The Jefferson Lecture
National Endowment for the Humanities
By Ken Burns
Washington, DC - May 9, 2016
Chairman Adams—Bro—distinguished guests, dear friends and family, beloved colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, good evening. I find it difficult to express what a singular honor being asked to give this lecture is for me. The humanities in general and the NEH specifically have made my life better in immeasurable ways. For nearly all of my professional life—thirty-six of your impressive half century--I have sought the rigorously earned imprimatur of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which in turn has permitted me to practice--and I hope refine--my art, my craft of historical documentary filmmaking. Even when we did not enjoy support from the NEH, we nevertheless, on every project, adopted its strict guidelines, employing the best scholars at every juncture of our multi-year processes, applying difficult, critical thinking to a medium more often content with superficial narrative and sentimental emotions.
In a larger sense, the humanities helps us understand almost everything better--and they liberate us from the myopia our media culture and politics impose upon us. Unlike our current culture wars, which have manufactured a false dialectic just to accentuate otherness, the humanities stand in complicated contrast, permitting a nuanced and sophisticated view of our history, as well as our present moment, replacing misplaced fear with admirable tolerance, providing important perspective, and exalting in our often contradictory and confounding manifestations. Do we contradict ourselves? We do!
It is in fact the glue, like civics--that hugely misunderstood sub-set of the humanities--that allows us to understand precisely how things work, how to get things done. All things: even science, technology, engineering and math, as well as our shared history, culture, politics, and, as always, the spirit–expanding arts. At a time when our ancient tribal instincts sometimes overrun our civilized impulses, the humanities have become an ethical watchdog, guarding our legitimate progress from retreat, repelling regressive trespassers. They are an indelible reminder of our common bonds.
But somehow, in recent times, the humanities have been needlessly scapegoated in our country by those who continually benefit from division and obfuscation. Let me make it perfectly clear: the United States of America is an enduring humanistic experiment. That fact does not preclude or exclude--indeed it is the exact opposite of those limiting words--the full expression of religious freedom. In fact, it strengthens an understanding, promoted by our founders, of tolerance and inclusion. What could be more faith-based than that? Where we get into trouble is when our arrogant certainty suggests that only one point of view, perhaps only one religion, is “right.” “Liberty,” Judge Learned Hand once said--and can there be a better name for a jurist than Learned Hand--“Liberty,” he said, “is never being too sure you’re right.” Doubt—healthy, questioning, experimenting, perfecting doubt—is critical to the humanities and the health of our still fragile Republic.
But in our media and political culture, we don’t disagree, we demonize, condemning us to a kind of partisan purgatory. Our trade is now tirade, but that righteous indignation only lasts until the next drug commercial for diseases we didn’t know we could have or even get—restless leg syndrome? Dry eyes? The humanities provide us high ground and perspective to see with clear eyes these fads and trends and unnecessary conflicts for what they are. Yet we still seem allergic to civil discourse—and just plain civility—which could lift us out of our dyspeptic tantrums.
In that tumultuous year of 1968, when protest over the Vietnam War threatened to tear our country apart, Bobby Kennedy wrote an op-ed where he quoted the poet William Butler Yeats: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” What helps put us back together? What reminds us of our better selves? The humanities. We have the cure. We test positive.
History, and a close reading of current events, suggest that we are good at knowing what we’re against, but less confident about what we are for. Which is, of course, completely backwards. We’re really good at freedom for ourselves, but not so great at extending those freedoms to others. Religious liberty was one of the reasons the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded, but others with just slightly different views, like Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams, had to flee religious oppression there and try to find safe harbor elsewhere.
In some ways, we’re getting dumber as a country--and it is in the interest of some that we stay dumb. The humanities help make us smarter. From them, we can appreciate the complexities and undertow of our history, politics and culture. They suggest that knowledge and experience matter, that there are no easy solutions, that nothing is just black and white. (Well, almost nothing.)
It seems to me that as one tiny agency of the United States Government, the NEH is by birth and charter obligated to assume, among its many other responsibilities, the Constitution’s charge to create a more perfect union, to aid its citizens in the practice of representative government, to learn from its flaws despite all the distracting jingoistic talk of exceptionalism, to make us a nation in pursuit of Happiness, a nation in the process of becoming.
