love. And I think for me it just makes me
well loved because I think so often when enslaved people are presented,
they’re presented as getting through but not retaining their humanity. And saying — we’re
not usually presented as loving, loving family members. We know about all the separation,
but no one talks about the love. So I think that always
is precious to me. I think what made me stop and think
with the Jim Crow card that they had to lower into the museum
before it was even built — because you remember the Jim Crow
— the Jim Crow [inaudible] — but then I thought about it, and
when I realized people can walk through it, they’re going
to experience that — the front 2/3 for white
people has bigger everything and nicer everything,
and the back — and when I realized people
would walk through it, I in myself envisioned people
on the Jim Crow [inaudible]. I imagined you’re black and
you’re going to a funeral. On top of that grief,
you got to ride Jim Crow. And then I thought, too,
when I could visualize it, very often we talk about Jim Crow. We talk about what it did to
and against black people, right? But it also victimized white
people because I thought wow, you had this car and
you have someone who could have been a professor
at Tuskegee or whatever and the white people in the front
aren’t getting to know these people, and these people love like
them and laugh like them, and maybe they could have had
something to offer each other. So it makes you say oh my God. This was really [inaudible]
and bad for everyone. So I think because I had
to think about the objects and because I was looking at
them from the files they sent, I was able to sort of sense
memory and so being there myself. So I hope that helps.>>Beautiful. Thank you.>>Tonya Bolden: Two minutes left? Yes?>>The monument looks
beautiful from outside. I haven’t visited yet inside. But my question is is it front
of the Washington Monument, and it’s difficult to see that
beautiful Washington Monument. The location — what
can you tell about that?>>Tonya Bolden: I don’t think
it blocks it because I know in fact I think its
angle had to be shifted, and that’s the reason I think it’s
one of the most below ground — it has more stories underground
than any other thing — was precisely not to
mess up sight lines. So like I said, I haven’t
physically been there, but I don’t think it blocks because
I think they were very careful about sight lines of
everything on the mall. Thank you. Yes?>>What was your favorite
book and why?>>Tonya Bolden: In the
world or written by me?>>Written by you.>>Tonya Bolden: Oh. Right now, it is How
to Build a Museum. This is my absolutely favorite
book in the whole wide world. But when January comes around and
the a book called Pathfinders, the stories of 16 extraordinary
black souls comes out, that might be my favorite
and then in May when Crossing Ebeneezer Creek comes
out, my novel about Sherman’s march to the sea, that may be my favorite. But I have to say this right now. You guys are my favorite
audience, and we are out of time.>>This has been a presentation
of the Library of Congress. Visit us at loc.gov.

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