"The Gambler," 1990. William Sylvester Carter. Oil on Canvas.

African American Treasures from the Kinsey Collection
Thru Oct 26
Houston Museum of African American Culture
4807 Caroline St.

Last week, Bernard Kinsey was at the Houston Museum of African American Culture giving a tour of his private collection of African American art and historical artifacts. He paused in front of glass case containing a small, yellowing book—a 1798 first edition of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.

“From what we know of Equiano, he was stolen from Nigeria at nine years old, goes on to become captain of a ship, and then writes this book that goes through six editions,” Kinsey told the tour group. “Think about it—six editions in the 18th century. This was before Borders, before Barnes and Noble, before Amazon—he was that popular. This was the book that said, “Here is what being on a slave ship is like.’ He was the only one who ever wrote a book on it.”

Slave Insurance, ca. 1859. Albermarle Insurance Company.

The Kinsey Collection, founded by Bernard and his wife Shirley around 30 years ago, is one of the world’s most important private collections of African American cultural objects, and for the next three months it will be on view at HMAAC, which under the leadership of CEO John Guess recently completed an extensive renovation in preparation for the blockbuster exhibition, sponsored by Wells Fargo, which is currently on a national tour. Included in the exhibition are items spanning the history of Africans in America, from a 1595 baptismal record—the earliest document of an African on this continent—to a letter from Malcolm X to his biographer Alex Haley. It also includes paintings by contemporary African American artists like William Sylvester Carter, Kennith Humphrey, and Kadir Nelson.

Paul Robeson in The Song of Freedom, 1936

But the Kinseys’ son Khalil, who co-curated the exhibition with Danielle Burns of the Houston Public Library, emphasized that the exhibition is not just for or about African Americans. “If I’m sitting on a plane and the person next to me asks what I do, I say I curate an American history exhibition,” said Khalil, who was named after Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese-born author of The Prophet. “Because that’s exactly what it is. African Americans have been a part of this country from the very beginning.”

Bernard agreed, arguing that it’s impossible to understand American history without accounting for the influence of African Americans. “You cannot talk about American anything without talking about black folks,” he told the tour group. “Why? Because we were involved in every aspect of every political decision made between 1595 and now.” He cited the Constitution’s so-called “three-fifths compromise,” under which Southern states got to count a slave as three fifths of a person for census purposes, as an example of how the presence of African Americans impacted the country’s history. “That one decision changed the political balance in the country for over 100 years. So once you begin to understand the African American story, you begin to understand America, in a way that you never understood it before.”

"Bernard and Shirley Kinsey," 2002. Artis Lane.

Given that the exhibition has previously been shown at such prestigious venues as the Atlanta History Center, and that portions of the collection are currently on view at Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center, some people have wondered why the Kinseys chose the relatively modest Houston Museum of African American Art for the show’s Houston venue.

“People have asked, why HMAAC—it’s not on the same level” Khalil Kinsey said. “Well, it should be, that’s why. Because in a city as large as Houston, for this to be the only representation of African American culture is a shame. It’s a shame that’s it’s not supported, that it’s just been out here dangling in a city that is so diverse. Most people would never know this place existed, and that’s why we wanted to bring this show here, to shine a light on this place.”