Opening Session and Keynote Speaker Kevin Jennings

Category: 2018 Annual Meeting, Phoenix, AZ
Image of Kevin Jennings giving his Annual Meeting 2018 keynote address.
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Transcript of Keynote

[Doug] – Now it’s my great pleasure to introduce this morning’s keynote speaker. Kevin Jennings is the new president of the Tenement Museum in New York City. Prior to coming to the museum, Kevin held senior roles in the non-profit, philanthropic, and governmental sectors, including serving as Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education in the Obama administration. A historian by training, Kevin’s first professional job at age 18 was to be a tour guide at the Paul Revere House in Boston. He’s delighted to have come full circle in his new role at the Tenement Museum. He’s the author of seven books and the executive producer of two historical documentaries. Please give a warm AAM welcome to Kevin Jennings.

[Kevin] – Good morning, everyone. I have to admit that when I first got the call from AAM about a month into my tenure at the Tenement Museum to be asked to keynote this conference, I was frankly terrified. I thought, I’m a brand new president, what do I really have to say to such a distinguished and accomplished audience? I was invited to give a talk in London a few months ago and I thought this would be a great chance to rehearse. So I put my slides together, I did the talk. And it just so happened that my partner was in London at the same time I was, so he came and saw the talk. And afterward, I asked him, “What’d you think?” He said, “It was really gay.” So, I said thank you for the feedback. I went back, I added in a Broadway show tune. I made it just that much more fabulous. But you have to wait ’til the end for the show tune, so don’t leave early. It was mentioned, my first professional job was at the Paul Revere House in Boston in 1981 where I was a tour guide. My first full-time job when I graduated from college in 1985 was as a high school history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island. Anybody from Rhode Island? All right. Here I am, and no I’m not one of the students, I’m actually the teacher even though, and this by the way, is what age does to you, just so you know if you’re young. I began my class every year with a quote which I thought summed up the importance of history from George Orwell’s 1984.

Those who control the present, control the past and those who control the past control the future. I felt this was an important concept for students to understand because the version of the past we get, helps us envision the kind of future we can have. To put it more globally, Michelle Obama once said, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. So what stories we choose to tell about our past are critical to what kind of future we can create. A second favorite quote I had was from the Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey who said, a people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. This particular quote spoke to me very personally. I was born on May 8th, 1963, yes my birthday is tomorrow. And I grew up in what was then an unincorporated rural town called Louisville, North Carolina. I was born and grew up in a very, very different time for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. In 1963, 49 out of 50 states, same sex sexual activities were a crime.

Only Illinois at that point had decriminalized same sex relationships. Being known as gay could get you put in a mental hospital because being gay was considered a mental illness. There you could be lobotomized or castrated. It was career suicide to be known as gay. In 1953, President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 104500 which banned the employment of known perverts by the federal government. This story is documented in a film I produced called the Lavender Scare. During the Lavender Scare, more than 5,000 people were dismissed from government service for being gay, far more than were dismissed for being communist during the Red Scare which happened during the same years. It was illegal for the federal government or a federal government contractor to employ a known gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people. Elements of this Executive Order remained in place until it was finally repealed by President Bill Clinton in 1995. When I was about four, CBS News did, what was considered at the time, a groundbreaking story, a full hour documentary called The Homosexual. I’m gonna play you a clip of it. If you’re my age or older, see if you can figure out who the narrator is.

– [Narrator] The average homosexual, if there be such, is promiscuous. He’s not interested in or capable of a lasting relationship like that of a heterosexual marriage. His sex life, his love life, consists of a series of chance encounters at the clubs and bars he inhabits, and even on the streets of the cpicks He pick one night stand, these are characteristic of the homosexual relationship. And the homosexual prostitute has become a fixture on the downtown streets at night, on street corners, at subway exits. These young men signal their availability for pay.

– Mike Wallace, the longtime 60 Minutes correspondent, who by the way, late in his life, apologized formally for having made this documentary. But when he made it, this was typical of the attitudes towards gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. I was four years old. It’s a difficult clip to watch for two reasons. First of all, because it’s so purely bigoted and offensive. The dialog is hard to listen to with modern ears. But secondly, it is literally hard to see because it was not safe in 1967 to be known to be gay. In fact, this is a famous photograph from the American Psychological Association Convention in which the first presentation was made saying that homosexuality should be declassified for being a mental illness. The doctor who is testifying in favor of declassification felt he had to wear a mask because his career would be over if he was seen as supporting equal rates for gay people. We now know that this brave man was Dr. Irving Bieber who was the only psychologist at the time who was willing to take a stand on behalf of the equality for gay people.

