Six million people in 100 countries have seen the renowned African American art exhibit gathered by Bernard, Shirley and Khalil Kinsey.
It all began four decades ago when Bernard Kinsey said his son Khalil, then a third grader, was given a book report assignment that included tracing the origins of his roots. Khalil told his father that all of his friends were able to trace their family tree back to the Mayflower, but the Kinseys could only trace their origins as far back as 1880.
“We could not go back that far into our past, which is indicative of most African Americans, because of slavery,” Bernard Kinsey said. “We did not generally have a last name until after 1865. Most people are not able to get their family history any further than that period. So we knew that it was something wrong with that whole process, so we decided to begin to tell our collective history and so that’s how it started.”
The Kinseys stopped at the Paul Shaghoian Theater at Clovis North High School on Feb.13 for an event called “An Evening with The Kinsey Family.” The Kinsey Art Collection was presented as a virtual tour entitled “Where Art & History Intersect.”
“We believe Fresno has a rich African American history, the whole Central Valley,” Kinsey said.
One of the earlier documents that the Kinseys collected was a bill of sale of a man being sold as a slave.
“I received a document of an African American young man being sold in Alabama in 1832,” Kinsey said. “My partner sent it to me and it literally changed my life, because as I held this young man’s bill of sale in my hands, I was holding his life in my hands.”
Kinsey said that he and his wife, who have been married 50 years, have spent the last 35 to 40 years adding to their collection of art, which tells a powerful account of the African American experience and contributions of the past 400 years.
“I started to ask the question how did we get in this predicament in America,” Kinsey said. “That began this quest to know more about our history. The more I learn, the more I believe that most of what we were taught in high school and college was really not accurate, and that’s when we started saying, ‘why don’t we give that accuracy’.”
I received a document of an African American young man being sold in Alabama in 1832 ... It literally changed my life, because as I held this young man’s bill of sale in my hands, I was holding his life in my hands.
Bernard Kinsey, curator of The Kinsey Collection of African American art and historical documents.
Kinsey said that The Kinsey Art Collection speaks to the contribution that African Americans made in building this country, which has not been previously noted. He said the idea is to put African Americans in the story and in the history books.
“The Kinsey Collection documents the African American experience from 1595 to the present, Kinsey said. “In our exhibition, because it is a primary source, it really speaks from the grave. What makes the Kinsey Collection unique, we have not only collected the historical part, but we have also collected the artistic part of African American contribution. The oldest African American paintings goes back to 1865 and we have five of the six artists who painted in the 19th century during some of the worst times in America.”
The Kinseys did not decide to tour their art exhibition at Clovis North by chance. They have specific ties to the Central Valley through a partnership they have with Fresno County schools, along with 11 other county schools in California, in an attempt to get their Kinsey Collection Book curriculum into public schools.
“The superintendent (Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Jim Yovino) saw us speak about a year and a half ago and he saw that this is something he wants to bring his community,” Kinsey said. “The superintendent, from what we know, is a very enlightened superintendent and he knows that they need some kind of other mechanism to reach some of his kids and that’s what he asked us to do.”
The Kinseys have already had some success with getting their curriculum adopted in public schools. In 2010 to 2011, the Department of Education in the state of Florida adopted the Kinsey Collection Book as a part of their curriculum in teaching K through 12 students African American history.
“We were very excited about that,” Kinsey said. “We will be even more excited getting California to adopt and accept the Kinsey Collection Book as its curriculum. That is what we are striving for now.”
Kinsey said that the Kinsey Collection Book is 198 pages long and documents the story that people will see in the art exhibition. He described every page as a history lesson for a particular time period.
Kinsey said that he is inspired to do what he does, because he is very interested in young people and comes from a family of educators.
“My dad was a principal for 39 years,” Kinsey said. “I grew up in a family that really valued books and education. It came natural. Also, we have seen the impact of our work. We have had 700,000 young people who have seen the Kinsey Collection all over the world.
“We have seen what it does when young people see this material — white, black, or Chinese. It changes how they see themselves and that’s what it is really all about. We are trying to teach our young people to develop a consciousness about who they are and where they come from.”
Kinsey said that he and his wife have devoted their lives to the work they do.
“This is our passion,” Kinsey said. “Last April we visited our 100th country. We just love to travel, because travel is one of the few things that can expand you in ways you probably do not realize. We want to make sure we get it to as many places as we can.”
Kinsey said that the legacy he wants to leave includes others knowing that the Kinsey family care deeply about the community and education. He said that they did not just talk about what is wrong, but took action.
“We wanted to try and fix some of that, and I think that’s we have embarked on,” Kinsey said.