Margaret Burroughs Interview

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Margaret Burroughs has been challenging the issues and boundaries imposed by racial prejudice ever since elementary school, and in John Fleming's interview with Burroughs, it is clear that her strong sense of integrity and conviction has not faltered in the years since. Fleming questions Burroughs as to what events in her life shaped this strength of character and gave her the motivation to establish two professional organizations and two institutions.

Burroughs' inspiration came largely from the era in which she was raised and the environment to which she was subjected as a young girl. At a time when opportunities for African Americans were limited and those in authority discouraged Burroughs and others from dreaming big and striving for goals, Burroughs fought against barriers of discrimination. From her experience of being punished for her knowledge of the ABC's, Burroughs learned the value of education and the precious determination to encourage herself on to enrich her own mind. When she would become a teacher, she would value these principles just the same, passing them on to her students in the hopes that she could fight the idea of a repression of African American history. She wanted her students to have no shame in their right and thirst for knowledge, especially not the knowledge of their own culture, about which students would rarely receive instruction or acknowledgment.

Burroughs believed in the preservation and celebration of African American history and culture, and it was this drive, which led to her involvement in the South Side Community Arts Center and the Du Sable Museum. The South Side Community Arts Center served as an arts and culture center for the African American minority, bringing in some of the most prominent African American artists and cultural figures of the time. While its focus was on the arts, Burroughs and several fellow teachers would band together to found another cultural center on Chicago's south side: that which would eventually be labeled the Du Sable Museum.

Burroughs talks casually about the development of the Du Sable Museum, seemingly regarding her accomplishments as a natural progression of her beliefs and ideals. She discusses the issue of the selection of the location for the museum, for example, a possibly problematic endeavor, as a passing decision. With her determination, handling the obstacles mounted before her seem like an effortless task. Contacting state legislators and campaigning for funding, instigating classes on how to teach African American history, she drops in these anecdotes casually and not belaboring the time or struggle which was involved, instead, focusing on the impact of that which would result from her efforts. She would set a precedent for other minorities interested in establishing cultural centers or museums celebrating their diversity and history.

Later, after traveling to Ghana and experiencing Africa first-hand, Burroughs would return to the United States with her head high, feeling an even stronger tie to her community after, for the first time, beginning to feel less and less like some unappreciated minority group. She describes the importance of feeling at home in a community where she was surrounded by others who shared her culture. She also values her travels to Africa because of that which she is able to take back to the museum and to people who have yet to have such an opportunity to travel. Beyond just the sharing of physical objects and the acquisition of museum pieces, Burroughs returns from Africa with a more expansive knowledge of culture and history, which she will then pass on to students and others. Her passion still remained an unfailing determination to educate African American people about their culture, and with such first-hand knowledge, she is able to do so on a more personal and personally rewarding scale than ever before.

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  1. Feb 20, 2008

    mtaft says:

    Like you, Amy, seem to be and John Fleming certainly was, I too was impressed wi...

    Like you, Amy, seem to be and John Fleming certainly was, I too was impressed with Margaret Burroughs's accomplishments. But while reading the interview, particularly the ways in which Burroughs navigated funding issues, I couldn't help recalling moments from The Spook Who Sat by the Door. I kept remembering Freeman's assertions about how you can't work with 'whitey' and particularly the moment when he and Dawson argue about the possibility of walking the line between two race cultures and appealing to both sides. I'm not suggesting we take Freeman's word as truth and accept his mode of rebellion as a paradigm of productive revolution. But I do think the debate is one worth considering. Particularly here, in the case of Margaret Burroughs. Can we consider her efforts to be successful on these dual fronts in the way that Dawson advocated? Even if we do, certainly sacrifices had to be made. What might these be? Considering the poem, "What Do I Tell My Children Who Are Black?" and the way the poem was considered more universally ("What Do I Tell Me Children Who Are (insert race/ethnicity here)) might be a good place to begin.
    Maybe we can talk about this in class.

    1. Feb 20, 2008

      snitzky says:

      I thought a lot about Greenlee too while I read Burroughs' statements about mone...

      I thought a lot about Greenlee too while I read Burroughs' statements about money and 'working the system.' However, I don't think Burroughs matches Greenlee's definition of a "Tom" - a black person pandering to 'whitey's' stereotypes in order to profit from association with 'whitey.' Instead, Burroughs reminds me more of Freeman at the CIA and at the street gang violence prevention foundation - Freeman pretends to live the life of a Tom, at times pandering to the stereotypes (just like Burroughs does during her inquisition-type interview, where she pretends to be foolishly ignorant about communism). Freeman does this pretending and pandering in order to pass unnoticed in the white system, so that he can learn about how the white system works, and so that he can use what he learns to serve the black community. Burroughs does something similar, except that 1) she doesn't usually resort to pandering to stereotypes, 2) in her case white people sometimes give her advice, and 3) (and this is what would make Freeman angry) Burroughs not only uses what she learns - she also uses 'whitey's' money and 'whitey's' institutions. But it's not that she values white society - it's that she understands that whites have "the dollar" and she believes that "the dollar" is the only power that even black people have at their disposal in this society. What's NOT generally at black people's disposal is ways to get "the dollar," and that is where Burroughs comes in - this is the knowledge that Burroughs is constantly seeking.

      So Greenlee's Freeman character would be disappointed in someone like Burroughs, since she doesn't believe or desire blacks to have the ability to overthrow white society and create a society of their own. But at the same time she doesn't have a very positive or collaborative view of white people and white society - she remarks that "some white people are good, you just need to know who they are and what they're good for." So she really is interested in 'using' white people, white money and white institutions, rather than assimilating black people into them. That makes me think that Burroughs foresees, as a result of her work, an outcome similar to the one Freeman sees - an independent black society - but one which is reached in an entirely different way than Freeman's.