I’m Kimberlé Crenshaw, and this is Intersectionality Matters. In this special two-part episode, we’re taking a trip to the movies.
In part one, we’ll look at the stories that shape our understanding of America -- what they are, how they came to be told in the first place, and what other stories got snuffed out in the process.
Part two, coming soon, will explore the ways that these dominant stories are then reproduced and popularized through film and other technologies. If Hollywood has the power to write and rewrite history -- sometimes, as we saw on January 6th, to our collective peril -- how do we begin writing new stories?
Through it all, we’ll be asking--What is the Story of Us, and how can it be told differently?
At its core, the January 6th Capitol insurrection was about stories, about the centuries-long battle over which stories get told. For the Capitol insurgents themselves, their story was, “We're defending the Republic, even if we have to kill people to do it.” According to them, the election was stolen, America’s freedom was on the line, and it was up to them to do something about it.
And then there were counter-stories. The media covering the event seemed desperate to find a story that explained how something like this could happen in America, because after all, "this is not who we are." Also jumping on that train was President-Elect Biden, who basically framed the Capitol riot in the ways that parents would talk to their kids, "This is not who you are. This is not how we do things."
But no one had a story that confronted the racist underbelly head on. To say, actually, this is who we are, at least in part. No one had a story about how we've actually had coups before. We've had counter-revolutions before. We've forced legitimate governments to their knees before. And so it was really disturbing to me that in the battle over stories, no one was telling the real story that this was as American as Apple pie. It's just Apple pie being brought home to roost at the Capitol to mix the metaphors.
And while history shows us that the seduction of this American mythology is not new; the Trump administration’s efforts to industrialize and weaponize this mythology as a means for achieving such drastically self-serving and violent ends is something we haven’t seen for quite some time.
In September 2020, Trump launched the 1776 Commission, an advisory commission dedicated to propogating quote-unquote patriotic education. In other words, the commission sought to flood the country with sanitized versions of American history that downplayed the horrors of slavery and consecrated our founding fathers as Gods.
Two things are important to recognize about the 1776 commission. First of all, it was obviously a rush job, a hurried effort to put what we might call an Easter egg into the next administration. It's been roundly criticized by legitimate historians, and it's also seen as being deeply plagiaristic. So it has no value as a legitimate historic document, but that wasn’t the point, as we saw on January 6, when Trump quoted the report in his incitement of the riot.
This is where ideology and violence come together again in the same way that they came together in the Civil War, in the same way that they came together when the 1915 film Birth of a Nation prompted the tremendous growth of the KKK. So this idea of the United States being born perfect, the idea of the United States as a country that was actually born as a white male project, the idea of Black people never really being fit for citizenship, these are ideas have long circulated as a defense of what the true America is.
And for those who thought that these ideas were now ancient history, Trump had another Trump up his sleeve. He could pull out the 1776 commission as a packaging of an old nasty, violent set of ideas, activate people through this idea and basically establish what might be considered a government in exile.
That's what the power of storytelling is. And that's why it's so important to be able to read it and tell a different set of stories. But how do we tell new stories when these counterfeit ones are so deeply sewn into our collective DNA? And what does Hollywood’s dirty laundry have to do with what happened at the Capitol on January 6th?
When my colleagues at Sundance invited me to organize a conversation at this year’s virtual festival, I jumped at the chance to explore these questions with some of the greatest minds I know. So I reached into my book of amazing friends and colleagues, and asked four very special people to join me:
Bryan Stevenson has been a friend of mine since 17. We first met in high school when we were part of a group of young leaders brought together in DC (more of story, if you like)
So I was delighted that Bryan Stevenson agreed to come on and talk about the work that he's been doing throughout his career to tell different stories, to tell the stories that we don't want to hear, the stories about lynching, the stories about judicial lynchings, which happens with the death penalty. So I really wanted to get a sense of what he was thinking about after January 6.
