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Signs of Hope at the National Museum of African American History & Culture

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The hug between Michelle Obama and former President George W. Bush at the opening of the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History & Culture struck me as a rare moment of reconciliation in an unusually turbulent election season. So, I decided to give Robert Darden a call to chat about how this museum could serve as a tool of reconciliation post-election 2016. Darden, my editor for the defunct Wittenburg Door and a current Professor of Journalism, Public Relations & New Media at Baylor University, has established himself as a bona fide expert on black gospel music. His more than two-dozen books include People Get Ready: A New History of Black Gospel Music (Bloomsbury 20014), Nothing But Love in God's Water, Volume I: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement (Penn State University Press, 2014) and Nothing But Love in God's Water, Volume II: Black Sacred Music from Sit-Ins to Resurrection City (Penn State University Press, 2015). The former Gospel Music Editor for Billboard Magazine is the founder of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project at Baylor, the world's largest initiative to acquire, digitize, scan and catalog America's fast-vanishing legacy of vinyl from gospel music's "Golden Age." The BGMRP provides the gospel music for the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History & Culture. Becky Garrison: What was the impetus for this project? Robert Darden: When I was researching my book People Get Ready, I soon learned that much of the music from gospel's golden age say 1940 to 1970 is lost and simply unavailable. So I got angry about that and I wrote an editorial and sent it to the New York Times which they ran in February 2005. It said briefly that if we let this music that's the foundation for our popular music disappear, then future generations are going to judge us very harshly. When it ran, Charles Royce contacted me and said if you can figure out how to save this music, I will pay for it. So I met with the Baylor University Library and we created state of art digitization lab. Our goal from the begining was to acquire this music either through loan or gift. We'd then digitize, scan and catalogue the music with the goal to someday make this music available. Within a few years, Terry Gross did a wonderful story on the project on “Fresh Air” on NPR and it really took off. Now 10 years later, this is the largest initiative of its kind in the world for preserving gospel, freedom songs, and spirituals on vinyl. Garrison: What kind of gems are in this collection that need to be preserved? Darden: For much of this period, recorded music was one of the few voices for African American music. We discovered very early on these texts that gave historians a pretty rare insight into the African American experience. Also, we began to see that the B-sides of so many gospel songs had overt civil rights messages at a time when that was pretty dangerous. This was something like the double-voicedness. as Louis Gates, called it of the protest spirituals. They may be singing about the River Jordan but what they're reallytalking about is escape and getting across the Ohio River. From there, we saw there was an almost apostolic succession between the old spirituals, the freedom songs and these B-sides on the 45s. Garrison: What other significant discoveries did you make? Darden: We have a stereotypical view of gospel music as only being Mahalia Jackson or a large choir on a Sunday morning. But if you define gospel by its evangelical lyrics, then we found that the style of gospel music can vary widely. You have say gospel swing, gospel do-wop, gospel R&B;, gospel funk, and so on. Garrison: How did portions from this collection end up at the newly opened Smithsonian National Museum of African History & Culture? Darden: A Baylor Regent who was friends with one of the members of the Board of Directors of this museumran into each other about six years ago. She asked him if he had heard about the project at Baylor, which he hadn't. So she gave him a brochure and they said that was fascinating. They set up a time for us to come up and make a pitch to their acquisitions board. We told them our goal was to have the highest quality of preservation possible. They said, "So, let's make this happen." We've been working with them since then to try and identify and pick songs that were representative of the collection to be in the first wave of displays. Garrison: During this time of political discord, what does it say to you that George W. Bush and Michelle Obama came together on this project? Darden: The night we attended was a week ahead of the actual opening. That particular night was set aside for the donors of all the artifacts. As you can imagine, it was very emotional, with people who hadn't seen each other for fifty years hugging each other and crying. When visitors found out about Baylor's work on the music, they would come up and hug and kiss and thank me. One of the themes I kept hearing throughout the evening was that, unlike other museums, more than half of the donations for this museum came from individuals. Also, I heard from pastors of two churches who told me their members pledged a million dollars for this museum. This was a people's project and there was so much pride and joy and ownership that I've never seen in another museum. The next day as I left, I wore a T-shirt that I bought at a NMAAH&C; kiosk. Total strangers would come up to me and ask me if I was there. When I’d say that I had been there. They’d say, “Was it wonderful?” Garrison: What does the presence of this museum say in light of this incredibly divisive election cycle? Darden: This museum tells the story of the freedom movement better than any other museum I've ever been in. The only one that can come close is the Holocaust Museum, also in DC. Nothing exists in a vacuum and if you want to know things can be made better and how we can get past our original sin of racism, this museum is a good place to start. If people would just go with an open mind, they’d get it. I'm sold. I think this museum can show you how we got to where we are now and show you a way out. Also, this museum has already become so beloved that I feel if a hostile presidency or Congress cut off the museum's funding, this museum would survive. Funding would be found. It’s truly the people’s museum. Those looking stream some of these gospel classics can log on to www.baylor.edu/lib/gospel.