tv Telling Americas Story CSPAN March 26, 2021 12:16pm-1:34pm EDT
american artifacts, we visit the national museum of the u.s. army in virginia. at 6:45 p.m. eastern, smithsonian secretary lonnie bunch and documentary filmmaker ken burns discuss the challenge of telling america's story. exploring the american story. watch american history tv this weekend on c-span3. up next, lonnie bunch, secretary of the smithsonian institution, and documentary filmmaker ken burns discuss the complex challenge of telling america's story. they're joined by pbs "newshour" amna nawaz. >> anthropologist clifford garretts once said culture is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. what are those stories in the united states?
how have they been shaped and told, sustained and valued? and by whom? and how do they affect our cultural memory and our future? this afternoon we have an extraordinary group of three people who will engage in those questions and others. lonnie bunch is the 14th secretary of the smithsonian, the world's largest museum, education and research complex, and he is the founding director of the smithsonian's national museum of african-american history and culture, which has attracted over 4 million visitors and has become a pilgrimage for so many of us. ken burns is one of the preeminent documentary film makers of our time. his work crisscrosses american life from the brooklyn bridge to baseball to jazz to the civil war to country music. and today's moderator is amna nawaz, as we think about her in our house, and as i told her,
she's the thoughtful and informed soundtrack to our evening every single evening. she's the senior national correspondent and primary substitute anchor for pbs's "newshour," a former foreign correspondent. her reporting also includes education and politics, sports and culture. now i'm going to turn it over to you, amna. thank you so much. >> melody, thank you so much for that very kind introduction. i have to say, i think my kids would disagree. they have a different nickname for me in this household. i'm more of a nagging, annoying soundtrack to their lives. i'm so pleased to be here. i want to thank everyone for being with us, both on the webinar and the webcast. i'm delighted to be in conversation both with ken burns and with secretary lonnie bunch. thank you so much, both, for being here. secretary bunch, how are you doing today? >> i'm always doing well, especially when i get to hang out with ken burns. >> i love this new pairing, by the way. ken burns, how are you today?
i want to make sure i can hear you. >> i'm great. but do i have to say mr. secretary the whole time? >> let's defer to him on that. >> he's been a friend of mine for so long -- >> i'm just a guy from jersey trying to make it in the big city. >> just a yankee fan from jersey, lonnie. >> absolutely. >> we're going to get into the sports rivalries a little later. that's going to be saved for the q&a portion of this. just a reminder to everyone watching on the webinar, you can submit your questions at any time. click on the a&a button. we will try to work them in. so, gentlemen, the title of this conversation is history is now. and we are sitting here talking, by the way, as the second impeachment trial of the former president is unfolding on a very odd split screen moment. it's no doubt we're living through historic times. i really want to talk today
about how we frame our history. what parts of our history we choose to hang onto, the artifacts of that historical narrative and how this story of america came to be what it is today and where it goes from here, which is a dangerous question, i know. but let's just start with some definitions. secretary bunch, i want to start with you. this idea of cultural memory, of america's story, as we've all come to know it and learn it over the years, what is the role of an institution like the smithsonian? what is the role of an institution like that in helping to craft that cultural memory of who america is? >> i think you framed it exactly right. we know history is as much about today and tomorrow as it was about yesterday. in many ways, what institutions like the smithsonian are about are they're helping people understand that culture, that history is the glue that holds the country together. and part of our job is to find
that right tension between history driven by scholarship and research and memory, the collective memory that people bring to an idea. so for me, what i love the fact is in america, our cultural memory is a kind of changing mosaic. and because it's a changing mosaic, it means there are often debates and discussions and disagreements. in a way, the goal is to create a memory that allows people to do something that's really important, and that is to embrace ambiguity. so often our search is here's the answer to complex questions. the job of sxen i is to help the people understand the complexity, the nuance, and be comfortable with debates and discussions. >> ken, what about that idea? ambiguity, i should say, you know, for story tellers, that's not a great guidepost, right? you're looking for clarity. you're looking for a linear narrative in some cases. what about you, how do you approach this idea?
>> as the son of an an throw polgist, let's go back to clifford garretts. that is inherent in everything. it is only the forms of our storytelling that periodically suggest that it should be one thing or another. the binariness of our computer world, the sort of dialectic of our superficial politics, meaning red state or blue state. what we know from human experience is it's much more complex and much more dynamic. changing, as lonnie suggests, that's lawful, we're always going to do this. so the dna of all of this is memory and memory itself is fragile and not yet a thing. dna is not yet a thing. it has to combine and recombine in order to be something. so i think that we are watching the layers of a pearl being
imperceptibly added. a pearl is created through irritation, friction. so, american history is this pearl, borne out of perpetual friction that at times presents itself in a very positive way and other times, particularly now, in a not so positive way but it's our job, qulon's to collect the stuff of it and interpret and interpret and interpret. and mine to try to find the narrative, not that lonnie doesn't try to find the narrative in it, that permits us to tell a complicated story that tolerates what keats said shakespeare said. the ability to hold something in contradiction without making that judgment. so, where we get into trouble as story tellers and as american, as we construct and reconstruct and deconstruct our history and our culture is when we're certain. the opposite of faith is be not
doubt. . the opposite of faith is certainty. we need to have a kind of faith in a process that understands, as faller in understand is history not was, as tomorrow, as lonnie suggests, but we also have to find the processes that permit us to gather and include as much material as we can because the only way we survive is with that abundance of, indeed, contradictory material. >> secretary -- sorry, go ahead, please. >> in a way, ken is so right. i've been shaped by an experience i had earlier in my career. i was interviewing a sharecropper on a rice plantation and talking about history and slavery. and he said to me, i'm not really sure what an historian does, but if you do your job right, your job is to help the public understand and remember, not just what it wants to remember but what it needs to remember. >> right. >> i think that tension is really what we're seeing which is to help people recognize, as
ken said, it's not a simple yes or no. pitts really the shades of gray that help us understand the history and help us understand ourselves. >> there's another element of tension to a lot of this. as you mentioned, you're going back and interviewing people about their memories and firsthand accounts. there are the memories that people hold onto that themselves are fragile and biased and narrow maybe in their own way and then there is evidence and facts that you can uncover through some of that academia and scholarship and so on. when those two come into conflict with each other, how do you balance that? do you put less weight on the memories in some way because you've got some contradicting or conflicting facts ahead of you? >> i can give you something very specific from a film i've worked on. first thing i'd say is reagan quoting the old russian proverb, trust but verify. we want to collect evidence but you also want to have a vessel of narrative that is able to tolerate these contradictions.