I grew up in an incredibly different time, when if you were a young gay person, you were systematically denied access to your history. That’s me in my senior year of high school. Yes, it takes a brave man to put up that picture. I grew up with absolutely no knowledge at all of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people. No history, no stories, no legacy was passed down to me. The lesbian poet Adrienne Rich summed up the impact of that when she wrote, when someone with the authority of a teacher describes the world and you’re not in it, there’s a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. I looked into the mirror as a child and saw absolutely nothing of myself. My father was a fundamentalist evangelist. This is a poster from one of the tent revivals that he would have preached in. This one happened to be in Alabama shortly before I was born. And my father preached a version of the gospel which was not too positive towards the gays, let me say. There’s a little irony, you know some people later called this type of teaching, family values. And it was ironic that my father would preach these kind of family values because of where he learned his family values. My father would baptize people in preaching this gospel, but the man who taught him family values was this man, my Great Uncle Mickey. My Great Uncle Mickey was my grandmother’s younger brother.

My grandparents were mill workers and taught in Massachusetts which didn’t pay much to begin with and when the Depression hit when my father was five years old and the mills started closing and moving south, there was not much work to go around. And my father grew up in extreme poverty. My great uncle would show up between paychecks, knowing that his nieces and nephews were running out of food with bags full of groceries to make sure they had something to eat. My great uncle would show up on their birthdays and on Christmas with bags full of gifts because he knew that his sister and his brother-in-law couldn’t afford to buy his nieces and nephews anything for the holidays. My Great Uncle Mickey was the man who taught my father that families stick together. He was a war hero, this is him in the darker jumpsuit, serving in the American Air Force during World War II where he served with distinction. I never knew Uncle Mickey because he died when I was five, but I grew up knowing all about him. My older brother is named Mickey after my uncle. I knew everything about Uncle Mickey except the fact that he was gay. I would learn this back in my 40s when my aunt, years after my father had died, chose to share it with me. And I became fascinated by what happened to my Uncle Mickey. I went to the Massachusetts’ State Archives and I got my Uncle Mickey’s death certificate. I looked under cause of death, you can see that about half way down on the left and it says portal cirrhosis of the liver. I went to my aunt and I said, “How did Uncle Mickey die?” She told me, “Your uncle drank himself to death. “I found him dead in his apartment “after he didn’t answer his phone for several days.”

My uncle died in April 1969 at age 54, the exact same age I am today. And there, but for the fact that I was born in 1963 and he in 1915, could have been my life. April 14th, 1969, two months later, the police would come into a bar in New York City and do something they did in all cities around the country. They would beat up the patrons and threaten to expose them unless the patrons paid them off. Well the bar they entered two months after my great uncle died was called The Stonewall and the people in The Stonewall decided they had had enough. And instead of letting the police beat them up, they beat the police up and they drove the police out of the bar and that launched a whole new era for gay people, an era called Gay Liberation, a movement which changed my life so that I did not end up like my Uncle Mickey and I would live to 54 and assuming what happens on the plane on the way home tonight, make it to 55 tomorrow. But I’ll never forget my Uncle Mickey, a man who had the courage to live his truth even in a time when it was not accepted to be who he was, a man who taught my family the importance of family values.

Over the last few years, the question of whose lives matter, has become salient in our culture, thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement which has protested against the death of young black men in police custody among other causes. Now, the Black Lives Matter movement has spawned a reaction. And that reaction often takes a form like this, the so called White Lives Matter movement. You see the confederate flag, you see the poster. And it becomes a debate over don’t all lives matter? Well, let’s see what media and the museum say matters. This is People Magazine’s chart of the 20 sexiest men alive over the last 20 years. And you’ll notice that there is one, count them, one, biracial person on the list and 19 white men.

So, People Magazine in our media is pretty clear about whose lives matter. We’d like to think we who work in schools and museums are better. This is a typical poster virtually every US History teacher has in their classroom in America today. And you’ll notice it doesn’t look a whole lot different than the People Magazine list of the sexiest men in America. Personally, I thought James A. Garfield was kinda hot. It’s the beard. In all kinds of ways, we in schools and we in museums make statements about whose lives matter and in preparing for this talk, my colleague Emily and I decided to simply google historic house museum. This is what comes up on a Google images search for the term historic house museum. Whose lives get preserved and retold based on this slide? The lives of the rich and famous. I work in a museum that has a different point of view and a different mission. In 1988, Ruth Abram found an abandoned tenement house on the lower east side of Manhattan and realized she had an opportunity to create a museum with a different purpose. I’d like to show you a brief video that explains that history.

