tv Telling Americas Story CSPAN July 5, 2021 10:43am-12:01pm EDT
discuss the challenge of telling america's story. the university of virginia's democracy initiative hosted this discuss and provided the video. >> clifford garrets said culture is the stories 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? 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. he is the founding director of the smithsonian's national musician of african-american museum 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 filmmakers 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, as we think of her in our house, and as i told her, the thoughtful and informed soundtrack to our evening every single evening. she's the senior national correspondent and primary substitute anchor for pbs's news hour, a former foreign correspondent whose reporting 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 sort of a nagging,
annoying soundtrack to their lives. but i am so pleased to be here today. i want to thank everyone out there for joining us, both on the webinar and on the webcast, and i am honored and delighted to be in conversation both with ken burns and lonnie bunch. thank you both for being here. secretary bunch, how are you doing today? >> i am 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. do i have to say mr. secretary the whole time? >> let's defer to him. >> he's been a friend for so long. >> i'm just some guy from jersey trying to make it in the big city. >> a yankee fan from jersey named lonnie. >> absolutely. >> we're going to get into the sports rivalries a little bit later, okay? that's going to be saved for the q&a portion of this. just a reminder to everyone out there who is watching on the webinar, you can submit your questions at any time. just click on the q&a button at the bottom. don't use the raise your hand or
chat function. q&a, submit your questions, and we will try to work them in. so, gentlemen, the title of this conversation is "history is now." we are sitting here talking, by the way, as the second impeachment trial of the president is unfolding, a weird split-screen moment in all our lives. it is undoubted 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 on to, 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. let's just start with some definitions. secretary bunch, i want to start with you. this idea of cultural memory, right, 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, right? what is the role of an
institution like that in helping to craft that cultural memory of who america is? >> well, i think you framed it exactly right. we know history is as much about today and tomorrow as it is about yesterday. so 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. 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 is the fact that in america, our cultural memory is a kind of clanging mosaic. because it is a changing mosaic, it means that there are often debates and discussions and disagreements. in a way, the goal is to create a memory that allows people to be able to do something that i think is really important. that is, to embrace ambiguity.
too often, it's, this is a simple answer to complex questions. i think the job of people like ken and i is to help the public understand the complexity, the nuance, and be comfortable with debates and discussions. >> ken, what about that idea? ambiguity, i should say, you know, for storytellers, that's not a great guidepost, right? you're looking for clarity, looking for a linear narrative in some cases. what about you, how do you approach this idea? as the son of an anthropologist, it is the stories. ambiguity is inherent in everything, it is lawful. it's the forms of our storytelling that periodically suggest that it should be one thing or another. the binariness of our computer world. the dialectic of our superficial politics, meaning red state or blue state. what we know from human experience is that it is much more complex and much more
dynamic. changing, as lonnie suggests, that's lawful. we're always going to do this. the dna of all of this is memory, and memory is itself tragic and not yet a thing. the dna is not yet a thing. it has to combine and recombine in that it is always going to be something, and so we are watching the layers of a pearl being imperceptively added and a pearl is created through the irritation and friction, and so american history is this pearl. borne out of perpetual friction which at times presents itself in a very positive way and at other times particularly now in a not so positive way and it is our job, lonnie's to collect the stuff of it to interpret, interpret, and mine to find the narrative and not that lonnie does not try to find the narrative in it to try to tell us a complicated story that what
shakespeare had which is negative capability, the ability to hold something in contradiction without making that judgment, and so where we get into trouble as storytellers and as americans, as we construct and reconstruct and deconstruct our history and culture is when we are certain, you know. the opposite faith is not doubt, but the opposite of faith is certainty. so we need to have a kind of faith in a process that understands as faulkner understood that history is not was, but is and tomorrow as lonnie suggests, but we have to find the processes that permit us to gather and include as much material as we k and the only way to survive is that abundance of that contradictory material. >> and in a way, kenneth is so
right, because i was interviewing a sharecropper on a plantation, and interviewed hem about slavery and he said, i am not sure what your job is, but it is to help the public to understand not what it wants to remember, but what it needs to remember, and that tension is really what we are seeing is to help people recognize that it is not as, as ken said, it is not a simple yes or no, but it is the shades of gray that help to us understand the history and help us to understand ourselves. >> but this there is another element of tension here to all of this that we are interviewing people about their memories and the firsthand accounts. there are the memories that people hold on to themselves, fragile and biased and narrow in their own way, and then there is evidence and facts that you can uncover about academia and scholarship and so on, and when those two come into conflict
