Bernard and Shirley Kinsey started buying art 50 years ago. Today, the Kinsey Collection travels around the country, illuminating 400 years of the African-American experience, through documents, books, artifacts and artwork.
A portion of the collection is on view at the ArtsCentre of Plano. I sat down with the Los Angeles couple to talk about why we don’t know as much as we should about black history.
The Kinsey Collection Celebrates The Harlem Renaissance runs through Sept. 22.
Today your collection is a moving testimony to the accomplishments, experiences, and artistry of African-Americans. But it started with a historical document: a bill of sale for an enslaved man named William Johnson. What did that document mean to you?
Bernard Kinsey: A business partner from Florida called me and said, “Bernard, I found this document.” He wouldn’t tell me what it was because, I think, he was white, and I think he was a little ashamed to say it. But he said it was in his aunt’s attic that had been boarded up since 1957. So, the next day he sends this to me by FedEx. I opened it up and literally I know how I felt when I opened it. I couldn’t believe I was holding this guy in my hand. And here is a young man, 18 years old being sold for $550 in Alabama. And knowing what we know now, we know the he had a horrible life. At $550 he was a laborer. That meant he picked cotton, or he cut wood, or whatever the task was we decided that we really needed to do more. So, that document plus knowing our son, Khalil, needing to know his history really propelled us to begin to want to know more.
How did you go from that to this enormous collection?
Shirley Kinsey: I’m going to backtrack just a little bit. Before the actual document that Bernard just mentioned, we were collecting art. Bernard and I have been married for 51 years, and yes, I’ll clap to that. And we decided early on, though, that we wanted to travel. And we found that we always wanted to look at indigenous cultures wherever we went and seeing similarities in that.
We also realized that we didn’t know enough about our own culture as we were learning about other cultures. And so we went back home and said, “OK, you know, we got all these black artists we need to know about.” Some we were able to meet, a lot of them actually, and become friends with. We would have art shows at our home.
The first one I remember that we actually ever purchased was an Ernie Barnes painting. And we liked it because it reminded us of growing up in Florida, in the South. It’s a young man who is trying to make a basket and he os shooting with wooden posts and a peach basket up on the rim and it is called “High Aspirations.” Well, that spoke to us. We look back on it now and we say we were trying to tell a story then; we didn’t know what we were doing though. But because we were interested in it, we wanted to interest other people in it, too.
Your collection spans about 400 years. The show in Plano is the first one to focus on the Harlem Renaissance. Why did you focus on that era?
BK: Well, this is the 100th year anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance, 1918 to 2018. After World War I, where 350,000 black men fought in Europe, they came home to the same Jim Crow. One of the things that we saw with that was this flourish of creativity, ingenuity and genius, literature, art, music, writing, plays. Literally, any and every aspect of American culture was impacted by these returning service men going back to their communities and saying, "There’s another world and that world is bigger than the world that we came from, and it is better." And that's where this artistry came from.
SK: Part of the name of our exhibit has always been where art and history intersect and the Harlem Renaissance — there’s no better place to show where art and history intersect. And that’s been really special.
BK: The problem is that in America we have this notion of the "myth of absence." The myth of absence says that we are invisibly present. In other words, black people have been cut out of the history books — literally cut out. And because they have been cut out, even African-Americans don’t know of the accomplishments that their ancestors have made. If you don’t know what your accomplishments are, how are you going to be able to instill that in your kids? What we are saying is that not only did we matter but until people of all races understand that we have dibs in this country, we won’t have the respect that we think is required.
Is it frustrating to you that these things aren’t taught in schools, that our history books do not collect this? I mean, theoretically, we shouldn’t have to have a couple from Los Angeles, you know, bringing all of this forward.
SK: Yes, it is frustrating. We live in California, but we were born and raised in Florida in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s.
BK: The segregated South.
SK: In the segregated South. And our ancestors were really a part of all of that. We don’t know who they were. Matter of fact, I call it our “collective ancestry.” I claim all these stories because to me they’re the people who have made what we have now possible.
The Kinsey Collection exhibit is [meant] to educate, motivate and inspire. And as Bernard said, the more you learn about this, the more you are going to want to know. And that’s when things click.
Are you still adding to your collection?
BK: Every day.
SK: Well, not every day, honey.
BK: Well, every week.
SK: Part of collecting is that you always find gaps in areas.
What would you most like to acquire right now?
BK: David Walker’s Appeal. That’s top of mine. David Walker wrote a pamphlet and basically told African-Americans and enslaved people to stop taking it. It became so widely read that an enslaved person that just had it could be killed. You follow me? But David Walker, this piece is just amazing. This guy, I mean, genius, genius.
SK: There’s nothing else that for me that we have to have. My wish would be that what we do have gets shared as much as possible and seen by as many people as possible that it becomes embedded in our schools. That would be my wish.
Interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.