– For almost 30 years now, the museum has been using buildings like the building where we are right now to understand and experience the families who actually lived here.

– By understanding history through the lens of individual lives and individual stories, we help people develop a sense of empathy and understanding that a million textbooks could never do.

– I really wanted to bring Americans home to meet our fore bearers before they were acceptable, before they knew the customs of the country, before they had any money, before they knew the language. And to help them see that the immigrants on the streets of New York and other parts of our country today, are in the very same shoes. That was the idea of the Tenement Museum, and it was to promote tolerance through the telling of history.

– This was a very radical thing because when Ruth Abram started the Tenement Museum 30 years ago, most museums told you the lives of the rich and famous, and Ruth had a vision that everyone’s life was important and everyone’s life deserved to be retold.

– I’ve been here 16 years. Once I came here and I observed a tour, I couldn’t believe that they were talking about my family. Even though my family immigrated from the Dominican Republic I felt the connection right away. I started to cry, I got very emotional because I didn’t think that my story was important. I felt like, wow, I can believe that my story’s important, my family’s story is important.

– The Tenement Museum has a point of view, we are not neutral. We believe that every life deserves respect and interpretation, that the immigrants who came to this country, built this country, and that the lives of poor people deserve just as much historical support as the lives of the rich and famous. When Ruth found 97 Orchard Street, the central part of our museum in 1988, it had been abandoned for 53 years. 97 Orchard Street was first built in 1863 and it was condemned for residential use in 1935. In the 72 years in which it was used as a residential building, of which it consisted of 21 identical 325 square foot room, 325 square foot, three room apartments, 7,000 people lived in the building. And then it was abandoned for 50 years, so it kinda looked like this. And we’ve preserved a few of the rooms as Ruth would have found them 30 years ago to give you a sense of the challenge she faced.

Now we made a decision, which has been a fateful one for our museum, which is that we will only tell the stories of real people who really lived in our building. So we began to restore apartments one by one as to what they would have looked like when an actual family lived in that apartment at a particular time in American history, beginning with the Moore family who were Irish immigrants who lived in there in 1869. This is the restored apartment of the Levine family who lived in the 1890s, who operated a small dress making shop in the front parlor of their 325 square foot apartment, while Mrs. Levine cared for her five children in the other two rooms. One of the challenges we face, though, is poor people generally don’t have family heirlooms or beautiful antiques that get handed down from generation to generation that we could repopulate our museum with. With the Levines, we got lucky. The Levines actually still had the shears that their great great grandfather had used to cut dresses in 97 Orchard Street in the 1890s when we restored their apartment about 20 years ago. But typically, we have to find period pieces to substitute for what would have been there because the things of poor people simply don’t last. This is the apartment of the Saiz Velez family.

A few years ago, we acquired 103 Orchard Street, which remained in operation until 2011 and renovated it so that we could tell the stories of families that came to America after World War II. The Saiz Velez family moved from Puerto Rico to New York City in the 1950s in search of opportunities in the garment industry. And luckily, we were able to get photographs from them of exactly what their living room looked like, so we recreated it, down to the plastic covered furniture. Now if you’re my age, you react to that plastic covered furniture immediately ’cause you remember an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent, somebody who had furniture covered in plastic. Now what’s interesting about it is, I have young people come into the museum and say, “Why is the furniture covered in plastic?” And I have to explain to them that the Saiz Velez families were preservationists.

They knew they probably couldn’t afford new furniture any time soon, so they had to preserve the furniture they had, which they did by covering with plastic. As I mentioned, one of the great strengths of our museum is its site specificity, the ability to tell specific stories about specific families, but that is also a limitation because we are on the lower east side of New York, a neighborhood to which only certain groups immigrated or migrated over the years. So we’ve begun looking for ways to find objects to tell the stories of the full range of the American migrant, immigrant, and refugee experience. Sometimes getting those objects are hard. This is a piece of art I saw recently at an exhibit in London which said, we are like rats. We can only have old things that nobody else wants because nobody wants us. This exhibit of refugee art in London spoke to me, running a museum, where it is very hard to find the objects that we can use to interpret the history. We’ve decided to go digital, we’ve created a program called Your Story, Our Story, which allows us to capture a broader range of stories of the American experience. I’d like to show you a short video of that now.

-Any of you guys have parents that are immigrants? Okay, let’s hear where your parents are from.