with each other, how do you balance that? do you put some memory on that because you have some conflict? >> i can tell you about some specific film that i worked on and i can tell you about reagan with the old russian proverb, trust but verify. so you can collect information, but you want a vessel of narrative that is able to talk about what winton marsalis talked about the minstrelcy, but it is about black culture, how do you eat, and where do you make love or eat or sleep, and the only way to deal with the horrible feeling of what you had done to the african-americans is to degrade it and make it base, but it is one thing and the other, and so we made a film on the world war ii and we asked
going into the various servicemen and women that we would not talk to them unless we gave them access to their official military record, so we would then operate within the confines. if they told us that they were up in the air and fighting over europe in a plane on this day, we could verify that, right. and then we had to look them in eye to understand that basic human thing that we all do which is the fish gets bigger the farther away from the lake that you get, and the idea that maybe your role was a little bit, so maybe we gut judgments. you know what, he is great, but here, i can't go this far with him or her or whatever it is. so there is a sense of a continual testing the and retesting. but again, you are accumulating all of this stuff, and history ain't nothing but the memories of sharecroppers added to memories of factory workers
added to memories of a reporter who thought that he heard it right or she heard it right, and then that is what when we say that this is verified for you as a journalist, you are saying that you have at least two different sources at least, and you want to have more than that, and even the sources have certain agendas and things that they may want you to have, and then all of the sudden, we have become part of the human compact about trust, but also verification. >> and i think that the notion that is so powerful to me is that i think that history is at its best when it finds tension of history and memory, and you recognize that as a historian, i am distant from my subject, and i realize that i am a historian when i am reveling in the memory, and they from the rough edges that made me smoother, and
the other side that are the scholarship, and you are in search of clarity and truth, and the key is to marry those together and it is the accuracy and the scholarship, and the engine of all that i try to do. >> that right. >> and we are getting some great questions relate to this and it is clearly hitting a note with the audience. and one to you, claire, and how can we trust what is written about the history from historians, and if the history is written by the historians and the victors, and how do we know that his industry is not written with the bias? >> well, you are absolutely right. early in my career that the history i read and trained by did not tell the stories that i wanted to know, and did not embrace the full diversity of the nation, but i would argue today, there is much more good
history and more complicated history, and you can really begin to trust the stuff written by good scholars, but the challenge is that there is so much history ta that you can get online and other sources, and like the ken burns' film or the exhibition or the great scholar from yale, and those are the things that you can count on, so i think that you can find closer to the truth as long as you understand that history is going to evolve and changing, and new discoveries based on new interpretations. >> and i would add with the notion that history written by the victors that it is history that is true, and definitely not true, but the north won the civil war, but the south wrote the civil war and "gone with the wind" and postulate that our own
al qaeda or isis were actually the heroes of the post civil war moment when in fact the opposite were true, and it has taken us generations to do that, and begin to do that with other narratives and the loudest voice in all of this is not the truth or the complicated narrative to take the history away. >> this is a related question that i was not getting to later and you guyed are go getting to this with later generations to challenge this. and you look like the history that we have held on to, and clung to and not challenged to. >> in some ways it is clear that the north won the war, but they lost the peace.
they lost that narrative. so it was a conscious narrative and it did not just happen. there were groups of how did we celebrate the lost cause, and how did we as we brought the country together, and focus on slavery and the african-americans and they were complicated, and find the simple answer brother versus brother, and in essence seeing the fighting of the whiteness of america from both point of views, and not grappling with the issue of slavery and allowing people to create the myths and to come together. and for me, some of the painful images are the images 50 years after the war to see yankees and rebels shaking hands, and the war is over, and yet you never see an african-american or the 200,000 african-americans who fought in the war or the african-americans who in some ways challenged the nation to
live up to ideals rather than follow the discrimination, and the hatred that came out of the lost cause. >> lonnie is absolutely right. the north is complicit with the version of the lost cause that went, because it is easier to perpetuate the simplicity of the brother versus brother, and particularly as we are debating qanon and marjorie taylor green and all of this stuff, and the republican party that was born in a schoolhouse in rippon, wisconsin, out of the ashes of the whig party and one thing and the only one thing, the liberation of the african-americans in america, and we have gotten a long way from that, brothers and sisters, and that is a pretty interesting american journey that's complicated. i would just refer, lonnie, my
dear friend, to the civil war film to the gettysburg, that we found every ounce of footage of black reunifiers there, and the civil war is still going on, and regrettable, it can still be lost. >> but that is the work of the scholars do, really changes the narrative. so it is really saying, let es find the things that were neglected, because they were there, but they were not deemed important enough to talk about and it takes gifted people like ken to say, let me complicate story, and bring in people like barbara fields to complicate is the story, and say it is really about the complexity and the nuance and i i think that the most important contribution that