David Blight, the storyteller of storytellers. David Blight is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Frederick Douglass's amazing biography, and also the author of Race and Reunion. He talks about how the real story of the Civil War has been distorted beyond recognition by Lost Cause ideology, and so I was keen to get his sense about how Lost Causism was showing up in these competing stories.
Now, talk about a true storyteller, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize winning author, storyteller par excellence. He tells stories within stories. So I remembered from his book, the Sympathizer, his character was involved in trying to tell a different story about the Vietnam war as part of his efforts to be part of a Hollywood blockbuster in the Vietnam War.
And lastly, Ruha Benjamin. I wanted to understand the technological innovations that made the lie at the heart of Birth of a Nation such a powerful tool of propaganda. It was that technique. It was the use of film that made people feel like, “This is truth. I've experienced it. I saw it myself.” Well, there are new technologies that do the same thing. Many of those people who stormed the Capitol genuinely believe that they are experiencing an effort to take the country away from them. How did new technology allow them to believe that with the fervor that they did, and what do we need to do about these new technologies?
So I had a great crew and we had a great conversation.
So as Viet brilliantly said, all wars are fought twice. First, there's the actual war, and then there's the war of memory. And I would build on that and say, not only is it that this war is fought twice, it's a war that’s fought repeatedly across history. And over the last century, Hollywood has basically been Fort Sumter (/ground zero?)
If history is written and rewritten through cinema, as Viet says it is, then Hollywood bears some responsibility for the consequences of these warped narratives, the Capitol rioters, those assaulting the Capitol to save the imperiled nation, riding to the rescue like the Klan did in the Birth of a Nation.
But how did the losers of the Civil War get their story to shape the future? How did it happen, and what explains the fact that this old racist storyline hasn't been utterly dismantled?
Well, for that, we have to revisit David Blight’s story that he told us at the beginning of this podcast, when he spoke about President Wilson's framing of the Civil War as a “quarrel forgotten”. How is it that the Civil War, a massive cataclysmic event that wiped out a significant percentage of the population, blood being spilled over the right to hold African Americans in perpetual bondage, how does that not register in American memory as a treasonous event, a poisonous illustration about the utter destructiveness of white supremacy?
Instead it is through white supremacy, as David and Bryan lay out, that the North and the South were able to make up, to change the story to one of reconciliation, that quarrell forgotten and an entire people, by the way, abandoned. And we've been living with the consequence of this storyline ever since.
In the next section, we hear from Viet Thanh Nguyen about how the prevailing myth of American innocence gains power through film, and then gets rehearsed in that “this is not who we are” response to January 6th.
We also hear from Ruha Benjamin, who explains how narrative tropes -- like heroes vs villains, catharsis, and redemption -- can warp our understanding of past and present events. She starts by exploring how this narrative conditioning may have influenced the telling of the story of Eugene Goodman, the Capitol police officer whose courageous actions on January 6th helped save the lives of Mitt Romney and other members of Congress.
Intersectionality Matters is produced by Julia Sharpe-Levine. Today’s episode was edited by Julia Sharpe-Levine, with support from Amarachi Anakaraonye (A-KNACK-a-RON-yay), Rebecca Scheckman, Destiny Spruill, and the team at the African American Policy Forum. You can subscribe and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and everywhere podcasts are available. You can also support us by following us on social media, and by joining our Patreon page for bonus episodes and exclusive content. I’m your host Kimberlé Crenshaw, and this is Intersectionality Matters.
In the first part of the conversation, I ask Bryan Stevenson and David Blight to delve deeper into some of the stories that drove the insurrectionist to seize the Capitol, and the stories that shaped liberal responses to it. What exactly are the default narratives that we return to time and time again, and why are they so seductive to Republicans and Democrats alike? What's got to happen for the US to begin to tell a more honest story about its origins?
SECTION 1 Bryan Stevenson:
Well, in many ways, I don't think we've ever created narratives about Wilmington and Tulsa and much of our history that have been given to the American people. Most Americans I wouldn't even suggest all Americans walk around with a false narrative of who we are, of what this country is. It's what we were taught in school. It is a narrative of greatness. This is narrative of achievement, but it is false because it is incomplete.
