An Interview with Bernard Kinsey
By Daviona Moore
In the fourth installment of the Can’t Touch This! interview series, I had the pleasure of meeting with the renowned Bernard Kinsey, former chief operating officer and co-chair of Rebuild Los Angeles, an organization created to revitalize Los Angeles following the civil unrest of 1992. He also co-founded the Kinsey African American Art & History Collection alongside his wife of more than 50 years, Shirley P. Kinsey.
We enjoyed delving into the barriers facing the Black community today in the form of policy and biased education. Kinsey prioritizes sharing the Black experience globally, having traveled to 24 U.S cities and several countries across the globe.
Daviona Moore: I'm very thankful that I'm able to sit down with you. How would you describe the work that you do, both professionally and in your personal life?
Bernard Kinsey: My wife and I have always worked toward a way we can have the best life possible. That entails having good friends, a good partnership, and the financial wherewithal to do things with an awareness about who you are and where you came from. We have a simple philosophy about life: “To whom much is given, much is required,” and the second being, “A life of no regrets.” For the past 50 years, we've stayed true to those objectives. I would say to whoever’s listening to this to come up with a philosophy early on, a value system that supports who you are. The reality for us--in a formative stage, where sometimes you don't know who you are, you end up being whomever. Life has a way of laying out different alternatives and different lanes for you. If you have a clear heart, you'll be able to make the right decisions about opportunities that may come before you.
Daviona Moore: I also came across a quote you referenced that was along the lines of: “keep the door open and the ladder down for others to follow.”
Bernard Kinsey: Yes, I love Ron Brown. I hold that quote close to home.
Daviona Moore: I noticed that your father played a crucial role in guiding you to the work that you do today. How would you say that your work has changed over the years?
Bernard Kinsey: Without Black colleges, there would not be a Black middle class in America, period. My mom and dad were married for 63 years, and my dad was a school principal for 39 years and just a remarkable guy in the segregated South. As early as 1941, he and a group of Black educators sued the Palm Beach County School Board so Black teachers could make the same amount of money as white teachers did. Back in those days, a Black teacher made 50% of what a white teacher made, just to show you how ridiculous that is. When you go to the grocery store Ralph’s, nobody gives you a 50% discount for being Black. You pay the same price. If you want to build a house, you pay for concrete the same way anybody else does, so it's just part of what growing up is in a lot of America.
My dad made sure that Black students growing up in the South didn't get secondhand books. He made sure that his students got first-edition books. He would take a truck out to the county administrator's office and get new books, rather than books that were used and had been written in. So I come out of that kind of family. I come from a mother who never worked a day but raised five of us on a Black teacher’s salary, and she was a magician with money. She knew how to save, and she taught that to the five of us. I got as much from my mom on the financial side as I got from my dad on the academic side.
Daviona Moore: I do see some of those same trends today, where Black parents have to be very strong in order to help their kids be successful in whatever capacity. I say that, coming from my own experiences in Houston.
Bernard Kinsey: We did a great show in 2014 at the Houston Museum of African-American Culture. I’m a big fan of Houston. Houston has more Black people than anywhere in America. 25% of the population is Black, so it's just as strong as Atlanta. When you go to places with a strong Black population, there is a strong Black middle class and you just feel everything moving. People are connected.
Daviona Moore: The Kinsey Collection comprises over 700 artifacts worth millions of dollars. It's a very valuable collection that began as a way for you and your wife Shirley to teach your son about Black history that he wasn’t being taught in school. Could you describe the turning point that led you to develop this into a bigger project?
Bernard Kinsey: We have, since 2006, been to 31 cities around the world. [The Kinsey Collection] has been translated into Spanish and Chinese, and it’s been seen by about 15 million people. Back in 2006, the California African American Museum asked us to be part of an exhibition series for Black collectors to show their work. Collectors generally don't show their work to more than a few people. But we did, and it was a huge success. Before we left LA, we had gotten an invitation to go to Chicago, Cincinnati, and West Palm Beach. So, in the first six months, we got four invitations to start showing the collection. Because of that, we knew we had something special. I tell people all the time, had we kept our material in our downstairs gallery, maybe 200 people would have seen it over the past, you know, 15 years. We decided, rather than hold to it, to act as caretakers of the items that we own.
What the Kinsey Collection says more broadly is that we know that the litmus test for American democracy comes through the Black community. In other words, you can look very easily at the Constitution and how it's applied. The conflict in the Constitution and whether or not we are free is not equality. So I learned from my dad a long time ago that freedom gives you the opportunity to fight for what you really need, which is the ability to be paid the same amount, have access to public accommodation, to be free, and to be able to move around this country for justice. We know that our son will not get the right education as it relates to Blackness, and so we started supplementing it. If you focus on what your objectives are, what your goals are, you're going to have a purpose in your life. When you have that, you're going to be amazed at what you can contribute and complete.
Daviona Moore: You’ve touched on the interconnectedness of freedom and mobility, both economic and geographic. Can you tell me how you came to California?