i can make is to help people understand that there are not simple answers to these questions and we have to grapple with these going forward. >> i have made more than 40 years making films about the u.s. but i have also been making films about us. and that is to say the lower case two letter pronoun, and us, and all of the majesty and the coplexity and the contradiction of the united states, and you have to exist and i feel it is such a privilege and lonnie exists in this space, too, because it is a privilege to operate in the unconscious state of unknowing that that represents. and you have to be able to be there, and to sit on that undertoe and tolerate it. otherwise, you will end up making the mistakes that we always tend to make which is to decide it is one thing or
another, and not both. it is a whitmanesque type of moment, do i contradict myself, yes, and we have multitudes, we, us, multitudes and it is our obligation as museum owners and we have to represent that. it is messy. as a filmmaker, and i see it as lenses, and not ignoring the history, but pull back and saying this is a greater history. and south carolina now involves african-american history, and why? they were a majority black state and they had 9 million people, and 4 million of whom were owned by other people, and this is an extraordinary amount of people who are zero interest in the lost cause, and yet for 100-plus years nobody daned to ask the 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, and you know, paint the picture of the antebellum south with the hanging spanish moss, and ignore the fact that they were emancipated when in fact they were not. they were given freedom, and that is all they were given and maybe 40 acres and mule sometimes, but you could argue that jim crow, the collapse of reconstruction was the worst period, because more african-americans lynched between then and 1920 than any other period, because you would not want to lynch your property that had value, but once that property didn't have any value, the reason why the migration happened is because the mother didn't want to have to worry every single day whether her son was coming home alive from school. >> and one of the powerful things that comes out of ken's work candidly, which i try to do not as well as ken is this notion of how do you humanize
history, and how do you help people to understand that when you are talking about the african-american experience, you talk about the quintessential american experience. >> exactly. >> and when you are looking at every film that ken has made, it is a ha! the american experience that is the african-american experience that is holding the country accountable, and expand the notion of liberty and freedom and definition is tied to this community, and part of the challengele is to make people understand that we are not talking about the ancillary stories of who we are regardless of race and how long our family has been in the country. >> and let me put a period on this briefly. this is february, and the coldest and shortest month, and where we put african-american history, and it has a legitimate
reason why, and why not the burning center, and not in pluto as to addenda of the national center of history, but in the burning heart, because we have the memories of the people who have the peculiar sense of being unfree in a supposedly free land and they have much more to tell us than the people who have brought hook, line, and sinker the madison avenue sanitized version of the past. so it is there, and if you are going to scratch the surface of the american history, you don't have to go looking for it, but it is there. it is the conscious of the nation, and the confirmation of the adversity that teaches us perpetually, and it is there. >> and so i want to bring together a couple of ideas, that you are talking about expanding the history, and not excluding,
but making sure that the history is including, and there are others who say we are revising history, and you see it just over the debasing of confederate statues, and because we are here in uva, and that was a couple of years ago and the violent clashes in charlottesville over the removal of a statue, and so what is the place of a confederate statue today? >> let me be clear that when i built the african-american center, i wanted the american people what it meant to be an african-american in the center of the national mall, but i wanted people to know that this is the ways in which american history needs to be corrected.
and removing confederate statues is not racist at all, but helping us to be finding a better history, and removing them is helping us to understand this moment that we are in, but if you are in search of accuracy, the confederate statues will help you to understand history a little bit, but removing them does not change the historical narrative, but it corrects them. >> yeah, what he said, and if you go back to means test of when that statue was built, it was not the 1880s or 1890s, and so it was not reconstruction, and the collapse was the tragedy, because in the wake of the vacuum of the absence of the federal troops in the south to reinforcing the post civil war peace, you had an extraordinary influx of the ku klux klan and
the jim crow laws and put in the law with "plessy versus ferguson" and here is another example of the white supremacy, then it does not have a organic sense of my story of my people, but it is my story of my deciding that you can't even decide to enjoy the freedom that we begrudgingly gave you and you can take the confederate flag. it is not the confederate flag. the confederate flag. the flag that we call the confederate flag is one of many battle flags of the army of northern virginia which was adopted by the ku klux flag, and went into mississippi at that period in the 1880s and 1890s and the other flags of the old confederacy after 1954. hmm, what happened in 1954. let's see, a supreme court
decision that might have prompted some, you know, individual resistance? yes, exactly right. so it is notten the flag of the confederacy, but it is the flag, and it is like isis. right? it is like al qaeda. it is not even the confederate flag. it is the ku klux klan's prescription of what they thought. so mitch landrieu is the man who struggled over it, and talked to lanny and me and wynton marsalis, and what to do, and he did the right thing. these things are not melted down into bullets or anything like that, and they are in museum, and we interpret, and interpret and interpret, and that is what this man spends his life doing. that's what we have to do, and nothing has been erase. nothing has been erased. the problem is that sometimes there is a tendency on the other side to want to erase, and you