wynton marsalis said, sometimes the thing and the opposite of a thing are true at the same time. now, he was talking about menstrualcy and the degrading rate but it also represented a white curiosity about black culture. how do you dance? how do you make love? where do you eat? where do you sleep? all these questions. the only way you can deal with the horrible feeling of what you had done to african-americans was to degrade it and make it base, but it was one thing and the other. so, we made a film on the second world war. we asked going into the various service men and women we talked to, that we wouldn't talk to them unless they gave us access to their official military record. so then we would operate within the confines. if they told us they were up in the air and fighting over europe in a plane on this date, we could verify that, right? and then we had to look them in the eye to understand that basic
human thing that we all do, which is the fish gets bigger the farther away from the lake you get. the idea that maybe your role is a little bit. we would sometimes just make gut judgments. you know what, he's great here, but here i can't go this far with him or her or whatever it is. so, i think there's a sense of continual testing and retesting, but, again, you're accumulating all of this stuff. and history ain't nothing but the history of sharecroppers added to the memory of factory workers, added to the memory here, added to the memory of a reporter who thought he heard it right or she heard it right. when we say, this is verified, for you as a journalist, amna, you're saying you've got at least two different sources, at least, and you want to have more than that. even those sources have different agendas and things they may want you to have and so all of a sudden we've become
part of a human compact about trust but also verification. >> and i think the notion that is so powerful to me is i think history is at its best when it finds that tension between history and memory. when you recognize that as an historian i was trained to be distant from my subject but i realized i became a better historian when i began to work with the living community. when i revelled in their memories. when the memory made the edges a little smoother. the other side is to bring the scholarship and evidence because you're in search of clarity, sometimes even truth. and so i think the key is to really marry those together but recognize that it's the accuracy, it's the scholarship that is the engine of all that i try to do. >> that's right. >> we're getting some great questions coming in related to this. this is clearly hitting a note with our audience. secretary bunch, one of the audience members is asking, how
can we trust what is written about historical events? really along the lines of, if winners record history, if the victors are the ones who dictate what gets kept in our history, how do we trust that history is written without any kind of bias, what would you say to that? >> i would argue that you're absolutely right. early in my career, most of the history that i read, that i was trained by, didn't tell the stories that i wanted to hear. it didn't embrace the full diversity of the nation. but i would argue that today there's much more good history that are -- a more complicated history so the you can really begin to trusts the stuff written by good sclors. i think the challenge is that there's so much history that you can get online, through other places, so the challenge is to find those sources is, like the ken burns film, like a smithsonian exhibition, like a book by a great scholar from yale, those are the things you can count on. so, i do think that you can find
closer to the truth as long as you understand that history is always going to evolve and always be changing and there's going to be new discoveries based on evidence, based on new interpretations. >> and i would add, if i may, amna, this notion that history is written by the victors is lovely but definitely not true. it's mostly not true in the united states because the north wouldn't civil war but the south wrote the history of the civil war. birth of a nation and gone with the wind postulate that a homegrown organization like al qaeda, our own al qaeda or isis were actually the heroes of a post-civil war moment. when, in fact, the exact opposite is true. and it's taken us generations to undo that and to begin to include other competing narratives and the loudest voice in all of this is not the truth or the complicated narrative,
but you're taking our history away. >> right. >> so this is a related question that i wasn't planning on getting to until later bought you're really digging into it. let's keep going on this thread right now. this idea of the lost cause. when you said it took generations to look past that, to even challenge that. when you look back at american history and the narrative we have held onto, why is that? why was that clung so tightly to and not challenged sooner? >> i think in some ways it's clear that the north won the war but they lost the peace. they lost that narrative. and so there was a conscious effort. it didn't just happen. there were groups that worked on, how do we celebrate the lost cause? how do we, as we try to bring the country together, let's not focus on slavery or the african-americans because they're complicated. let's find the simple answer. the simple answer, brother versus brother, so that in in essence what we were doing is
seen fighting for the whiteness of america from both points of view, and, therefore, coming together, not grappling with the issue of slavery allowed people to miss. for me, one of the most powerful and painful i images are those images 50 years after the war when you see old yankees and rebels shaking hands, the war is over, yet you never see an african-american. you never see any of the 200,000 african-americans that fought in the war. you never see the african-americans who in some ways challenged the nation to live up to its ideals rather than follow the kind of discrimination and hatred that came out of the lost cause. >> lonnie's absolutely right. the north is completely complicit with a version of the lost cause that went. and a lot of it is because it was just easier to perpetuate the simplicity of the brother against brother and now we've come together and to move on. let's not forgive. particularly as we're debating
qanon and marjorie taylor greene and all of this stuff, the republican party, which is on trial as well today, was born in a schoolhouse in wisconsin in 1854 out of the ashes of the wiig party with one central thing, and only one thing. the liberation of the african slaves in america. and we've gotten a long way from that, brothers and sisters. and that's a pretty interesting american journey that's complicated. and i would just refer lonnie, my dear friend, to our civil war film, which in addition to all the reuners at gettysburg, we found every ounce of footage of black troops that were there and included them in it because that's exactly what happened. and why at the end of our film, the scholar barbara fields said, the civil war is still going on and regletably it can still be lost. >> but i think that's the
example of the work you do, the work scholars do challenges. they say, let's find -- and it takes gifted people like don't say, let me complicate the story, let me bring scholars in like barbara fields that will help us understand it in new ways. in essence, what we're really trying to say is it's about the complexity and the nuance. and i always think that the most important contribution i could ever make is to help people understand that there aren't simple answers to these questions. and that you've got to grapple and wrestle with these as we go forward. >> you know, i've said that i have made for more than 40 years, i've been making films about the u.s. but i've always been making films about us. that is to say, the two-letter lower case plural pronoun, all the intimacy of us and all the majesty, but also the complexity, the contradiction and even the controversy of the