“There are grave doubts at the hugeness of the land,” Henry Adams worried in the 19th Century, “and whether one government can comprehend the whole.” He was expressing quite well the anxieties of a young country, a collection of seaboard former colonies, contemplating a continental empire. His concerns were at least temporarily unfounded; we conquered the continent, we comprehended the whole in a geographic sense at least. But we now begin to share the dread that our manufactured and sometimes even real cultural differences will spell our undoing, accelerate things falling apart. Our religious teachings constantly remind us that the greatest enemy comes from within this favored land, the greatest enemy is always ourselves, that we will, as a young Abraham Lincoln predicted in 1838, years before the Civil War, “live through all time…or die by suicide.”
I am convinced the humanities offer us a way through, one way to help us avoid that ever-looming national suicide. The humanities is a patient and sure-handed tutor, ready to rescue the most depressed and deflated of its sincere students.
I remember working thirty-plus years ago on a film biography of the turbulent southern demagogue Huey Long, a film supported generously by the Endowment, when I asked the poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren, whose epic novel All the King’s Men was based loosely on Long’s life, to read a passage from his remarkable book on camera. It is in the words of his fictionalized Huey Long, named Willie Stark:
“Now dirt’s a funny thing,” the boss said. “Come to think of it, there ain’t a thing but dirt on this green God’s globe, except what’s underwater, and that’s dirt, too. It’s dirt that makes the grass grow. A diamond ain’t a thing in the world but a piece of dirt that got awful hot. And God Almighty picked up a handful of dirt and blew on it and made you and me and George Washington and mankind, blessed in faculty and apprehension. It all depends on what you do with the dirt. That right?”
It’s a wonderfully existential statement, navigation to help us escape the specific gravity of our own self-destructive impulses. It has also helped, along with many, many other voices from the past, to animate my own journey through American history and the humanities, to animate the emotional archeology I have tried to infuse in all of my documentaries. I’ve always said that each of the films I’ve work on has asked the same deceptively simple question, “Who are we? Who are we?” That is, who are those strange and complicated people who like to call themselves “Americans?” What does an investigation of the past tell us about not only where we’ve been—that’s our history, of course—but also where we are, and where we might be going. But perhaps I have glibly let myself off the hook, focusing my question only outward, missing the obvious inner Socratic question, “Who am I? Who am I?”
I was born into the humanities. My father, Robert Kyle Burns, Jr., was a cultural anthropologist. His area of study was Alpine and Mediterranean peasants. My first memory, at age two and a half—it’s just a short clip, a fragmentary mental movie—was of him building a photographic darkroom in the basement of our tract house in a development in Newark, Delaware. 827 Lehigh Road. I can remember playing amid the construction as he built it, twisting myself back and forth between the two-by-fours of its stud wall before my father sheathed it all in Masonite. My second memory, just a fleeting second later it now seems, was of being held in his strong left arm, watching the wonderful magical alchemy, as a photograph of the farmers of Saint Véran in the French Queyras, emerged from a blank (!) piece of paper, immersed in a tray of strange smelling chemicals, under an eerie red light, my father’s right hand agitating the newborn print with metal tongs. It was simply amazing. Without me knowing it, of course, my father was somehow introducing me, perhaps unintentionally guiding me, to my life’s work, an observer of the history of my culture.
Many years later, after my mother had succumbed to a nearly decade-long struggle with cancer, my father, who had a strict curfew for my younger brother and me, still let me stay up way past my bedtime—on school nights!—to watch old movies on television that would go until 1 AM, or to go to a late show at the Cinema Guild, starting at 11 PM, where a silent classic by Buster Keaton, or a western by Howard Hawks, or a French New Wave masterpiece by François Truffaut or Jean Luc Goddard was being shown. I was spellbound, not just at the great films I was seeing and the “extra education” I was getting, but at the new worlds of imagination and history and culture he was allowing me to enter.
One night, while he and I were watching a film called “Odd Man Out” by Sir Carol Reed, a drama about the Troubles in Ireland, I saw my father cry for the first time. He had not cried during my mother’s long illness nor at her funeral, a fact not lost on my disapproving friends in the neighborhood. But as the fugitive at the heart of the film, played by James Mason, willingly sacrifices his life, my father began to weep. I understood instantly the power of film and the safe harbor it permitted him to have, to express emotions his all-too-complicated—and all-too-short—life had and would force him to squelch.