can't say this anymore or talk about that. we have to continue to talk about nathan bedford forest, but do we have to name a high school after him? i don't think so. >> so we should note this past year that mississippi finally changed the flag, correct? >> yes. >> it took a little while. listen, i do want to bring in the audience to a couple of the polling questions to have a sense of where everybody's head is, and another jumping off point of the conversation. an idea of being included in the narratives, and audience, you will see it pop up on the screen, and we would like to see you weigh in, and when you see the conversation, you can vote, and then we can go to conversation and to what extent do you feel included in the images that identify american civic images that kenneth bunch
and ken burns have been talking about? okay. so we will take a moment here. so i think that we will see them pop up very soon. there you have -- and the results are overwhelmingly somewhat. secretary bunch, when you are looking at the people with 58% out there feeling somewhat included in the narratives and 34% said very, and 9% said not at all. that tells me that you guys are doing your jobs pretty well, huh? >> well, it is telling me that there over the last say 20 years, there is a greater appreciation of history, of understanding our story. i remember receiving a letter once that somebody said that i shouldn't do work on african-american history, because the letter said a line
that america's greatest strength is the ability to forget, and to me, the greatest strength is the ability to forget what it did not want to talk about. so what you are seeing here is that the people are wanting to recognize that there is a more complicated narrative than people were taught, and they are seeing themselves in part of the narrative, and what i want to make sure is that the narrative does reflect the complexity of the narrative of the nation. >> and the somewhat of in between may sound like the complication that lonnie is talking about and the sort of the innate desire that we all like to have that it is certain and like this, and it is not. and a lot of the somewhat is that i know that there is a bigger story, and i know that what i believe is being challenged, and i know that what i believe is finally being recognized. or it is not yet there, and so you have a whole range of people
who are feeling not fully enfranchised or not fully out of it and struggling as we are as lonnie and i am doing the work that we are doing, and i am working on the u.s. and the holocaust and what we knew and when we knew it, and the antecedents, and one thing that we inherited was the lazaruser door of the golden door, and at the same time another poet wrote, close the door, because we don't want to let them in, and guess who won? that guy. in 1924, we had a immigration bill that closed the door, and made it impossible for the refugees from europe, and in particular, european refugees from coming in, and we still want to believe that we are give us your tired and huddled
masses, but it is not true. >> and this is popping up a lot in the conversation and the questions here, and some folks weighing in on the 1619 project which is led by the incomparable nicole hannah jones and the 1776 project that the trump administration had put out, and some related thoughts that folks are asking about the removal of the confederate statues, and this is a debate for folks. one person saying that i don't think they should be destroyed a part albeit an ugly part of the history, but they can be demonstrated of the horrors instead of glamorizing them, but removing them sanitizes a dark place of the history. secretary bunch, what do you make of that? >> first of all, you need to prune the statues, and that i think that like mitch landrieu, and like they have done in
budapest with soviet era statues, they are a wonderful opportunities to put things together, and they are part of the history, and shaped the way that we think about ourselves, and so it is important not the lose that. but it is important to say that our goal is to find as john franklin said, the unvarnished truth. so, you need to have truth. so you put some in parks and you say that you find other statues that replace those that tell a fuller and more complicated story. and in essence that what you are simply trying to do is to say that america has certain creation myths, and it is important to keep those myths as sort of the north star, and let us be that more perfect union, but let us also recognize that we have a long way to get there, and in order to get there you have to understand your history, and you have to understand the complexity, and you have to understand the dark moments and
only by understanding the dark moments, you understand the resiliency and the strength of the people. >> i agree, and i believe that the great anxiety in all of this is to not have a soviet, you know, where you throw out everything and select a new history as if nothing ever existed, and while i understand that people could feel anxious about that. i don't think that is going on and i don't think it is going to go on, and the more is reactionary thing that this is a legitimate part. it was not about slavery or about state's rights or nullification or into position, and it is about slavery, and in the articles of south carolina, they do not mention nullification but about state's rights. they mention slavery an awful lot, and that is what worried them that they would take away to be what turned out to be their most valuable property which are the human beings they
owned in a country four score and five years ago that proclaimed that all men are equal, and by the way that man who wrote that sentence owned over 200 people. so we are not destroying mount vernon a very obvious plantation or removing monticello, a disguised plantation, but a plantation nonetheless, classified as a hooha, but plantation. and i am not saying to lop off the statues of robert e. lee, but it is appropriate and nothing is going to be lost unless we have this horrific wholesale soviet-style cleansing of the system, and we are not about that, an americans are