united states. and that's -- you have to exist, and i feel it's such a privilege. and i know lonnie exists in this space, too. it's such a privilege to be able to operate in the kind of conscious state of unknowing that that represents. and you have to be able to be there and to sit on that undertow and tolerate it, otherwise you'll end up making the mistakes we always tend to make, which is to decide it's one thing or another and not often neither and both. it's a whitman-esque kind of moment. do i contradict myself? i contradict myself. i contain multitudes. we, us, contain multitudes, and it is our obligation as museums and filmmakers to represent that however messy it might be. for me, as a filmmaker, i see it as a lens. it's not ignoring someone's history. it's pulling back saying, this
is a greater history. look at south carolina. their tourism now involves african-american history. why this is they were a majority black state at the time of the civil war. the south had 9 million people. 4 million of whom were owned by other people. you know, that's an extraordinary percentage of your population that has zero interest in the lost cause. has zero interest in slavery. and yet for 100-plus years, nobody even daned to ask some questions about, what was your family like? what did your family do? let's restore this plantation but we don't have to rebuild the slave cabins. let's just paint the picture of the antibell lum south and the hanging spanish moss and ignore the fact they were emancipated when, of course, they weren't. they were given freedom, but that's all they were given. and maybe 40 acres and a mule sometimes. but you could argue jim crow, the post -- the collapse of
reconstruction is a worse period for african-americans. there are more african-americans lynched between then and 1920 than any other period because you wouldn't want to lynch your property. that had value. but once that property didn't have any value, you know, the reason the great migration shapd a mother didn't want to have to worry every single day about whether her son is coming home alive from school. >> i think one of the powerful things -- >> go ahead, secretary. >> one of the powerful things that comes out of ken's work, which i try to do, not as well as ken, is this notion, how do you humanize history? how do you help people understand that when you're talking about the african-american experience, you're talking about the quintessential american experience. >> exactly. >> if you look at almost every film ken has made, at the heart of it, it's the african-american experience that helps hold a country accountable. it's the african-american experience where you say, when we expand our notions of liberty and freedom, our definition of
citizenship tied to this community. so, for me, part of the real challenge is to help people understand that we're not talking about ancillary stories. we're talking about stories central to who we are, regardless of race, regardless of how long our family has been in this country and i think that's one of the great strengths and contributions of ken's work. >> let me put a period on that very briefly. this is february, our coldest and shortest month, which is where we put african-american history. i know why it's there. it has a legitimate reason why. but how could african-american history not be at the burning center, not in the outer orbit as pluto as some politically correct aden da to our national narrative but at the burning heart of who we are because we have the memories of the people who have the peculiar experience of being unfree in a supposedly free land. they have much more to tell us than the people who have bought, hook, line and sinker, the trickly madison avenue sanitized
version of our past. you look to there. you don't have to -- if you're going to scratch the surface of american history, you don't have to go looking for it. it's there. it's just there. it's a kind of conscience of the nation. it's affirmation in the face of adversity in a way that teaches us per pet wally and not to the exclusion of anybody else. in fact, it defines the best of who we are. >> so, you've raised a couple of key ideas i want to bring together and examine sort of a moment in time because we're basically talking about expanding our historical narrative, right, making sure that it is inclusive, that the stories that were previously not told are ignored are being included and uplifted and centered in a way they should be. but there are those who say we're revising history, we're erasing parts of it. can you see this in the debate just over the place of confederate statues in america. since we're talking and hosted here by a uva institution, i think it's relevant to remind people, that was just a few years ago, right? we saw those violent clashes in charlottesville over the removal
of a confederate statue. i'm curious to hear from both of you, what is the place of for a confederate statue in american society today? >> let me be clear. when i helped build the national geographic museum of culture is because i thought race needed to be centered in the place where the world understands what it means to be an american in the national mall. it also means here's an opportunity to say, here are ways as john franklin used to say, this history needs to be corrected. and i would argue that removing confederate statues are not erasing history at all. in fact, it's helping us find a truer, more accurate history. i would argue that there are some statues that ought to be preserved in museums because they help us understand this moment we're in, but i'm a big believer that if you're in search of accuracy, confederate statues help you understand history a bit, but removing them does not challenge -- does not change our historical narrative.
it corrects it. >> yeah. what he said. if you just go back and means test when that statue was built was it was built in the 1880s or 1890s. what was happening then? well, reconstruction, which has come down to a bad period. the collapse was a tragedy because in the wake, in the absence of federal troops in the south enforcing the post-civil war peace, you had an extraordinary influx of kkk, of lynching, of jim crow laws, all enshrined by 1898. in the constitution in plessy versus -- or in the courts, in plessy versus ferguson. if you just say, here is a representative sample of the reimposition of white supremacy, then it doesn't have a kind of organic sense of, this is my story of my people. in is my story of me deciding that you can't even enjoy the freedom we begrudgingly gave
you, and that you can take the confederate flag. it's not the confederate flag. the confederate flag is a different flag. the flag that we call the cob fed rat's flag is one of many battle flags of the army of northern virginia which was adopted by the ku klux klan and it went into mississippi, went into the other state flags of the old confederacy after 1954. hmm. what happened in 1954? let me see. was there a supreme court decision that might have prompted some sort of individual resist -- yes, that's exactly right. so, it's not even the flag of the confederacy. it's the flag -- it's like isis, right? it's like the -- it's like al qaeda. it's not even the confederate flag. it's the ku klux klan's what