And I vowed to myself, right then and there, at age twelve, that I would become a filmmaker. Eventually, my interests in film would gravitate away from the manufactured drama of fiction to the world of documentary and true stories, and then to trying to come to terms with our own at times glorious, at times tortured American history, where I still practice almost daily the intricate task of willing that past to life, of “waking,” my late father-in-law once said, “the dead.” It’s clear to me now, as we struggle--and each film has been a real struggle—that there’s only one person I really wish to wake up.
That, at least, ladies and gentlemen, is the narrative I have been willing to share over the years from my history, the “Who am I” part. But there is another more difficult story I have never shared, not even with my closest friends and family members, a story that has burned my cheeks with shame every time I recall it—and there has not been a month, or a week, when it has not snuck up and overwhelmed me, catching me off guard every time, hitting me in the pit of my stomach, accelerating my heartbeat. It took place in early July in 1963. I was nine years old then, about to turn ten. We were moving from Newark to Ann Arbor, Michigan. My father was going from being the only anthropologist in the entire state of Delaware to being one of forty anthropologists in just one department of one of the country’s finest universities. It was a huge opportunity for him, more anxiety producing for my brother and me, who would have to abandon friends and familiar routines. But more important to our besieged family of four, it would permit my dying mother better medical care; the University of Michigan, you see, also had a great hospital. My mother would be saved…we hoped.
On the day in question, the moving van had taken away just about everything we owned, and my father, who had gone out ahead and left our puny French compact car in Ann Arbor, had come back with a gigantic American station wagon, a rental we could ill afford, that would take us to a new life in Michigan.
Meanwhile, for many years, Mrs. Jennings (I never heard her first name spoken, it was always Mrs. Jennings), an African-American woman, had been our cleaning lady. As my mother’s illness progressed, as she had longer and longer stays in hospitals in Wilmington and New York City, Mrs. Jennings became more and more of a substitute mother, greeting us as we got back from school, cooking our meals, drying my tears and holding me tenderly after my favorite cat died as I bravely chiseled out its name on a brick. I loved Mrs. Jennings.
As we left our house that day, the station wagon groaned under the weight of our remaining possessions, my parents up front, my brother and me in the back. But we had one last stop to make, my parents said, to say one last farewell. It was to Mrs. Jennings’ house. She literally lived across the tracks on Cleveland Avenue in the black section of town. She greeted us warmly, as she always did, but she was also clearly quite upset and worried to see us go, concerned about our family’s obviously dire predicament. Just as we were about to head off for the more than twelve-hour drive to our new home, Mrs. Jennings leaned into the back of the car to give me a hug and kiss goodbye. Something came over me. I suddenly recoiled, pressed myself into the farthest corner of the back seat, and wouldn’t let her.
Now this, ladies and gentlemen, was the early Sixties. I had heard the “N” word used frequently in my neighborhood growing up, but had known in my bones and from my parents’ stern lectures that it was wrong. Yet I had somehow also allowed myself to be infected with the prejudice that had metastasized throughout my country. Mrs. Jennings understood completely and made no fuss about it. She knew.
My father, on the other hand, waited only a few seconds after we had pulled away before he stopped the car and turned around and said to me, “Young man, I am so disappointed in you.” I was disappointed in myself, and I have felt the sharp sting of disappointment now for fifty-three years. Longer than this Endowment has been in existence, I have carried the guilt of that inexcusable snub. Later, I convinced myself that my lifelong interest in the subject of race in America was born in the anguished transference that took place there at Mrs. Jennings’ curb on Cleveland Avenue in Newark, Delaware, in 1963, and in the coming years, as death grew closer to our door, when I would lie awake at night replaying that horrible moment, paralyzed, too, by irrational fears of fire hoses and dogs in Selma, confusing and conflating the cancer that was killing my country with the cancer that was killing and would kill my family.
For some reason, I am reminded of the lyrics of a Stephen Foster tune, written in 1854. Its melody has been used I think in half the films I’ve made, its words spoken by ever-present ghosts and voices, constantly clamoring in my head to be heard.
Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears
While we all sup sorrow with the poor
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears
Oh hard times come again no more
‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary
Hard times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door
Oh hard times come again no more.