strong enough to figure out how to tolerate the good and the bad. it is just for too long we have permitted one very superficial story to obtain. it is just good to complicate it. it makes for great draw marks and makes for great stories and exhibitions. and you go to lonnie's original museum there, and it is by no means, a picnic, and yet, the fact that it produces these feelings in you are amazing. are, are transformative, and not just for african-americans, but for all of us. we are indebted to the museum to remind us that as lonnie said, the experience of the museum has to be at the heart, and the original sin as historians like to say, that is the thing that we have to be opening our eyes to everyday and why george floyd
last year really gave us a huge opportunity. it was his third or fourth grade teacher in houston said that he wanted to be a supreme court justice like thurgood marshall, and he has achieved a horrible fate, but he is helping us in that area remarkably, and we can't drop this moment. you know, this is the 402-year-old virus that we are dealing with. >> how much of this we talk about the exclusion and inclusion, and revision and so on, and how much of this is recentering the conversation, and looking at the work that the 1619 project did by recentering the history around the arrival of the first enslaved people. you are not taught that in america, and that is not the history that you are taught in a formal history, and talking about the role of the law
enforcement, and the centering of the black law enforcement who are working in that environment, and instead of the white law enforcement officers, and so how about secretary bunch curating what is in the heart of the center of the story? >> well, you put your finger on what has shaped my whole career, and that is recentering race in the american discourse. recentering race in the '60s which is to discover that race is there. and you shine the light, and you say, oh, i didn't know that story or that history. it was always an exotic answer. and to me, it is saying of the many creation stories of the united states, the story of to notion of us as the beacon of freedom, equally is the story of us to find the freedom more
accessible to african-americans, to women, to others, and to me, the tension of being able to say, let us build on our original creation myths, but let's recentering the stories so that we have a better way of understanding who we once were will help us to understand who we are today and point us to a better tomorrow. the thing that i take very strongly tomorrow from african-american history is that i am always amazed from people who believe in america who did not believe in them. i amazed at the people who believe that america would one day live up to the promise if you struggled, you challenged and you made clear what the needs were and if you sacrificed, and so for me, recentering means not pushing the stories out of the way, but saying that we cannot understand ourselves if we don't understand how this issue of race has shaped us all, and touched every
presidential administration from washington to president biden, and then in essence, we are 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 -- it was not a dream articulated specifically for african-americans, but it is 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's lightened. i mean, you don't want to be an enslaved person, but you don't want to be a slave owner either. and these things will free people in unusual ways, and the reframing of it now that you are talking about and lonnie said so beautifully is at the heart of our survival as a country.
it is being willing to tolerate the increasing number of narratives to go into what is actually narratives that were always about us in the u.s., but were left out, you know, in labor, women and bottom-up stories and the oral histories and all of that stuff. american history for the longest time was the presidential elections of white men punctuated by wars, boom, done. >> one of the things that ken can does so perfectly is that i love the term lenses is that what you are trying to suggest is that you are using african-american stories and the issues of gender and these are lenses in what it means to be american, and it is not lenses into a community, but a lenses into the nation, and i have framed these stories of thinking about a people's journey, but a
nation's story. >> you have both now specifically mentioned gender and the role of women and history and we have great questions coming, and they are great, so keep them coming. someone from the audience asked, how are the institutions bring jane crow to light, the intersection of gender and racism, and the stories of women and racism? >> not yet. i made a film on susan b. anthony and katy stanton and there is a heart of racism at the heart of the civil war, and yeah, you are right, and once in is done, we will take care of you, and then all of the sudden, you had white women saying we want the vote, but we don't necessarily want it for black men but certainly not black women, and you know, the movement of very progressive
movement begins to splinter which is always the case, an fortunately, what is happening now is that our history is beginning to include extraordinary stories of women and women of color into the narrative, and you know, harriet tubman is ascendent and sojourner truth will help to put to lie what is american conventional truth of what there is a long way to go for women. i'm the father of four daughters and i don't get it from them everyday, but i understand the world through their eyes, and they are all very capable, but they are not a white male.
and that is still always a one lap ahead automatically in every race that jesse owens is not running. >> and in some ways, if i look at museums around the country, i think that they are doing a much better job in these stories especially in crossing these lines, and there is so much work that needs to be done, and one is a scholarship that we are at a point that we need to understand the challenge of the black women and black men vis-a-vis the fight for the vote of the women, and so these stories are not given to the public in a way that makes them accessible and central to public's understanding, but we are getting there. and that is the exciting thing. >> and when stacey abrams is president then we will all have our lessons brought up to date, pretty much right away.