We are a nation that is also a post-genocide society. What happened when Europeans came to this continent was a genocide? We killed millions of indigenous people through famine and war and disease. We created a narrative of racial difference. We said that those indigenous people, those native people they're savages. And we use the rhetoric of that narrative to disconnect from their well-being, their humanity. And we created a constitution that talked about equality and justice, but didn't extend to the millions of native people who were dying.
And we use that narrative for racial difference to then get comfortable with two and a half centuries of slavery. We are a slave society. They had slavery all over the world. In most countries, there were societies with slaves. America actually became a slave society. We created a narrative that made slavery about race. The great evil of slavery wasn't the involuntary servitude. It wasn't the forced labor. It was this idea that black people aren't as good as white people, that black people are less human, less capable, less evolve.
That narrative of white supremacy that was the true evil of American slavery. The Civil War comes, and the north wins the Civil War, but the south wins the narrative war because that idea of racial hierarchy of white supremacy continues. Even some abolitionists didn't believe in racial equality. That's why I've argued that slavery doesn't end in 1865. It just evolves. We passed the 13th Amendment that talks about ending involuntary servitude and forced labor, but says nothing about ending this racial hierarchy. It's why reconstruction fails because we weren't committed to a narrative of equality and lawlessness then defines the 20th century. Black people pulled out of their homes, beaten, drowned, tortured, tormented, lynched.
Sometimes on the courthouse lawn, our Supreme Court did nothing. Our Congress did nothing. Our policymakers did nothing. We were a nation in the first half of the 20th century that gave in to lawlessness. That created this mass exodus and the black people who went to Cleveland and Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles and Oakland didn't go to those communities as immigrants. They went to those communities as refugees and exiles from terror in the American South.
Then, we had the Civil Rights movement, but even there, the narrative was corrupted. It was a false narrative. We had courageous people who did courageous things, but that narrative of racial difference was never confronted. The presumption of dangerousness and guilt that gets assigned in black and brown people was never really addressed.
After the Civil Rights era when we passed the voting rights law and the Civil Rights law, we had the same phenomena happening that we had after the Civil War retreat from enforcement. Then, we created this new institution of mass incarceration over incarceration. At the beginning of the 21st century, we're hearing from the Justice Department that one in three black male babies born in this country is expected to go to jail or prison, and no one responds.
We don't react to that with a kind of pandemic level of concern. And our jails and prisons fill up, and black people are shot and killed on the streets by the police. And people are confused why there's such anger and frustration.
The narrative of America that we need to confront as a narrative we've never been forced to confront and so The challenge we have is will we find the courage to do this because in other countries where this has happened, South Africa, Germany, there was a tremendous shift in power. Black South Africans took over. That's why you had truth and reconciliation.
In Germany, the Germans lost. That's why there's a Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. And the consequence of that shift in power has yielded something that I think is powerful. When you go to Berlin, there's a reckoning with the legacy of the Holocaust. I don't believe succeed too long by talking about make Germany great again, by invoking some romanticized vision of … It would not be acceptable to the world to have that.
There are no Adolf Hitler statues in Germany. It would be unconscionable for someone to say, "Let's honor the architects of the Third Reich." But in this country, I live in Alabama surrounded by the iconography of the confederacy where we honor and romanticize the defenders, the perpetrators of this violence. And those images that many of those folks took to Washington on the 6th is an indictment of our failure collectively to tell the honest story. And Hollywood, and storytellers and filmmakers are implicated in that because it was a generation of cowboy and Indian films that kept us away from dealing with the native genocide.
It was a century of storytelling that made slavery somehow romantic and benign and put black people in roles that we were led to believe they were happy to be enslaved and marginalized and disenfranchised. It was even in the storytelling of Civil Rights that we had to create white saviors to kind of get those stories palatable. I think that's the challenge that we face. We've got to confront this. That's why I believe we're really at a moment when we need an era of truth and justice. That's the challenge that I think awaits this country. It's the reason why we had that explosion of lawlessness and mob violence on the 6th of January.
