‘American Fault Line’

Henry Louis Gates

One hundred fifty years ago today, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. It abolished once and for all slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime.

It was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, and by the House on Jan. 31, 1865, but it took nearly another year before it received sufficient support from the states to become law. South Carolina ratified the amendment on Nov. 13, followed by Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia. It appeared to nervous whites in the South that blacks suddenly would be enfranchised and thus a political and social threat to white hegemony.

In fact, millions of slaves were freed only on paper. Large numbers continued their work on plantations, earning subsistence wages if they were lucky. Some of the rules governing their labor changed little.

“There were among them thousands of fugitives in the camps of the soldiers or on the streets of the cities, homeless, sick, and impoverished,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote. “They had been freed practically with no land nor money, and, save in exceptional cases, without legal status, and without protection.”

This legacy is hard to shake. Today, racial tensions are flaring once again because of highly publicized police shootings, a devastating church attack in Charleston and persistent inequality in schools, housing and the workforce.

Black people once again are finding their voice of protest, and they are joined by increasing numbers of whites and of other minorities. Black Lives Matter, an activist movement spawned in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the Florida shooting death of Trayvon Martin, continues to gain force.

In recent months, communities across the country have organized public conversations on race meant to raise awareness and engage Americans of all backgrounds and experiences. Since the June 17 shooting at Emanuel AME Church, Charleston has hosted, or will host, several such conversations.

In the latest such event, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and scholar-journalist Henry Louis Gates Jr. will participate in a discussion called “American Fault Line: Race and the American Ideal,” at The Gaillard Center on Wednesday night, which is a fundraiser for the International African-American Museum project.

Also, the Conference of National Black Churches has organized “The Healing of Our Nation: Race & Reconciliation — A Cross-racial Dialogue” scheduled for Dec. 15-17 at Emanuel AME Church. The meeting requires registration (go to www.thecnbc.org); an ecumenical service at 7 p.m. Dec. 15 is open to the public.

Earlier this fall, SCETV aired a documentary called “A Seat at the Table,” followed by a televised roundtable discussion that included several civic leaders from Charleston.

Gwen Ifill of PBS moderated “America After Charleston,” a forum hosted by Circular Congregational Church, which aired in mid-September.

Theologian James Cone visited Charleston at the invitation of Circular Congregational Church and Charity Missionary Baptist Church for two public talks in mid-November about black liberation theology.

And the A&E networks on Nov. 20 broadcast “Shining a Light,” a concert and conversation that included local participants.

In a recent telephone interview, Burns said the church shooting demanded a direct response. It was no longer possible to pretend that race relations in the U.S. needed no critical intervention.

“Like most Americans, I was stunned and saddened by the events in Charleston,” he said. “I have always, in my own work, tried to do a deep dive into American history, and always have had to come to terms with race.”

The black experience in America has been a recurring theme in many of his documentaries, including “The Civil War,” “Baseball,” “Jazz,” “The Central Park Five,” “Unforgiveable Blackness” or his forthcoming “Jackie Robinson.”

“I can count on the fingers of one hand, out of 30 films, the ones that don’t deal with race in some way,” Burns said.

Coming to terms with race requires action. So Burns called Mayor Joe Riley with a question: “How do we move forward, what do we have to do, all of us?”

Burns said the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds was an important symbolic gesture. “But we tend to stop there, the conversation gets arrested.”

He and Gates decided to come to Charleston and engage with local residents. Riley invited Barbara Kelley Duncan, CEO of Carolina Youth Development Center, to moderate.

“I don’t mean to be a carpetbagger, but I hope to inspire more conversation,” Burns said. “So many of the ghosts that we thought we laid to rest unfortunately were not laid to rest.”

Indeed, neither the Civil War nor the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s resolved sufficiently the persistent problems that stem one way or another from slavery and its effects.

The Reconstruction period following emancipation was two decades of reform that saw the construction of schools, election of black leaders to public office, funding of infrastructure projects and a proliferation of charitable organizations. But the heavy hand of Jim Crow soon smothered those efforts, and blacks were again shunted to the margins, subjected to bigotry and brutality at the hands of those who proudly extolled white supremacy.

And the civil rights movement could not entirely alleviate the oppression and exploitation of blacks. Discrimination in housing, education, employment and government has persisted.

“Redlining” denied banking and other services to blacks who lived on the other side of a line drawn on a map. Gerrymandered voting districts helped to prevent minority populations from gaining too much power. The slow erosion of the public school system, especially in urban centers, helped to preserve a two-tier society comprised of the advantaged and the disadvantaged. And severe anti-drug laws have produced a crisis of mass incarceration, what author Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow,” which disproportionately disenfranchises young black men often convicted for nonviolent crimes.

Such problems have their origins in slavery, America’s “original sin,” Burns said. And because the institution of slavery was the bedrock upon which the Southern economy was built, yet was fundamentally immoral and therefore unsustainable, civil war came.