>> and so we are now this historic moment, and we have a black woman and asian descent occupying the highest office of the land, and so what are you saying? >> we are trying to have people exploring questions that says that does not relate to me, but it does. the challenge is one that people to understand that there is still so much more to learn. still so much more to understand through our history, and that by understanding that, it 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.
so the key is to make sure that we are telling the stories that allow us to open the doors. >> so we are in the business, him and i, of storytelling, and aim just reminded just now of the statement that i love by the novelist richard powers who said that best arguments in the world won't change a single person's mind. the only thing that can do that is a good story. if you think about it, arguments are about you're wrong and i'm right, and let me convince you. stories if done well, the stories that lonnie and i are trying to add to, are the ones that are inclusive and are trying to add to, and it is a bigger table, and there is a lot of stuff on it, and that is okay, but at the end of the day, if someone feels they have a placet that table, and they are a part of that story, then the sky is the limit, and there is a kind of possibility ahead of us. the problem is that we are all
about dialectic, and we are all about polemic and nothing is binary. it just isn't. everything exists in the complicated shades of gray in between, and that is where you have to operate, and it is incremental, and step backwards and forwards and this is where it is lawful. it is not just american history, and it is not just our complicated story, but it is human interaction, and it is not just human beings who lie, and make conspiracies, and human beings who are just paranoid, and human beings who have through all time manipulated and promoted the disinformation which is one of the great, great resistant forces to expand the history that we are talking about. >> well, that leads to the idea about one singular american
narrative which i wonder sometimes if it does exist, because we are talking about the disinformation and the conspiracy theories and the proliferation with the social media, but there is also sometimes it seems a conversation of who america is and who she isn't depending where you are in the country and the community that you are in. in some places you are having a real complicated conversation about the confederate statues and how we look rigorously about our history, and other places the conversations of amending the school textbooks to include creationism, and real belief systems guiding the conversations, and we talk about the complexity, and sometimes those ideas are exactly in conflict with each other, and they cannot exist at the same time and the same place, and so do we still have, and can we still work towards a singular american narrative or are we at a divergent place to have two or
multiple american stories depending where you are. >> the latin motto of the united states is e pluribus unum which means out of many comes one. so it means i understand where i come from, and what i believe, but from 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 the civilized hole than to disintegrate into the tribal equivalent and where we all know where that leads to. and it is very, very bloody. we don't want need that, and nobody in their right minds wants that. i stood on the rim of the grand canyon explaining to my daughters that the colorado
river exposed precambrian shifts that is 1 billion years old nearly half of the age of the planet itself, and the woman next to me said that this earth was created 6,000 years ago. and i just turned to her, and i said your years are longer than mine. and that, you just got to make room for her, and room for me. right. and we may believe in the same god, and i this -- i think that we did. >> and we used to have a narrow linear notion of what america was. whether it was called a master narrative or whatever, but now what we really do is that we have expanded it much like the balloon, and my sense is that it is still within the framework of america, and we are now recognizing that to understand, we have to understand rural
america in different ways and understand questions of gender in different ways, and recognize that maybe one day we will get to all of the pieces, and we begin to move back towards a single narrative. i believe there is never going to be a single narrative, but i do believe that there is room been the balloon for different creation stories, and that what we will get to. >> that is specifically to one of the audience questions is can we bring ourselves back to the single narrative. >> yeah, there is a great scholarly work and not a single narrative as lonnie said, but richard hoffstetter said that there is a narrative in politics, but this stuff like qanon ebbing and flowing in the united states since the beginning of time, and what happens is that we tend to be chicken littles in our own particular moment that the sky is falling, and the great benefit of history is that it makes you as much as you know
all of the dirt underneath the carpet that is presented as american history, it makes you 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 know nothings about this believe about immigration, and all of this aggregate combine to make a moment kind of like ours that i feel that these thing hs, and mccarthyism died out and other things will happen, and it is replaced by comedy, and there are civil wars, and that is a terrible thing, and all in all, and george will said of franklin roosevelt in the film about franklin roosevelt that he said that he thought that he saw american history as a rising road. that is a good image to have. >> all of this leads perfectly
to another poll question that i want to put to the audience and not just the role of arts and cultural institutions preserving and maintaining and telling american history, but preserving and strengthening the american democracy, and so i want to ask you if you think that american arts and cultural institutions have a role, and we will look at the results as they click in. i want to talk more about how those institutions feed into the democratic systems and narrative s as well, and so we will see how the results are. and overwhelmingly 99% of the them responded yes. so ken, as we spoke before this event, the roles of artifacts represent themselves after
event, and the presidential tapes that are being going through, and those are understanding of the democracy and the miller center? >> yes, it is interesting because i am glad that you brought up the miller center, because we were bending over backwards not to make a political judgments, and the film covers nixon and henry kissinger put their views in the different light, and the tapes that the miller center has and have listened to, but not all of the tapes have been listened to or cataloged or listened to by scholars and so this is a vast ocean of potential stories and research and further complexity of the american literature, but the thing is that you didn't have to say anything, but just listen, and the president said
this, and then later said it on the tape. it is wonderful to have that. we live in an age to have lost our ability to be outraged, because things can be said so many times, but something about a tape where you hear the president the united states talking to dr. kissinger have independently and together said the exact opposite and nothing that a filmmaker has to say. you can put your thumb on the scale, but you don't have to. you just have to present it. these things are so important. i have in my office leg shackles, and they weigh, and they are incredibly heavy, and you go, this is speaking more than volumes o books of this