There is no small irony that this lecture is named for Thomas Jefferson, the author of our national catechism, the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence. As I sat writing this lecture, I was surrounded by objects that relate directly or indirectly to him: there is his invention right on my desk, a replica of a four-sided revolving book holder, a gift from the folks at Monticello after I made a film both celebratory and critical of our third president; to my right over by the window is Jefferson’s bust, that now somehow sports a Red Sox hat (I don’t know his baseball preference, but they were the last team to integrate); there is a magnificent photograph of Jackie Robinson just above me, all grit and pain and determination, who had to endure the residual fallout of Jefferson’s—and our—great failing; there is another bust— of Abraham Lincoln—above me to my left, who fortunately provided a much-needed corrective to the Declaration, replacing Jefferson’s 1.0 with a new 2.0, the Gettysburg Address, still our guiding statement of principles, still fundamentally un-amended in 150 years. And then, immediately to my left on a bookshelf, is a heavy iron human ankle shackle, which I now and then pick up, its weight and heft a disturbing reminder of a part of our past many of us would prefer to ignore. I cannot.
Jefferson’s great sentence begins, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…,” but we are compelled to stop right there, only a third of the way through, because “Mr.” Jefferson, as he wrote these words, owned more than one hundred human beings, yet he didn’t see the contradiction, and more important, did not see fit to free any of those human beings in his lifetime. He helped, both symbolically and literally, to set our country on a devastating, inexorable course that would lead to our near national suicide, our Civil War. A more perfect union would have—still has—to wait. That, ladies and gentlemen, is still our collective burden.
Our experimentation with disunion began in so many places that it is difficult to fix precisely its origin. Was it the monumental hypocrisy of our founding, our ignominious acceptance of chattel slavery, even after a century of Enlightenment thinking had been artfully distilled, poetically articulated, and then proudly proclaimed to all of mankind that we the people believed in certain universal “truths”? Was it the corrupt bargains of the Constitutional Conventions and slavery’s subsequent enshrinement into that original manual of operation, with its sickening tolerance of “three fifths of a person”? Maybe it was the impertinence of a growing number of moral Americans, dedicated to abolition and emancipation, who threatened the immoral profits of the southern states’ “property.” Maybe it was all the imperfect geographical compromises that dripped out over the ensuing decades, compromises that seemed only to propel us more inevitably toward carnage. Or was it the legislative and judicial embarrassments of the Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott decision? Perhaps it was John Brown’s murderous raid in Pottawatomie, “Bleeding” Kansas, followed by his blatant insurrection at Harpers Ferry. Or Nat Turner’s own brave, futile attempt at liberation for his people and himself. Maybe it was, as Lincoln joked, “little” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “big” book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Perhaps it was, as the writer and historian Shelby Foote believed, our failure to compromise (our great “genius,” he thought) that brought on our civil war. Historians will forever debate and assign significance to each of these examples and dozens more.
Today, even with a century and a half between us and our greatest cataclysm, we have an eerie sense that so much of what seemed safely finished and distant about the Civil War now seems uncomfortably present, palpable, the underlying racial causes of the old conflict on nearly daily display. We begin to think with increasing alarm that it has always been with us; our interim historical glare distracted at times by other more “important” events. The black lives that were once bound by those shackles still don’t matter, it seems, and we are faced with the crushing reality of a truth we thought had slipped into discarded cliché: that slavery and its consequences, including the Civil War, are our original sin. The jazz trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis told me that in our country the question of race “is like the thing in the story, in the mythology,” he said, “that you have to do for the kingdom to be well.” We are not well. The hard times still linger around our cabin door, and it becomes increasingly clear that the ghosts and echoes of our near-death experience have much to teach us today.
The Civil War has always been, for me, about voices. These voices are belligerent, angry, defiant, beseeching, scolding, coarse, arrogant, lawyerly, terrifying, bittersweet, posturing, forgiving, humane and racist. Our remarkably literate population back then insured that these voices would issue from every region, race, station and sex, expressing, it almost seems, every possible perspective. But the war itself was in some ways framed and bracketed by the voice and words of Abraham Lincoln in his two inaugural addresses, speeches that have had a hard time escaping the kudzu of sentimentality and nostalgia that has threatened to envelop and smother any serious consideration of those hard times. But they are still, once pruned of distracting hagiography, hugely instructive to any understanding of “the irrepressible conflict” he was charged with overseeing.
The first inaugural is remembered for its beautiful and generous peroration, Lincoln’s emotional plea that “we must not be enemies, but friends,” that we were all, southerner as well as northerner, still connected by “mystic chords of memory,” music, that if listened to, would help us summon “the better angels of our nature.” Most of his address, though, was a wily lawyer’s insistent argument that secession was a kind of schizophrenia, that if permitted, he implied, would never stop—if states could secede from countries, then counties could secede from states, towns from counties, neighborhoods and clans from those towns, etc., etc., etc. a kind of tribal, hardly civilized, madness. Lincoln’s words, his voice, did not in any way impede the momentum of that war, and our own contemporary politics correspond all too similarly with that earlier near disintegration.