they thought was the confederate flag. mitch landrieu is the guy who struggled over it, talked to lonnie, i'm sure, talked to me, talked to wynton marsalis about what to do and he did the right things. these things aren't melted down into bullets. they're in museums. we interpret, interpret, interpret. this is what this man spends his life doing. that's what we've got to do. and nothing's been erased. nothing has been erased. and the problem is that sometimes there is a tendency on the other side to want to erase. and to say you can't say this anymore or you can't talk about that. we've got to continue to talk about nathan bedford forrest, but do we have to name a high school after him? i don't think so. >> so we should also note, i think it was this past year, that mississippi finally changed its flag, correct? >> correct. >> took a while. >> i do want to bring in the audience to a couple of polling questions we pulled together to get a sense of where everyone's
head is and that can give us another jumping-off point for the conversation. there's an idea of being included in the narratives. audience, you'll see this question pop up on the screen and then we would love to have you weigh in. once you see it pop up, you'll see instructions on the bottom. vote, take part in this conversation and we can jump off from there. to what extent do you feel included in the narratives and the images that define american civic. identities? all of these institutions, secretary bunch and ken burns, have been talking about, the way we remember and define our own history, to what extent do you feel included in all of those narratives and images? it's multiple choice. i think we'll see the results pop up here as well. we'll just take a moment. i think we'll see those pop up very soon. there you have. the results are overwhelmingly
somewhat. secretary bunch, when you look at these, 58% of people out there responded to the poll by saying they feel somewhat included in the narratives. 34% said very, only 9% said not at all. that tells me you guys are doing your jobs pretty well, huh? >> it tells me that over the last, say, 20 years, there's been a greater appreciation of history, of understanding our story. i remember receiving a letter once that somebody said i shouldn't do work on african-american history because, a line i'll never forget, america's greatest strength is its ability to forget. to me, it's the strength, its ability to forget what it didn't want to talk about. and so in a way i think what you're seeing here are the people recognize that there is a more complicated narrative than we were initially taught and people are seeing parts of themselves in that narrative. what i want to make sure is the narrative really does reflect
the complexity and the diversity of this nation. >> and somewhat as sort of in between, as it may sound, actually reflects that kind of complication that lonnie's been talking about and the sort of desire, the innate desire we would all like to have, that it's all very certain and it's like this. and it's not. and so a lot of that somewhat is i know there's a bigger story. i know it's a different story. i know that what i believe is being challenged. i know that what i believe is finally being recognized or how -- it's not yet there so you've got a whole range of people who are feeling not fully enfranchised and not fully out of it who are struggling, as we are, as lonnie is, as i am in the work we do to try to figure out. i'm working on a film on the u.s. and the holocaust, what we knew and when we knew it. one of the things we inherit in the 20th century, we're the golden door. there's another guy at the same
time, a poet writing, close the door, we don't want those sorts of people in. guess who won? that guy. in 1924 we had an immigration bill that just shut the door and created quotas that made it impossible for refugees from europe, in particular jewish refugees to come into the united states. not a very comfortable image. we would like to say, give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free. but it's a lot more complicated than that. >> this idea of how we choose to remember our darkest chapters. this is actually popping up a lot in some of the conversation and the questions here. some folks are weighing in on the debate between the 1619 project, which was led by comparable hannah jones and, but there's some related thoughts i want to share with you and get you to weigh in. some folks are asking about the removal of confederate statues. it's very much an area of debate
for folks. one person saying, i don't think they should be destroyed as they represent, albeit an ugly part, but can they demonstrate the horses those people perpetrated as a reminder instead of floer fiing? i've heard removing them sanitizes a dark place in a history. secretary bunch, what do you make of that? >> i think it's important to realize that, first of all, you definitely need to prune these statues. and that i think like mitch landrieu, like they've done in budapest with soviet-era statues, this they are wonderful opportunities to put things together. they shaped the way we think about ourselves. it's important not to lose that. but it's important to say that our goal is to find, as john frank used to say, the unvarnished truth. therefore, you've got to have room to be able to tell that truth.
you prune those statues. you put some in parks. you actually say, you find other statues that replace those, that tell a fuller, more complicated story. in essence what you're simply trying to do here is to say that america has certain creation myths and it's important to keep those myths as port of our north star. let us be that more perfect union. but let us also recognize that we have a long way to get there and that in order to get there, you've got to understand your history. you've got to understand the complexity. you've got to understand the dark moments. because only by understanding those dark moments do you really understand the resiliency and the strength of a people. >> i agree. i think that the great anxiety in all of this is to not have a kind of soviet -- you know, where you throw out everything and select a new history as if nothing ever existed. and i understand while people could feel anxious about that, i don't think that's going on. and i don't think that's going to go on.
i think the more is the reactionary thing that this is a legitimate part, this wasn't about slavery, it was about states' rights or nullification or position and it's not. it's all about slavery. if you look at the south carolina nullification, it's not, it's all about slavery. they do not mention states' rights or nullification or other raging constitutional issues of the day. they mention slavery an awful lot. that's what worried them, that they were going to take away what turned out to be their most valuable property which are the human beings they owned in a country which four score and five years before had proclaimed that all men were created equal. we've got be able to contain -- and by the way, the guy who owned that sentence owned more than 200 human beings. so we're not talking about throwing out the jefferson memorial or tearing down monticello. we're not talking about removing mt. vernon, an obvious
plantation, or removing monticello, a disguised plantation but a plantation nonetheless characterized as some classical hoo-ha, and beautiful, but we've got to do the pruning. i'm not suggesting going into gettysburg and lopping off all the statues of robert e. lee. nothing will be lost in this story unless we have the kind of horrific, wholesale, you know, soviet-style cleansing of the system. and we're not about that. americans are strong enough to figure out how to tolerate the good and the bad. for very too long, we've permitted just one narrow superficial story to obtain. it's just good to complicate it. it makes for great stories. it makes for great exhibitions.