instrument forged by human intelligence that has only one purpose which is to enslave other americans. and lonnie has all of that, and it is the accumulated weight of that which has the power to transform and rearrange the molecules in a positive way and so these artifacts are central in how not to fix history, because it is impossible, but to interpret it and let it guide us. we sort of think that the past is unknown and the history is fixed, but it is the opposite. our future is known, but the past is malleable, and the immediate future is rather predictable. and i love the fact that the past is so malleable, and each generation rediscovers and re-examines that part of the past that gives present new meaning, and people fall out of
favor, and then back into favor, and revisionism changes it, and then something else is replaced. just since world war ii, and the number of revisions of hisotography that have captured the academy, and lonnie knows better than me the many permutations, and what comes through the lenses, and telling a good story, and incorporating as many of the perspectives as possible will give you the best access. >> i think that the biggest challenge of building the national museum is trying to understand all of the scholarly perspectives, but the question of the notion of the cultural institutions are crucially important, because they are both the glue, because they are trusted places, and places where people will come to grapple with the questions, an issues that they won't in other places. i find that people are coming to
the smithsonian to wrestle with slavery or climate change where they wouldn't in cleveland or chicago, but they come here and they have trust. so it also means that the institutions have to also have courage. >> right. >> the courage to grapple with social justice, and the courage to grapple with clarity, and the courage to actually ensure in their collections the ability to tell stories. in the museum, there were stories to tell, and nothing in there to tell those stories, so i avowed it is crucially important for museums like the smithsonian to collect for today for tomorrow. so i sent a response team to collect george floyd, and collect what is going on in the capitol on january 6th, and it is important without those stories people can then say that history did not exist, and the
key for the work that ken has done and i have done is to make sure that people have an understanding of what happened before, and how they can dip into the reservoir to be transformative for today. >> and secretary bunch, may i put to you another audience question, because this is something that i want both of you weigh in on, and that is what we are taught in academia, and that is oral history, and you have sent out people to gather the wonderful evidence, and the storiesa and this audience member is asking if there is a distinction of oral history and written history, and how does oral history fit into the academic model? >> there is oral history that fits into the academic model, and sometimes the oral histories
will fit into skal -- scholarship, and challenge it, but when you are in the water of oral history as an academic, you will learn to ask questions and it forces you to understand what is the truth that you are trying to tell? so i became a believer of it when i was forced to listen to history of other historians, and sometimes they are accurate, but you are made better every time you hear the stories, because what they do is to first of all humanize history. and they remind you to understand that is what going to get the people engaged. and secondly, they remind you that there is complexity, because you are hearing different things in the oral histories. >> and that is beautifully said, lonnie. i agree. i said that history is kind of the dna, and not really yet a
structure. the first structure of memory regardless of whether it is an academic or other ways is oral history, the because it is telling the story, and honey, how was your day is the beginning of all history. it is. so you edit, and human beings edit, and in the editing is the initial subjectivity of real actual true 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 is exactly what we say. so we are all collecting from the original history, and scholars are going to apply different sets of things, and they are themselves drawn to different historiographies, and horror was out of fashion, and
you can tell that when you kill 60,000-some people, and freudian interpretation, and deconstruction, and symbiotics and all sorts of things to obtain and help the academy to learn a different thing, but it all goes back to telling the story, and the story is going to back to essentially answering the question -- what happened today? what happened today? what was your experience today? that is the oldest experience as human beings and as new as this conversation right now. >> and honey, how was your day during this pandemic work from home time could be a dangerous question. >> and people are notoriously good at knowing what is going
on, but in this racial reckoning, it is not a problem to go out to convenient store until now, but it is always a problem for african-americans. and it is not a problem to go jog in some other neighborhood until now, but it is always a problem for african-americans if you will come home alive. and so at some point the pandemic and george floyd came together, and you can see it pried open the door, and it is shutting real quick, but our job as museums and writers to not keep the door shut with conventional wisdom to gloss it over saying it is brother against brother. >> and with the pandemic, and you have told is the stories and i have covered them as well, and it is revealed that the disparities are so much deeper than people believe them to be
across every single institution, and while people think of the pandemic as an equalizer, it has broadened the disparities of the black and the latino americans hit the hardest not just on the health side, but in the recession as well. and so we are at the historic moment, and we say this so many time, and i'd love each of you to reflect on it, because obviously, you deal in history, and gathering history and artifacts and evidence and stories and preserving them for future generations, and how are you processing this moment right now? we are probably too close the look at itt with the clear-eyed view, and so how are you viewing this moment when we have a long overdue racial reckoning in the country, and we have a global pandemic that we in america are dealing with in our own way, and what is standing out to you in continuing to tell and preserve america's story? >> well, i agree with you, and i have said that it is the fourth
grade crisis of the civil war, the depression and world war ii, and in some ways it is worse, because it has brought to the existential fore the united states, 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 has reached a boiling point, but at the same time, let's also not forget what is happening. nurses and teachers and delivery people and emts are now the most exalted positions in the country. that is a good thing. more people voted almost 160 million people voted than ever before. that is a really good thing in the safest and most secure election that we had, and people
risked the virus, and more importantly poll workers who had to be there all day and could not mail in a ballot, and the democratic and republican maintained a american civic order at the granular level in a great way. so which are having a racial reckoning, and we have a woman of color as vice president, and a woman of south asian decent, and a president facing a fdr moment, and a guy who knows in the guts that he has to represent everybody, including the people who did not vote for him. these are all good things that are happening, and that is i think as much as we cannot be pollyannaish about any of this, we also cannot be the consistently cassandras -- and
why are all of these women? >> i have another part of that. >> and so we have to be able to measure all of this, and just as the african-american experience produced jazz music s. i mean, it is the greatest expression of affirmation in we always have to see this glass as half full. that's why history makes me an optimist despite the fact i spend my entire life charting really bad stuff that happens. i feel like the possibilities are as great as the threats. >> i think, as a historian i felt history makes me hopeful.