His second inaugural, delivered with the sublime awareness that his victory was close at hand, that his Union would be preserved, is almost all peroration, an artful combination of Old Testament thunder and righteousness about the war he was still prosecuting --“…Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled up by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” But it was also filled with generous New Testament forgiveness and reconciliation—“…With malice toward none; with charity for all…”
Robert Penn Warren also wrote an essay about our Civil War that expressed, I think, better than most the tensions of that long ago moment and the way those tensions extend inexorably to our current predicament: “A civil war is, we may say, the prototype of all war, for in the person of fellow citizens who happen to be the enemy we meet again with the old ambivalence of love and hate and with all the old guilts, the blood brothers of our childhood.”
It’s very American to presume that all those old guilts can be transformed into reconciliation, reparation and atonement, as in the celebrated story of the slaver who abandoned his errant path and wrote the exquisitely beautiful hymn “Amazing Grace.” But, as the Civil War--and sadly our present day—attest, the opposite is also true. Our ancient guilts and animosities more often metastasize into anger, violence and brutality. That’s very American, too.
Listen. “There was never a moment in our history,” the essayist John Jay Chapman wrote about the early years of his Republic, “when slavery was not a sleeping serpent. It lay coiled up under the table during the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention… Thereafter,” he went on, “slavery was always on everyone’s minds, though not always on their tongues.” The question of race permeates American history; it is impossible to escape it, though we do do our best to disguise, distort and ignore it. Everything that came before the Civil War—fought over the unpardonable sin that in 1861 four million Americans were still owned by other Americans—led up to it. Everything since has been, in one way or another, a consequence of it, with the question of race interwoven throughout those consequences.
At least one of my ancestors owned other human beings and some of our most important academic institutions—the places where the humanities are articulated and presumably preserved—are complicit, too, tainted by the stain of slavery and racism. My own work is suffused with its presence and horrific, seemingly unending half-life. I don’t necessarily go looking for it. It’s there, everywhere. Everywhere.
Jazz, the subject of a ten-part documentary we made, tells the story of the magnificent art form Americans invented, but it was invented by Americans who were born in a community that had the peculiar experience of being unfree in a free land. They had to improvise—another spectacular manifestation of our genius—a hell of a lot more than the rest of us. African-Americans in general, and black jazz musicians in particular, carry and have carried a complicated message to the rest of us, a genetic memory of our great promise and also our great failing, and the music they created and then generously shared with the rest of the world negotiates and reconciles the contradictions many of us would rather ignore. Embedded in the music, in its riveting biographies and soaring artistic achievement, can be found our oft-neglected conscience, a message of hope and transcendence for all people, of affirmation in the face of adversity, unequaled in that unfolding drama we call American history.
From Thomas Jefferson to Lewis & Clark; from The West, The Statue of Liberty and The National Parks (yes, the national parks; their first protectors were the African-American Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Cavalry) to the heavyweight champion Jack Johnson in a film called Unforgiveable Blackness; from Prohibition, The Roosevelts and The War (about WWII) to The Shakers and Mark Twain, race percolates close to the surface in nearly every project I’ve worked on; sometimes it is the engine of that film’s structure and narrative drive.
I have since the Civil War series in 1990 received what I guess you could call hate mail, fellow citizens denigrating my approach, second-guessing my inclusion of African-American narratives, spewing forth a steady stream of racial invective I bet you thought we had outgrown. It continues to this day, now unfettered by the anonymity of the Internet. Critics, friends and even scholars have griped, too, and were later all certain that when Barack Obama was elected President, I would finally stop bringing it up. “Whew!” they proclaimed. “Now we’re post racial! Will you shut up about race now?” I shook my head: “You have no idea what kind of toxicity is about to be unleashed.” And then I would hold up the cover of The Onion newspaper for January 20, 2009, whose headline blared: Black Man Given Worst Job In World. ‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary, Hard times, hard times come again no more….