you go to the museum there, this is by no means a picnic. but yet the fact that it produces these feelings in you are amazing, are transformative, and not just for african-americans, but for all of us, are indebted to that museum formal reminding us, as lonnie was saying, that this experience has got to be at the heart, it's our original sin, as historians like to say. that's the thing we've got to be opening our eyes to every day, and why george floyd last year really gave us a huge opportunity. you know, it was his third or fourth grade teacher in houston said he wanted to be a supreme court justice like thurgood marshall. he's achieved a horrible fate but is helping us in that area remarkably. we can't drop this moment. this is a 402-year-old virus
we're dealing with. >> we talk a lot about inclusion, exclusion, revision, and so on. how much of this is about recentering conversations, right? we look at the work that the 1619 project did. by recentering our history around the first arrival of enslaved people here, which is not something that, i can say as a product of virginia's public schools, you're not taught that growing up in america. that is not the history you're presented in a formal education place at all. we talked today about even in journalism, when you're talking about racism in law enforcement, how about centering the role and the voices of the black law enforcement officers who have to work in that environment rather than talking to white officers who used to be racist and are no longer. curating artifacts, narratives, in the smithsonian, how much of that informs your work, what's at the heart, at the center of
the story? >> that's the heart of my career, recentering discourse, in the '60s to discover that race was there, i didn't know that history. it was always exotic. for me it's saying that of the kind of many creation stories of the united states, the story of the notion of us as the beacon of freedom, equally important is the story of us struggling to redefine what freedom is, to make that freedom more accessible to african-americans, to women, to others. so for me, the tension of being able to say, let us build on our original creation myths but let's recenter these stories so we have a better way of understanding who we once were, which will help us understand who we are today, and maybe, just maybe, point us towards a better tomorrow. because the thing that i take very strongly from
african-american history is, i'm always amazed at people who believed in an america that didn't believe in them. i'm always amazed in people who believed that america would one day live up to its promise if you struggle, you challenge, you make clear what the needs were, and if you sacrificed. so for me, recentering means not pushing these other stories out of the way, but saying, we can't understand ourselves if we don't understand how this issue of race has shaped us all, has touched every presidential administration from washington, you know, to president biden. and in essence, we're not understanding ourselves if we turn a blind eye to one of the key factors that makes us who we are. >> i agree. dr. king's dream is not -- was not a dream articulated specifically for african-americans, but it's about the liberation of all people.
if you escape the specific gravity of the almost built-in racism in the world, certainly in this country, everybody is enlightened. you definitely don't want to be an enslaved person but you also don't want to be a slave owner. the reframing of it, that you're talking about, and lonnie said so beautifully, is that the heart of our survival as a country is being willing to tolerate the increasing number of narratives that go into what is naturally us, narratives that were always about us and the u.s., but were left out. labor, women, bottom-up stories, individual oral histories, all of that stuff. i mean, american history for the longest time was a sequence of
presidential administrations, white men, punctuated by wars. >> i love what ken does, because you're using african-american history, you're using stories of gender. you're saying, these are lenses into what it means to be an american, these are not simply lenses into a community. they're a lens into a nation. i've always framed these stories as thinking a people's journey but a nation's story. >> you've both now mentioned specifically gender and the role of women in history. we've got some great audience questions coming in, so guys, please keep them coming. but let me put this question to you from the audience. someone is asking, how are institutions bringing jane crow to light, the intersectionality of racism and sexism? has there been enough concerted focus, enough of that shifting of the lens, if you will, to the
stories of women and racism? >> not yet. i made a film on elizabeth cady stanton and susan b. anthony and there is an extraordinary betrayal at the heart of the women's movement after the civil war. the women were told, yeah, okay, you're right, but we're working on this one thing and once we're done, we'll take care of you. and in fact then all of a sudden you had a lot of white women going, okay, we want the vote but we don't necessarily want it for black men or certainly not black women. and the movement, the very progressive movement begins to splinter, which is always the case. fortunately, what's happening now is that our history is beginning to include extraordinary stories of women and women of color into the narrative. you know, harriet tubman, you know, is just ascendant, and ida
b. wells will be ascendant. and you'll be able to hear about sojourner truth and people who will put the lie to what american history is. there is a long way to go for women, period, that i'm the father of four my daughters, and i don't get it every day from them. it's just i understand a world through their eyes, and they're all very capable, but they're not a white male. you know, and that still has a kind of privileged position that is always, you know, is one lap ahead automatically. and in every race that jesse owens ran. >> in some ways, to answer your question, if i look at museums around the country, i think they're doing a much better job of looking at these different stories and crossing these lines. but i still think there's so much work to be done.
one is the scholarship is now at a point where we can understand what the challenge women vis-à-vis black men, the challenges of race vis-à-vis the fight for the vote with women. so we're getting to those stories. i'm not convinced they're given to the public in a way yet that makes them accessible, that makes them central in the public's understanding. but i think we're getting there. i think that is the exciting thing. >> when stacey abrams is president, then we'll all have our lessons brought right up to date, pretty much right away. >> so we are now in this historic moment, right, we have the first woman of color, we have a black woman of south asian descent occupying one of the highest offices in the land. i'm asking, to follow up on your statement there, secretary bunch, i'm curious how we get there, what's incumbent upon all of us, what's incumbent on our institutions to make sure those stories are included moving forward. >> i think it's important to make sure that we're helping the
public understand that all we're trying to do is understand who we are as americans. that's all we're simply trying to do. so that even as we explore questions, people say, that doesn't relate to me, it does. and i think the challenge is, one, that people understand there's still so much more to learn. there's still so much more to understand through our history. and that by understanding that, that will challenge us, but that will push us in a direction where, as the vice president has said, that she doesn't want to be the last. and so i think the key is to make sure that we're telling these stories that allow us to open those doors. >> so we're in the business, him and i, of storytelling. and i'm just reminded just now of the statement i loved by the novelist richard powers who said the best arguments in the world won't change a single person's mind. the only thing that can do that as a good story. if you think about it, arguments are about, you're wrong, i'm
right, let me convince you. stories, if done well, and the american story that lonnie and i are both trying to add to, is one that gets increasingly bigger and more -- inclusive is the wrong word, it's a bigger table. and there's lots of stuff on it. and people don't agree, and that's okay. but at the end of the day, if someone feels they have a place at that table and are part of that story, then the sky's the limit. then there's a kind of possibility ahead of us. the problem is, is that we're all about dialectic, we're all about polemic, we're all about argument. and that means everything is just binary, when nothing in life is actually that binary. it just isn't. everything exists in the complicated shades of gray in between. and that's where you have to operate. and it's incremental and it's sometimes in steps backwards as well as going forwards. that i think is lawful, it isn't
just american history, it isn't just our complicated story. it's human interaction because it is of course human beings who lie and human beings who make conspiracies and human beings who are paranoid and human beings who have always, through all time, manipulated and promoted disinformation, which is one of the great, great, you know, resistance forces to just being able to expand the history we're talking about. >> that leads to this idea about one singular american narrative, which i wonder sometimes if it does exist, because you're talking about disinformation, conspiracy theories, and so on. we're seeing the proliferation especially with social media. it seems like sometimes two very different conversations depending on where you are in the country and what community you're in. in some places you're having very real discussions about the place of confederate statues,