>> yeah. i see where we were. i've seen the changes. it also reminds me we will never get to the land of full equalitity, but it is this journey. interviewing people about what does this mean to them. what's been wonderful is hearing people say here is what we have lost. here is where i see this is pointing us to better understanding why i need to focus or better understanding this is a moment of reckoning for the nation and how do we participate in that kind of moment. some participated by voting. some participated by protesting. some participated by sharing their artistic creativity to make sure the moments aren't loss. we had amazing young poets who have taken us in new directions. for me, this is a moment of real
loss, real pain. it's a moment that's transforming if we seize the moment. that's always the question. >> what about for our democracy? this idea the more we look back, the more questions we may ask. does this rigorous look at our history, holding up to the light, does that serve to strengthen our democracy too? >> of course it does. we came off the last, thank god, football game of the season. i love the sport and it's over and get a bit of a rest. 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 past that they made but the mistakes that they made.
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. we just watched 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. you have to know yourself. if you don't, if you avoid it, if you coast on the 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. it's out next thursday five years from now. i spend that long an a film because we have to spend all of that time means testing it in order to make sure it fits in to all the variety of scholarly comments that have, all the sense of the bottom up as well as the top down history. the variety of artifacts we could or could not use. all of that is what we need to be doing as a republic. we'll be figuring out we're in pursuit of happiness. as our founders thought, it was lifelong learning in a marketplace of ideas.
that's what capital h happiness was. it's the pursuit and not always the happiness. >> i think what kent said. the truth of the matter is, as humans, we are better when we really understand ourselves, our strengths, our weaknesses. history allows us to do that. history allows us to find thoeds moments where we find great pride and look at achievement and we say, here is where we want to go. it also allows us to challenge ourselves to say here is where we clear eye failed. here is where we didn't live up to our ideals. it's to challenge us to do just that. for me, if you don't look at your history with a clear eye and 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. >> at the very beginning of our
conversation today implied that is part of that pursuit of happiness. the man who wrote the second sentence of the declaration, our creed, a century of enlightenment thinking owned other human beings. when he said all men are created equal, he meant all white men who own 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 rerefuse to accept a status quo that still keeps some people behind. >> i'm just checking the question if any tom brady haters out there after you mentioned the super bowl. i don't see any. i will ask you both one final question which i found in all my interviews which reveals one of the most interesting parts of conversation, which 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 happy to be wholly owned subsidiaries of you this afternoon. >> you are both incredible gentlemen, incredible leaders. i can not thank you enough. not just for the work that you do but your time and insight and your leadership in this space. it's an absolute pleasure to spend this time with you. thank you. thank you very much for that. with that, i'm going to turn it back over to melanie burns and there she is. >> you all reminded me yet again, why i was a history major and why i love it so much. that was a stunning conversation. it was really rich and wonderful. there's so many things i remember. i just jotted down a few things. quote, we won't understand ourselves if we turn a blind eye
to what we are. cultural institutions must have courage and one we'll all take home, honey, how is your day? i've had friends around the country texting me and saying this is one of the best programs they have seen and for that, i want to thank you. i want that thank our audience for such wonderful questions and being with us this afternoon. thank you so much. thank you. have a good afternoon. go yankees. >> go red sox. >> take care.
the american flag. up next, from the national archives, fresh colors. using his own narration, h film maker honors his new country. he went onto receive many awards including an academy and peabody. >> i was claimed as an artist in prague. after completing my schooling aworked for several years fk czech films. then the russians invaded my country. now i'm political refugee in united states. my first job in this country was as an animator, a drawer of cartoons and my first assignment was to make a film about the