Like the amputated limb felt long after it has been cut off, I miss Trayvon Martin; I was once a seventeen-year-old who wore a hooded sweatshirt walking through unfamiliar neighborhoods, but I was never gunned down. I miss Tamir Rice, too; I was eleven once and played with a plastic gun, but no cop ever shot me. We are missing many hundreds, if not thousands, of African Americans, lost only because of the color of their skin…in just the last decade. Henry Louis Gates told me recently me of a Jim Crow museum at Ferris State University in Michigan, where too many ugly, vile, demeaning, beyond-the-pale items characterizing President Obama and his innocent family are on display, piling up along with more than a century of other immortalized hatred.
Most of the occurrences we documented in our recent Jackie Robinson film, as Bro said—he crossed the color line, by the way, sixty-nine years ago last month—are happening again in our present day: Confederate flag issues, driving while black, stop and frisk, burned black churches, integrated suburban swimming pool problems, housing bias, racial taunts, cynical political calculations that ignore African American agency, and a version of Black Lives Matter, to name just a few.
I do not believe, ladies and gentlemen, there is a hell, as most of our religions reliably report, just the one we humans make for ourselves and each other right here.
That part of the academic community which studies how we see our past—it’s called historiography in the parlance of scholars--is often fond of saying that there are cycles to history. I don’t believe that. Things, it seems to me, just happen. And I also reject the periodic “fashions” of historiography that have been imposed on us by that same Academy since the end of the Second World War, whose overwhelming losses understandably staggered our worldview and had us questioning whether the old narrative form of history—with all its obvious flaws and bankruptcies—might need to be replaced altogether.
Over the next several decades, narrative fell out of favor, replaced by an even more limited and limiting approach to history. First came a Freudian worldview, then a Marxist-economic determinant view, as historians tried to figure out a bottom-up alternative to the old-fashioned top-down storytelling. From there we gyrated through a series of baffling new perspectives--fashions every one--trying to come to terms with our collective past. There was Semiotics, Symbolism, Deconstruction, Post Modernism, etc., etc. Each new “school of thought” suggested that there was only one true lens through which that past was to be seen and refracted. They all came up short, of course, like the blind describing only one part of the elephant.
I’m pleased to say that some sanity has been restored in recent years, and we have begun to re-embrace an energized, inclusive narrative that’s able, lo and behold, to sometimes encompass all of those other perspectives. Nevertheless, many of us are still seduced by George Santayana’s famous saying that “we are condemned to repeat what we don’t remember.” It’s a wonderful quote, wonderful quote, poetic even, but it’s just not true, I don’t think. Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” If he actually did say it—we’re not sure that he did—one of our greatest writers definitely got it right. I have been trying to hear those rhymes and verses, trying to sing our song, for almost forty years.
But I think an older “quote” gets things even better. It’s from Ecclesiastes, the Old Testament: “What has been, will be again, what has been done, will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun.” What that means, simply, is that human nature never changes, that that human nature continues to superimpose itself over the seemingly random chaos of events. And so, those of us in the business of history are often able to perceive patterns or themes, recurring motifs in our past. That’s all.
Our world is chaotic. We know deep down that we are mortal, that none of us get out of this alive. So to keep that wolf from our cabin door, human beings, we human beings, seek always to find some frame to understand things, to overlay some order on that randomness of events, to find some meaning in it all precisely because of our inevitable mortality. But Ecclesiastes--“there is nothing new under the sun”--may be all that we need to understand, to help us tell and organize our stories. That truth might appear fatalistic or pessimistic, even discouraging—that we’ve made no progress—but it also means that we can often divine in history, and I believe particularly in biography, the way human beings are. Sometimes that human nature is reassuring and inspirational. Sometimes it is unsettling. But it is always useful—and it echoes in our daily life, today; ghosts, haunting ghosts, who may turn out in the end to be our greatest teachers.
Even though so many of us are genuinely sustained by our history and its myriad heroic examples, we also find ourselves today beset by discontinuity and disagreement. We are dialectically preoccupied—red state/blue state, rich/poor, male/female, young/old, black/white, gay/straight, North/South, East/West. We are determined to see things in the simple binary terms that our computer culture revels in, forgetting in the process the complexity that rules our true understanding of family, friendship, faith, and, I would submit, the history of our beloved, complicated country. We all wish I believe to replace the safe calculus of one plus one equaling two with the more exhilarating but scary equation of one plus one equaling three. Our rational side seeks the comfort of the former; our faith, our art, our love seek the latter. Usually, I’m sorry to say, the former wins.
I have in many ways here described the perfect hell on earth we have indeed created for ourselves. But if it is the obligation of the artist to explore that hell, it is equally true that there is an obligation to try to describe the way out of it.
