Ken Burns Delves Deeply Into America's Complex Racial History
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
If you care about history, documentary or film, then Ken Burns is a name you surely know. One critic summed up the views of many when he said that Burns is not just the greatest documentarian of the day, but he's also the most influential filmmaker, period, because he showed us a new way of looking at our collective past and ourselves. He's done this with films about everything from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Civil War to baseball to jazz and most recently, Jackie Robinson.
On Monday, he will be delivering this year's Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. That's the highest honor the federal government bestows for intellectual achievement in humanities. We're told he's going to be speaking about race in America. That's a topic he's been exploring for nearly four decades in his work and also most recently in a series of public conversations following the shootings in Charleston, S.C., along with Harvard University scholar and fellow filmmaker Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Ken Burns stopped by our New York studios to talk about his lecture with us. And I asked him what prompted him to organize that series of talks reflecting on race.
KEN BURNS: As most Americans were, I was stunned, shocked, reduced to tears by what had happened in Charleston and felt like all the old ghosts were all still present with all the force they've always had in American life - the themes that have been sort of interweaving themselves amongst all the films that I've made. And I felt that too often, we just content ourselves with not talking about the things we even think we're talking about. So briefly, we talk about race.
And then we have these moments where the Confederate flag, in the case of the Charleston massacre, is removed from the Statehouse in Columbia. And then all of the sudden, it's like shoo, we don't have to talk about race. And I just remembered thinking no, why can't we just get a little bit farther than that? We're in an age where the world political correctness is the signal - almost the dog whistle - to stand down from any real consideration of our collective national issue - sin, you know - some historians have called it - our original sin.
And so I certainly didn't feel, as a privileged white man, that I had the chops necessary to just go out and sort of harangue people. And I asked my friend, the scholar Skip Gates, if he'd come along. And we were just trying to see if we could have a conversation that isn't just going to hit those buttons of reactionary - oh, political correctness - and at the same time not speak to the choir, in which we all nod in agreement and go forward - or we think we go forward. We tend to let these questions hang and drop and not look each other in the eye and say why does this happen?
MARTIN: Why do you think the subject of race so engages you, as you've pointed out, and as people know who know your work? What is it - can you tell us - that kind of first helped you to see it as a crucial part of the American story that you believe it to be?
BURNS: Well, I think if you are interested in getting below the superficial take on American history, you can't help but bump into race everywhere you go. The most important event in the history of the United States of America is the Civil War. Why did that happen? Well, in 1861, 4 million American citizens were owned by other American citizens.
In a country that had for fourscore and five years been celebrating the fact that we had been founded on this unique idea that all men are created equal, there is a disconnect - so that you begin to see that almost everything that came before the Civil War led up to it, and everything since has been, in a way, a consequence of it. We don't always necessarily draw the straightest lines to it, but it's there. And we've tried to at times convince ourselves that it's done. We're over with it.
But I think the last few years of murders of African-Americans across the country, often at the hands of figures of authority, remind us that this is out there. And you can retreat to the posturing of your particular political persuasion. But it's not going to make it go away unless you talk about it. And I think what happens is that because we default to a kind of partisan politics, we always move to demonize the other. And I'd just like to get beyond that.
MARTIN: But you - but as you alluded to just now, there are those who do believe that race is over. It is no longer as relevant in this society. And I just wonder how you see that. I mean, there are those who clearly argue that it's really - class, not race, is the relevant factor right now.
BURNS: Class is a huge part of this equation. But at the root of it is race and discrimination. We've got a problem. And the last eight years have been a kind of steady escalating drumbeat that has revealed both the progress we've made - and I don't want to gainsay that - but also the kind of regressions we also make. And it's - this is part of human nature. We always like to believe that everything is about progress - that we're always getting better. It's very American. It's also very human to do that.
But in point of fact, the fear of the other and the kind of horrible metastasized flipside of the love of one's own dominate a great deal of how we act, both consciously and unconsciously. And I think there are people around us for whom it pays to divide. And unfortunately, that's part of folks in our business. You know, this is the essence of the idea that if it bleeds, it leads. And a logical continuation of that is that the more we make the other bad, the more people watch, the more newspapers we sell, the more magazines we happen - but the ultimate result is that we move farther and farther from ourselves - find it harder and harder to come back to a center where so much of the work of our republic gets done.
MARTIN: That's documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. On Monday, he will be delivering this year's Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. That's the highest honor the federal government bestows for intellectual achievement in humanities. That will be in Washington, D.C. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in New York to speak with us today. Thank you so much for speaking with us, and congratulations once again.
BURNS: Thank you, Michel.
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