how we look rigorously at our own history. in other places we have conversations talking about amending school textbooks to include creationism. i mean, there are very real belief systems guiding all of these conversations. and we talk about complexity but sometimes those ideas are exactly in conflict with each other. they cannot exist at the same time, in the same space, right? so do we still have and can we still work towards a singular american narrative? or are we sort of at a divergent point where there will be two or multiple american stories that you cling to depending on who you are? >> latin motto of the united states ise pluribus unum, out of many, one. it has never been one thing and it will never be one thing. this is the civilized ideal, i
understand where i come in and what i believe, but i understand where i come from and what i believe has to be in concert with other people who have perhaps diametrically opposed points of view, and that i wish to participate in this civilized whole than to disintegrate into tribalism, we all know what that leads to, it's very, very bloody. we don't need that and nobody in their right minds wants that. i stood on the rim of the grand canyon explaining to my daughter that the colorado river exposed shist that is 1.7 billion years old. the woman next to me said, this earth was created 6,000 years ago. and i just -- i turned to her and i said, your years are longer than mine. and, you know, you've just got to make -- you know, room for
her and room for me, right? we may believe in the same god. i think we did. so -- >> i think in many ways we used to have a narrow, linear notion of what america was. now what we really do is we've expanded it much like a balloon. and my sense is that it's important to do that. we're still within a framework that is america. but we're now recognizing that to understand, we've got to understand rural america in different ways. we have to understand issues of gender in different ways. one day we'll recognize that there will never be a single narrative. i do believe there is room within that balloon for different creation stories. and that's what we try to do. >> that actually gets specifically to one of the
audience questions coming in, which is can we bring ourselves back to a single narrative. >> oh, yeah. there's a great scholarly work -- not a single narrative, as lonnie said, but there's a scholarly work that says the paranoid style in american politics. this stuff, you know, qanon, stuff like this has been out there, ebbing and flowing, since the beginning of the united states, since the beginning of time. and i think what happens is, we tend to be chicken littles in our own particular moment in which we go, the sky is falling. the great benefit of history is it makes you, as much as you know all the dirt under the carpet that's been presented as american history, it also makes you kind of optimistic at the same time, because you understand that while the moment is unprecedented, the aspects of this are completely precedented. we know that there's been this demagogue here and this demagogue there. we know when the no-nothings
believed this about emigration. we know about all these things that in the aggregate combined to make a moment kind of like ours. i just feel these things, mccarthyism died out, it's replaced by comity, sometimes there's civil wars, that's a terrible thing. but all in all, he said he thought franklin roosevelt saw american history as a rising road. that's a good image to have. >> all of this i think leads perfectly to another poll question i want to put to the audience, which is not just the role of arts and cultural institutions and preserving, maintaining, and telling american history, but also preserving, maintaining, and strengthening american democracy. one of the questions i want to put to everyone out there, do you think that arts and cultural institutions have a role in strengthening democracy? you can click yes, you can click
no. we'll look at the results as they come in. and i want to talk a little bit more after this about how those institutions feed into our democratic systems and narratives as well. let's wait for a moment while those pop up. and i think we have the results. absolutely overwhelmingly yes, 99% of people who responded. gentlemen, weigh in on that. especially as we look to -- i know, ken, this is something you had mentioned when we spoke before this event, the role of artifacts that present themselves well after events. you look at the presidential tapes that the miller center at the uva has been going through. those have evolved our understanding of our own history and our democracy, right? >> it's really true, and i'm glad you brought up the miller center, because it was interesting, in our film on the vietnam war, we were bending over backwards not to make kind of political judgments about people. and even though after the period that our film covers, both president nixon and henry
kissinger wrote books that put their views in a different light. the tapes that the miller center has and i have listened to, and it's important to know that all of the tapes haven't been listened to and catalogued by scholars, so there is a vast ocean of research and further complication of the american narrative. i think that applies to lyndon johnson tapes as well, there's a voluminous amount of them. we didn't have to say anything, we could just put the tape. the president could go out and say this in public and then that afternoon said this on a tape. and, you know, it's just wonderful to have that. you know, we live in an age of so much information that no matter how many times somebody says something, we've lost our sort of ability to be outraged, which i hope we gain back shortly, because, you know, things can get -- be said so many times. but there's something about having a tape where you hear the president of the united states to go dr. kissinger about
something which they have independently and together said the exact opposite. and there's nothing a filmmaker has to do. you want to put your thumb on the scale? you could, but you don't have to, you can just present it. these things are really, really important. really important. i have in my office leg shackles. you know? they weigh unbelievably -- they're incredibly heavy. and you go, this speaks more than volumes of books about -- this is an instrument forged by human intelligence that has only one purpose, which is to enslave other americans. and, you know, lonnie's got all of that. and it's just the accumulated weight of that has a kind of power to transform and rearrange our molecules in a really positive way. so these artifacts are central to how we're going to not just
fix history, that's impossible, but continue to interpret and let it guide us. we sort of think the past is unknown and that history is fixed. it's the opposite. you know, our future is known. our past is at malleable as anything. our future, at least the immediate future, is rather predictable. and i love the fact that that past is so malleable. and each generation rediscovers and reexamines that part of the past that gives its present new meaning. people fall out of favor, come back into favor, we've all seen that happen. revisionism changes the dynamics of everything is something is replaced. even just since world war ii, the number of variations of historiography that have captured the imagination of the academy, they're radically different. lonnie knows better than me, the different permutations we've been through saying, this is the
only way we can see history, through this lens. and at the end of the day, telling a good story and incorporating as many of those perspectives as possible gives you the best possible access. >> one of the biggest challenges of building a national museum was all the different scholarly interpretations, trying to understand them all, trying to navigate those. i think to your question, the notion of cultural institutions are crucially important, because they're trusted places. they're places where people will come and grapple with questions and issues that they won't in other places. i find people coming to the smithsonian who wrestle with slavery or wrestle with climate change where they wouldn't in cleveland or in chicago. but when they come to these kind of institutions, they have trust. but it also means that these institutions have to also have courage. the courage to grapple with social justice. the courage to grapple with clarity. the courage to actually ensure that in their collections are things that allow us to tell
complicated, diverse stories. my frustration early in my career in museums, there were stories i wanted to tell and there was nothing in stores that could help me tell those stories. so i avowed that it's crucially important for museums like the smithsonian to collect today for tomorrow. so i sent a rapid response team to collect george floyd, to collect what was going on in the capitol on january 6. it's important to make sure that without those stories, people can then say that history didn't exist. the key for the work that ken has done, that i have done, is to make sure that people have an understanding of what happened before and how they can dip into that reservoir to be transformative for today. >> secretary bunch, can i put to you another audience question? because this pivots to something i wanted to get both of you to weigh in on, which is the idea of academia, what we're taught about education, about our
history. one of the audience members is asking specifically about oral history. as you mentioned, you send people out to gather this wonderful evidence, these stories. this audience member is asking is there a distinction between storytelling and oral history, where does oral history fit into the academic model. how do you view that? >> i think that first of all, there is the storytelling that is shaped by scholarship, that really frames the kind of questions we want to answer. then there are oral histories that sometimes those oral histories really fit right into the scholarship. other times they challenge it. other times, they're not as accurate. but the reality is that when you get into the water of oral history, as an academic, you learn to ask different questions. you learn to see things differently. and it forces you to understand what are the truths you're trying to tell. so i'm a big believer that i became a better historian when i spent more time listening to the oral histories, listening to the stories of people.