How fortunate it is that we in the United States are stitched together—as a people, indeed, as individuals--by words, and their dangerous progeny, ideas. And when, as it lawfully sometimes must, our magnificent tapestry becomes frayed and worn, we often lose that connection to each other, that which binds us back to the whole. In those moments, we look uneasily into the void that has, over the centuries, destroyed so many other promising experiments. In those moments, it becomes necessary to re-invigorate that which we share in common, transcending those polarizing impulses that inevitably afflict us all.
One antidote to this misery of misunderstanding and division is memory. (One antidote, in a sense, is anecdote.) Memory at its most intimate level is that deeply personal affirmation of self, that which calibrates and triangulates our sense of who we are, and yet it is also the ambassador of our own individual foreign policy—the agency that helps cement friendships, associations and ambitions. In a larger sense, memory permits us all to have an authentic relationship to our larger national narrative. These individual stories and moments, anecdotes and memories, become the building blocks, the DNA, of our collective experience. Out of these associations we find the material, the glue, to make our fragile experiment stick, permanent; “a machine,” someone once said of our glorious Constitution, “that would go of itself.”
Memory is imperfect. But its inherent instability allows our past, which we usually see as fixed, to remain as it actually is: malleable, changing not just as new information emerges, but as our own interests, emotions and inclinations change. I believe that history—particularly a complex and nuanced view of it—can be a table around which all of us can have a civil discourse and try to evoke those “better angels of our nature.” My own life’s work—proudly, whole heartedly in the humanities--has in a sense been an attempt to try to summon them.
In this regard, the past remains a great teacher, paradoxically pointing us confidently toward those future horizons that will comprise our fate—as individuals, communities, a country. This is in some way part of the gift of history. Those past events are gone; we will never get them back; thus fueling the age-old complaint about relevance that ends up promoting so much historical amnesia these days. But history, history is the set of questions we in the present ask of the past, and so it cannot help but be informed by our own fears and desires, anxieties, antipathies and hopes. That is lawful—and why for so many of us history is simply medicine.
Our religious traditions suggest that we human beings are made in God’s image. There is almost nothing, ladies and gentlemen, in our collective behavior that suggests that that is true. But every once in a while, we are permitted a glimpse into possibility, into circumstances where human nature changes just a bit, where the hellhounds at our heels seem at least tired, if not tamed, where we live in Bedford Falls, not Pottersville. That’s the humanities.
In 1993 in Billings, Montana, some bigot threw a rock through the window of a Jewish family—the Schnitzers—where they were displaying a menorah. The Billings Gazette then printed a full-page replica of a menorah, and thousands of mostly Christian Montanans, in solidarity with the Schnitzers, put the picture up in their windows.
George Will told me in an interview that, “The best of the New Deal programs was Franklin Roosevelt’s smile. He was armored,” Will said, “with the Christian faith that the universe is well-organized”—maybe not always that seemingly random chaos of events I mentioned earlier after all—“and,” Will went on, Roosevelt was also armored “with the American faith that history is a rising road.”
Let me conclude this evening with a brief story that suggests other possibilities, a glimpse into, perhaps, our better selves, an evolving human nature, a rising road. Perhaps this might be for Mrs. Jennings…and me, too.
On the evening of October 12, 1931, Louis Armstrong opened a three-day run at the Hotel Driskill in Austin, Texas. Among those who paid 75 cents to get in that night was a freshman at the University of Texas named Charlie Black. He knew nothing of jazz, had never even heard of Armstrong. He just knew there were likely to be lots of girls to dance with. Then, Armstrong began to play.
“He played mostly with his eyes closed,” Black recalled, “... letting flow from that inner space of music, things that had never before existed.... He was the first genius I had ever seen... It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen-year-old Southern boy’s seeing genius, for the first time, in a black person. We literally never saw a black, then, in any but a servant’s capacity. Louis opened my eyes wide and put to me a choice. Blacks, the saying went, were “all right in their place.” But what was the “place” of such a man--and of the people from which he sprang?
Charlie Black went on to become Professor Charles L. Black, a distinguished teacher of Constitutional Law at Yale. In 1954, he helped provide the answer to the question Louis Armstrong’s music had first posed for him: he volunteered for the team of lawyers, black and white, who finally persuaded the Supreme Court, in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, that segregating school children on the basis of race and color was unconstitutional.
Mrs. Jennings, my better angel, understands still… and perhaps forgives me.