-Moldova.

– Great, all of us, we have our own cultural identity.

– The Your Story, Our Stories program is new to the museum and what we’re trying to do with this program is introduce students to immigration of the past and have them, through their own stories, connect to the present. The students then work with the teacher to write an essay about the object they selected. They write, and they rewrite, and eventually, they post the essay on our website. The final stage of the program is the students return to the Tenement Museum, this time with their parents, and there’s a kind of exhibit. We wanna basically send the message that your stories are just as important as the museum’s stories you saw when you first began this program.

– One of the things that I absolutely love about this new program is that it turns young people into curators. Young people curate their own lives and their own experience and in the process, learn that their history matters, which means that their lives matter. And I love when the young people bring the objects in and we create an exhibit and we put it online, and they seem themselves reflected, something that too often they don’t. Now I can relate to a lot of these young people because I come from Appalachia. This is a photograph of my mother’s family outside of the shack with no running water and no electricity, in which she grew up. And my mother’s family didn’t have many things to pass down to us. I had a difficult time when I was asked to do my own Your Story, Our Story submission, which we require of everyone who works at the museum and everyone who serves on our board. I decided to go back and get something my mother gave me shortly before she died.

My mother made great southern cooking. And when I moved up north, I wanted to be able to recreate her recipes. So I asked her to write them down for me on index cards so I could try to recreate them. She sent me a little plastic box with little four by six index cards with all of her favorite recipes written on them. The only one I make regularly is her sausage gravy recipe. If you know sausage gravy, now you understand why every man in my family has had a heart attack. I decided to use that recipe for my own Your Story, Our Story entry. Now what was interesting about that was I did not notice until I made this entry something unique about my mother’s recipe that’s very different than mine. Mom’s says one can evaporated milk mixed with one half can water. I always just used two cans of evaporated milk. I never noticed that in my mom’s recipe until I was preparing my entry for Your Story, Our Story. Then it came to me, of course my mom used half a can of water, she couldn’t afford two cans of evaporated milk. She had to make it stretch as far as she could. Then my father died as I was eight, and my mother was left with three children to raise. A second item I have from her is her bible, given to her by my older siblings in 1961, two years before I was born. And my mother believed firmly in the bible and in the stories it contained.

The story that my mother loved the most was the story of the poor widow, perhaps because it spoke to her. In this story, and I’ll paraphrase it, a widow was in a synagogue and as she’s leaving, she puts a single coin into the treasury and Jesus turns to the congregation and says this widow has made the greatest gift. And the congregation members say what do you mean, she put in one coin, we put in so much more than her. And Jesus said to the congregation, she gave all that she had. That was my mother’s favorite story from the bible. When I graduated from Harvard in 1985, becoming the first of 46 first cousins in my family to earn a college degree, my mother pulled me aside shortly before this photo and she whispered another one of her favorite verses in my ear, she said, “Kevin.” I’ll always do my mama in her accent ’cause that’s the only way I can hear her voice. “Kevin, to whom much has been given, “much will be expected.” And I think of my mom’s words every day. I think about it in the context of our work as museum professionals.

We have been given the opportunity to interpret the culture and history of our nation for the next generation. To those of whom that this responsibility has been given, much should be expected. And whatever young person should be able to count on, is that when they come to your museum or your historic site, that they will see themselves reflected there. That is our responsibility as museum professionals. I mentioned I come from poor people in Appalachia and I’m gay, two populations that don’t get valued much when they’re alive and don’t get remembered much when they’re gone. And that’s perhaps why this quote spoke to me. The quote of the Czech writer Milan Kundera who once said, the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. And in my work, I am determined to remember the lives that too often get forgotten. The lives of people who are not valued. The lives of people who are not respected. The lives of people who get written out of history books. And I promised you a Broadway show tune to close. So I’ll close with a brief video about some of the lives that I try to make sure my colleagues remember. ♪ Now they’ll walk on my arm through the distant night ♪ ♪ And I won’t let them stray from my heart ♪ ♪ Through the wind, through the dark, ♪ ♪ Through the winter light ♪ ♪ I will read all their dreams to the stars ♪ ♪ I’ll walk now with them ♪ ♪ I’ll call on their names ♪ ♪ And I’ll see their thoughts are known ♪ ♪ Not gone, not gone ♪ ♪ They walk with my heart, not gone ♪ ♪ And I’ll never let them go, not gone ♪ ♪ I’ll never let them go, not gone ♪ ♪ Never let them go ♪

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