as ken said earlier, sometimes they're completely accurate. sometimes they're memories that are wrong. but you're made better every time you hear those stories, because what they do is first of all, they remind you to humanize history. they remind you that that's what's going to get people to be engaged. and secondly, they remind you that there is complexity, because you're hearing different things in these oral histories. that i think made me a better historian. >> i agree, that was really beautifully said, lonnie. i had said earlier that i thought that memory was kind of the dna. but not really yet a structure. the first structure of memory, regardless of whether it turned out in academic or in other ways, is oral history. it's telling your story. honey, how was your day, is the beginning of all history, you know? it really is. it is. and you edit. human beings edit. and in that editing is the
initial subjectivity of human experience. i backed slowly down the driveway avoiding the garbage can at the curb, is not what we say, unless somebody hits us and that's exactly what we say. so we're all collecting from that original oral history. scholars are going to apply a whole set of different things. and they're going to themselves be drawn to particular, as i suggested before, historiography historiographies. narrative was out of fashion after the second world war, you understand why, you kill 60 million plus people, storytelling loses its -- freudian interpretation, marxist interpretation, semiotics, it all goes back to being able to tell a story, to essentially answer the question, what happened today, what happened today, what was your experience
today? and that's an oral tradition as old as human beings and as new as this conversation right now. >> i was going to say, i think honey, how was your day, is a dangerous question these days, in pandemic, work-from-home times. >> i did have a conversation earlier today in which i said, you know, white people are notoriously inept at understanding about what's going on, but a pandemic, at the same time we're dealing with this racial reckoning, is a good way to understand that, you know, it's never been a problem to go out to the convenience store until now, but it's always been a problem for african-americans. it's not been a problem to go jog in some other neighborhood until now, but it's always been a problem for african-americans about whether you come home alive. so in some ways, the pandemic and george floyd hit at a moment where it was possible at least to pry open the door. you can see it shutting real
quick, people are making some facile decisions about what really happened. but our job as museums and filmmakers and journalists, no, no, no, let's go keep that door open, let's not let it shut with the convention wisdom which is going to gloss it over and say, hey, it's just brother against brother. >> i think the pandemic, as we've all -- you've told these stories, you've covered these, i certainly cover them all the time, has revealed to us so much more about who we are, the disparities are deeper than most people believe, across absolutely every institution. peel think of the pandemic as an equalizer, but black and latino communities are hardest-hit not just on the health side but in the recession as well. we're at this historic moment, we say this so many times, i would love to ask each of you to reflect on it, because obviously you deal in history, in
gathering history, in artifacts and evidence and stories and preserving them for future generations. how are you processing this moment right now? we're probably too close to look at it with a clear eyed view, right? so how are you viewing this moment, when we have long overdue racial reckoning in this country, we have a global pandemic we in america are dealing with in our own way. what is it that's standing out to you in terms of continuing to tell and preserve america's story? >> well, i agree with you, i've said that this is the fourth great crisis after the civil war, the depression, and world war ii. and in some ways, it may be worse because it's really brought to an existential fore the very existence and continuation of the united states. i believe we're dealing with three viruses this year. covid-19, which is horrific. the 402-year-old virus of white supremacy and racial injustice.
and i think that age-old virus of lying and misinformation and all of that stuff. it's kind of reached a boiling point. but at the same time, let's also not forget what's happening. nurses and teachers and delivery people and emts are now the most exalted positions in the country. that's a really good thing. more people voted, almost 160 million people voted than ever before. that's a really good thing, in the safest and most secure election we've ever had. people risked the virus, and more importantly, poll workers, people who had to be there all day, couldn't mail in a ballot, democrat and republican, maintained a kind of an american civic order at the most basic, granular level in a really great way. we are having this racial, you know, reckoning. we have a woman of color as a vice president and a woman of south asian descent. and we have the oldest president
we ever had, facing an fdr moment, a guy who actually knows in his guts that he has to represent everybody, including the people who didn't vote for him. these are all good things that are happening. and that i think, as much as we cannot be pollyanna-ish about any of this, we also can't be the opposite, we can't be consistently cassandras, why are all these negatives women? >> that's a whole other conversation, i'm happy to host a webinar about that, i have questions about that. >> that's part two. but we actually have to be able to member all this. just as the african-american experience produced jazz music, i mean, it is the greatest expression of affirmation in the face of adversity. the blues itself is not a complaint about your condition. it's your absolute affirmation
that you are going to transcend this bad situation. and so we always have to see this glass, however perilous it is, as at least half full. and, i mean, that's why history makes me an optimist despite the fact that i spend my entire life charting really bad stuff that happens. i don't know, lonnie, how you feel about it. i just feel like, wow, the possibilities are as great as the threats. >> i think, you know, as a historian i've always felt history makes me hopeful because i see where we were. i've seen the changes. it also reminds me that we will probably never get to the promised land of full equality. but we keep working towards that. so for me, it is this kind of journey. what i find in this moment is, one of the parts of the smithsonian, the anacostia neighborhood community museum, went around and began to do oral histories, interviewing people about what does this mean no
to them. what's wonderful is hearing people say, here's where i've lost, here's where i'm sad, but here's why i have a better understanding of why i need to vote, or a better understanding of this as a moment of reckoning for this nation, and how do i participate in that moment. some participated by voting. some participated by protesting. some participated by sharing their artistic creativity to make sure these moments aren't lost. for me this is a moment of real loss, real pain, but it's a moment that's transformative if we seize them, and that's all the question. >> what about for our democracy? this idea that the more we look back, the more questions we make ask, the more things that we may find are not necessarily as true as we believe them to be, right, as new evidence surfaces, as more narratives are included.