Kimberle Crenshaw: I was glad, Bryan, that you named alternatives and also brought cinema into it. When we look at the arc that you talked about, one of the ways that reconstruction's overthrow was justified was through projecting the criminality of blackness, the criminality which requires so many efforts to contain and punish and discipline and control that the state wasn't even up to the task.
We needed the Ku Klux Klan. That was very much part of Birth of a Nation. And we see its influence stretching a century and beyond the moment that the narrative was made into an experience that people think they actually witnessed. That's what the technology of film did at that moment.
We're looking at a situation where the continuity of the narratives and the technology of their production and experience are woven to together in ways that haven't been, I think, interrogated sufficiently.
I want to bring David in here as well. Bryan was talking about dimensions of the Lost Cause frame and what was necessary to make it palatable so that, effectively, the south won the narrative war. What is it that you see in the sort of revivalism of Lost Causeism in American politics now and particularly is playing out in January the 6th?
Well, thanks. Hard to follow Bryan. I love the way Bryan can capture so much history in single sentences. I wish I could do that. Anyway, to the original idea, he brought up of this broad master American narrative that we are a people of progress always improving, always solving our problems.
I think it was Richard Hofstadter, at least that's who's given credit for it, who once said, "The problem with what some people do American history is America was born perfect and then launched its career of improvement," which-
I love that. 1776 commission, right?
That's why that 1776 project, well, it's one of the reasons it's to be denounced and avoided. But anyway, in the wake of the Civil War to go right to the core of where Bryan took this, the closest thing we ever had to a... really wasn't, but The closest thing we ever had to a truth and justice commission were the Ku Klux Klan hearings. In 1871, the Grant administration to its credit went after the Klan especially in South Carolina, but in other upper south states as well.
They ended up holding hearings in seven states. It developed 14 massive volumes of testimony. These were perpetrators of violence, and these were victims of violence. After these testimonies that went on in seven different states with tribunals of congressmen by the way, Congress had never done anything like this before.
They ended up, and the purpose of this was to try to prosecute people. They ended up with about 3000 indictments. About 2000 others had their charges dropped. This was for the massive level of tortures and murders and burnings and so on done by the Klan from roughly 1868 to '71.
600 people were convicted. 250 were acquitted. Most of them got very light sentences. 65 people, out of those totals, actually went to prison. And none of them for more than five years in a penitentiary in Albany in New York and they were all out by the election of 1876. Now, one of the reasons they threw out a lot of cases is they said the court dockets were just so overloaded they couldn't even assess the trials. But here's the point of all of that. The Klan was put out of business, but not the Klan's methods and not the Klan's ideas. It just took on different names and different tactics and different places.
What, just the year after that was the worst massacre of reconstruction in Colfax, Louisiana where about 50 blacks were murdered in cold blood trying to vote. Then, another roughly 300 in that Red River region were killed in the wake of it. Then, the Klan evolved into other kinds of forces and methods.
A point though on this Lost Cause idea, one of the reasons the Klan hearings did not produce more widespread justice was because of this demand developing across the culture for reconciliation, for reunion of north and south to somehow put the place back together in peace which did have to happen.
The question was always how you did it. Reconciliation, we should learn from what happened in the wake of our Civil War always comes with cost. In fact, at Blue-Gray Reunions which were reunions of soldiers, these were not easy to do at first, but by the 1890s, they were happening all over the country even in northern cities. They usually advertise these Blue-Gray Reunions with slogans like “harmonious forgetfulness.” “Harmonious forgetfulness,” just think about what that means.
Then, finally, they had the great 50th anniversary reunion at Gettysburg in 1913, this massive spectacle. 53,000 veterans gathered at public expense from all corners of the country. And the whole thing was a segregated Jim Crow reunion. There were no black veterans invited. The only black people at that great Gettysburg reunion were black men who built the latrines, handed out the blankets to the old soldiers and worked in the kitchens that provided the food.