Bernard Kinsey: Shirley was 20 and I was 23. With partners, make sure that that's somebody compatible with your interests. It doesn't mean that you don't love each other, but loving each other is not enough to be able to achieve the kind of life purpose that most people desire. Because when the loving gets a little tough, you better have something else to fall back on.
Daviona Moore: Your partnership is really at the center of this project. How do you manage what works are incorporated into the Kinsey Collection?
Bernard Kinsey: Okay, so we've been at this for 40 or 50 years, so we're on the Internet and we have two books. The Myth of Absence says that we are “invisibly present” as Black people. We're here, but we're just not part of the picture, we're not part of the story, we're not part of the dialogue, we're not part of the narrative in this country. Actually, the Kinsey Family is hosting a program with Pepperdine University called The Myth of Absence on February 24th at 5pm, I’ll save the lecture for then.
What the Kinsey Collection strives to do is to put Black people in the narrative in every aspect of American life. We do that through these 700 objects, our primary source documents, and more to bring this story of achievement, what so many of our ancestors did for this country, to light. We believe that, to the extent that we understand these achievements, we can have a better dialogue with other people in terms of having these kinds of relationships. Even Black folks can have a Ph.D. and still can't get a cab late at night because of the color of their skin. We have a saying that your skin speaks before you do. Even though you work your butt off, you got student loans and everything that goes with it, yet somebody still sees you as the “other.”
Daviona Moore: I'm glad there was activity that went on last summer with Black Lives Matter. I noticed so many folks outside of academia were waking up and using this as an opportunity to bring up issues like economic inequality, discrimination against black LGBTQ+ folks, and even distribution of resources. How do you see this intersectional approach to racial justice propelling us forward and where do you see us going with this?
Bernard Kinsey: I just saw that the Black Lives Matter movement was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. If they are able to do it, this puts it in a different category and I can pair the Black Lives Matter with the Civil Rights Movement. My wife Shirley I met as she came out of jail for protesting in 1963 in Tallahassee, Florida. Tallahassee was so segregated that we couldn't go into white spaces. So we organized demonstrations, like most Black colleges. Today, PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions) produce about 70% of Black graduates, while HBCUs produce 30%, but we would never have gotten to that point without HBCUs driving the fight for equal access. They would be out of business if they couldn’t get people to graduate, I would never have gotten a degree.
I cannot overstate the importance of Black Lives Matter and their work in activism and consciousness-raising. You need more than just consciousness, you need to be in people's faces. We know white people will vote against their own interests as it relates to race. In other words, they would rather give up their healthcare than have equitable healthcare. An easy example is if you were to ask people in California their thoughts on the Affordable Care Act, they like it. However, if the same were asked in the South, it’s “We hate Obamacare!” It was voted down in Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama, and predominantly-Black populations lost their insurance. Now we have a pandemic with 26 million people affected, and most are Black and brown folks.
The healthcare delivery system is really critical because Black people still don't live as long as white people. We [Black folks] should get our social security at 55 because we don't tend to make it to 60-65. It's got to come through the streets for real change. I want us to come out to vote and influence political power. That's what I love about what the brothers and sisters did down in Georgia. They got it. The potential has been there for decades, and the organizers in this last election got them to vote. So a lot of this is still on us. We can always tell that white man got his issues, but we also have our own issues with apathy. It’s one of the biggest issues we have in the Black community -- “I don't know it, I don't care.” That's why you gotta have activism. That's why Black Lives Matter is so important; being a speaker that got a lot of people out there. So I am very optimistic about America.
Daviona Moore: Many folks have made parallels between the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred last summer. One big difference is the Internet and our ability to communicate so easily with each other. How do you see that playing a role in this movement compared to communication in the 60s?
Bernard Kinsey: Well, the Internet is the great equalizer. Back when I was growing up, the Black community had Black-owned newspapers and radio, and that's how people were mobilized. Plus, people really wanted to demonstrate. I think that what we see with the Black Lives Matter movement becoming one of the most powerful moments in the history of this country is the fact that they got millions of people to take to the streets here and all over the world. Part of it was technology, but I just cannot say enough about the systems that pushed this to a boiling point, that people basically decided they weren’t going to take it anymore.
Daviona Moore: And where do you see this going? Do you think the issues will stay in the spotlight, that white Americans won’t fall back asleep?
Bernard Kinsey: There are so many aspects of American life that can be addressed through the political process. It's brilliant to start with, for instance, tearing down a lot of these racist regulations, statutes, and laws. If you change the structure, the culture will follow.
Georgia is trying to get rid of absentee ballots because they were too successful. [Republicans] lost the election, and it was a complete gamechanger. This is a fight to the finish and everybody's got to be in it. You cannot go back to sleep, you have to look at the next step, and that's at the state, county, and local levels where these pernicious laws that are designed to suppress the Black vote have been going on. Since the Civil War, the whole idea about Black people voting is really what keeps this Constitution in flux all the time. Georgia is the best example of what we can do when we vote. Apathy is a huge problem in the [Black] community. We don't want to care because we've been beaten down so long, so a lot of people say, “What's the point?” The reality is that when you do your part, the world can then start spinning because you contributed.
Daviona Moore: Absolutely. Thank you so much for sitting down with me.