does this rigorous look at our history, questioning and holding it to the light and shaking it around, does that serve to strengthen our democracy too? >> of course it does. and we just came off of the last, thank god, football game of the season. i love the sport, but it's over and we get a little bit of a rest. but if you think about it, the people who do it the best are the people who go back and look with very clear eyes at not the great pass that they made but the mistakes that they made. and a great country does the exact same thing. it goes into the film room and it says, what can i do to be better, how do i up my game, what do i need to do in order to not be beaten again by this team. and we just watched, you know, day before yesterday, a team that wasn't supposed to win, to a much superior team, handed to them because they did the work. they studied the film.
they understood where they had gone wrong. and the metaphor is incredibly weak, but it is an important one. if we're going to be better, we all -- i mean, this is socratic. you have to know yourself. if you don't, if you avoid it, if you coast on the bromides or negative stories, you're lost. you cannot do either. you have to be constantly studying the film and understanding with, you know, the most intense self-criticism what you could do better. that's the process. he doesn't go, oh, let's have an exhibition and it's out next thursday. it's out next thursday five years from now. and i spend that long on a film, because we have to spend all of that time means testing it in order to make sure it fits into all the variety of scholarly comments, all the sense of the bottom up as well as the top down history.
the variety of artifacts we could or could not use. every exhibition isn't 100% of the stuff they've got. you know, every one of my films is 1/40th of the stuff we've got. so all of that is what we need to be doing as a republic. and then, you know, we'll be figuring out that we are in pursuit of happiness. we ain't going to get there. and happiness, by the way, is not an accumulation of objects in a marketplace of things. but as our founders thought, it was lifelong learning in a marketplace of ideas. that's what capital "h" happiness was, and it's the pursuit, not even the happiness. it's always going to be the road and not the inn at the end of the day. >> i think what ken said, the truth of the matter is, as humans we're better when we really understand ourselves, our
strengths, our weaknesses, our foibles. history allows us to find those moments when we find great pride, we look at achievement and we say here's where we wanting to. but it also allows us to challenge ourselves, to say, here is where we, clear-eyed, failed. it should challenge us to do just that. so for me, if you don't look at your history with a clear eye, look at it candidly, and have those conversations, all you're doing is living in an illusion. and at some point an illusion will hurt you, not help you. >> lonnie, very, very beginning of our conversation today, implied something that is part of that pursuit of happiness, that the man who wrote the second sentence of the declaration, our creed, the distillation of a century of enlightenment thinking, owned other human beings. when he said all men are created equal, he meant all white men of property, free of debt. we don't mean that now.
that's the herald of coming good as well as the progress that has to be acknowledged just as we refuse to accept a status quo that still keeps some people behind. >> i'm just checking the questions for any tom brady haters out there after you mentioned the super bowl, and i don't see them. i will ask you both one final question which i found in my interviews reveals the most interesting parts of any conversation. which is, is there anything i haven't asked you about that you want to make sure you get a chance to say today? >> are you kidding? it's you. you made us look good, because you asked good questions. we're just happy to be wholy-owned subsidiaries of you this afternoon. >> you are both incredible gentlemen, incredible leaders. i cannot thank you enough, not just for the work that you do but your time and your insight and your leadership in this
space. it is an absolute pleasure to spend this time with you. so thank you. thank you very much for that. and with that, i am going to turn it back over to melody barnes, and there she is. thank you very much. >> you all reminded me yet again why i was a history major and why i love it so, so much. that was a stunning conversation, it was really rich and wonderful. there are so many things i remember, i jotted down a few things. quote, we won't understand ourselves if we turn a blind eye to who we are. a great country asks, what can i do better. cultural institutions must have courage. and of course i think one we'll all take home, honey, how is your day, leading to oral history. i'm not exaggerating, i've had friends around the country texting me saying, this is one of the best programs i've ever seen. for that i want to thank you, ken and lonnie and amna, you
have been fantastic. i want to thank your staffs as well as those of the miller center, the college of arts and sciences, the democracy initiative. and i want to thank our audience for such wonderful questions and for being with us this afternoon. so thank you all so, so much. we are indebted to you for this conversation and we are enriched by it. thank you. have a good afternoon. >> thank you. and go yankees. >> go red sox. i love you, brother. >> i miss you. see you soon. take care. weeknights this month we're featuring american history tv programs as a preview of what's on this weekend on american history tv. tonight we'll show a 1987 film from our reel america series, "crossing borders," the story of the women's international league for peace and freedom, about the organization founded in 1915 to end world war i, for peace and women's rights. watch tonight at 8:00 p.m.
eastern and enjoy american history tv every weekend on c-span3. american history tv on c-span3. exploring the people and events that tell the american story every weekend. coming up this weekend, saturday at 10:00 p.m. eastern, on "reel america," with the recent announcement of this year's academy award nominees, we feature three films that were nominated for or won academy awards. "with these hands" from 1950 and "why man creates" from 1968. sunday at 2:00 p.m. eastern, civil rights activist cleveland sellers recounts the 1968 orangeburg massacre where south carolina state troopers fired on students protesting segregation. at 6:00 p.m. eastern, on "american artifacts," we visit the national museum of the u.s. army in ft. belvoir, virginia. and at 6:45 p.m. eastern,
smithsonian's lonnie bunch and filmmaker ken burns talk about exploring america's story. watch american history tv this weekend on c-span3. american history tv on c-span3. every weekend documenting america's story. funding for american history tv comes from these companies who support c-span3 as a public service. eugene bullard agreed up in georgia but stowed away on a freighter to europe and settled in france as an infantry machine gunner and spy. this conversation is hosted by the national world war ii museum.