“It was inevitable that we’d have civil war,” Burns said. “While it seems that many have escaped the specific gravity of that tragedy, many have not.” Social progress, he added, depends on conversation, on understanding the concerns of “the other side,” and on taking steps toward reconciliation “guided by our own faith and moral compass to be better people.” Removing hurtful symbols from the landscape is a good start, he said, “but, more importantly, how are we going to change the way we see each other?”

The Charleston church shooting has woken up America to the power of history, symbols and dominant narratives, Burns said. Any conversation depends on acknowledging this history, the way its conveyed, and having a counter-narrative, he said.

And truthful counter-narratives, if they are listened to, might help diminish calcified rancor. Consider Gov. Nikki Haley, who once was an outspoken supporter of maintaining the Confederate flag on Statehouse grounds but reversed her position after the shooting.

“If she can make that journey, then a lot of people can make that journey,” Burns said. “As Mark Twain said, ‘Travel is the enemy of prejudice.’ The journey doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical, geographical one. It could be an internal one. ... So Skip (Henry Louis Gates Jr.) and I are asking, How do we begin this journey together?”

It doesn’t help that the political climate in the U.S. is so divisive.

“We live in a time of incredible partisanship where everyone is dialectically preoccupied,” Burns said. The country is partitioned into black and white, rich and poor, red and blue, gay and straight. So addressing issues such as racism is fraught with risk. “All of a sudden you’ve ignited all of these shouting matches, (and) broadcast television screams fire in a crowded country.”

Gates said a good starting point is genetics. We might begin by recognizing that no African-American genome is 100 percent sub-Saharan African. All African Americans are mixed, and the average black person in the U.S. is about 24 percent European. What’s more, Gates said, about 4 percent of white Americans have inherited small amounts of genetic material from blacks. And let’s not forget that all humans emerged from the African continent 60,000 years ago, he said.

His point? “We mutually constitute each other, genetically and culturally. There is no American culture without Africans and African culture.”

Gates, a professor of black literature and cultural studies at Harvard University, and the school’s director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, is known for his interest in genealogy (first sparked by the TV miniseries “Roots” in 1977, he said). Years of research and writing on the topic has revealed to him the complexities of American history and the subject of race.

As a scholar, he pens articles for academic journals that few people read. As a public intellectual, he strives to popularize ideas about history and heritage to reach a broader audience and stimulate critical thinking about the U.S. and its values.

That’s why, in 2012, he came to interview the late Rev. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Emanuel AME Church and one of the nine killed in the mass shooting. Gates spent a day with Pinckney, filming a conversation for the documentary “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” They spoke about the historical figure Robert Smalls and the importance of knowing one’s history.

“Today, our interview seems so long ago,” Gates wrote in a New York Times op-ed the day after the church shooting. “I asked him that day if we were still fighting the Civil War in South Carolina. He answered: ‘I think South Carolina has — and across the South we have — a deep appreciation of history. We haven’t always had a deep appreciation of each other’s histories. We have, you know, many re-enactments across the state and sometimes in our General Assembly I feel that we’re fighting some of the old battles.’ ”

Gates said he worries that Americans are increasingly unfamiliar with their history and therefore losing the ability to shape their identities as citizens.

In the past, schools were the crucible where citizenship was forged, where one learned math and grammar and “My Country ’Tis of Thee.”

“Perhaps because of the desperation of the Cold War and the short distance from World War II and Sputnik, I think that, for whatever reasons, my generation was very self-conscious about learning ... American values through American history,” he said. “We’ve lost that sense of urgency about shaping a democratic nation based at least on the theory of fairness and equal opportunity.”

In a way, that’s what “American Fault Line” is for. It will be the first of a series of talks leading up to the broadcast next year of Burns’ new PBS documentary “Jackie Robinson” and Gates’ new documentary “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise.” The two men will convene again for conversations in Austin, Texas; Washington, D.C.; and Brooklyn, N.Y.

Barbara Kelley Duncan said she is honored to moderate this week’s discussion and glad that more people are talking about race relations.

“But how do we move from the conversation to strategies that address this issue, the issue of race, in a real way?” she asked, citing the persistence of poverty and inadequate public education. “What does it mean when there has been so much progress for African Americans on one front but we still have these nagging problems? If we don’t address these issues, they will only get worse.”

Duncan said she knows of many people “who want to do right but don’t always know how.” She also acknowledged Charleston’s many dedicated civic leaders and elected officials without whom substantive change is impossible.

“What do we do with all this so that by June 17, 2017, we can see a difference in the way we live?”

Gates said the church shooting affected him profoundly.

“It personalized the horror of evil in a way that I don’t think I had ever experienced before,” he said. “It’s one thing to watch television and see a horrible tragedy; it’s another thing to know the victims of a horrible tragedy.”

He said it was not surprising that Charleston should be the place where conversations on race are conducted with earnest deliberation, given its remarkable history. Slavery was morally unjustifiable, of course, but it did result sometimes in a kind of interracial intimacy that continues to inform interactions today, he said.

“The thing I remember most about Rev. Pinckney was that he was optimistic about the future,” Gates said. “He thought things were better than they were and that things were getting better. He wasn’t bitter, despairing, pessimistic.”

Reach Adam Parker at (843) 937-5902. Follow him at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.