Unlike most people I know, I have not seen a lot of Ken Burns’ documentaries. In fact, the only one I think that I have seen from start to finish is one that he did biographing Jack Johnson, the early 20th century African-American boxer. Which, by the way, I thought was a wonderful film.
So, going to see Burns at Sixth and I yesterday afternoon, I did not know exactly what to expect. What I saw was an 80 minute film presentation, excerpted from various of his films, about race relations in America (it was originally put together for a presentation last year at Harvard), and what I heard was his ruminations on the subject, which were interesting, somewhat rambling, and somewhat poetic. A very worthwhile introduction to today’s Martin Luther King Day holiday.
He covered a wide array of topics, Thomas Jefferson and slaves at Monticello, Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, Orville Faubus and Central High in Little Rock, Louis Armstrong and “white jazz”, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and blacks v. women, Jack Johnson and Jackie Robinson. It really does give you pause, when you see this, to see how far we seem to have come, and perhaps how far we actually have come.
It wasn’t that long ago that Thomas Jefferson was saying that blacks were simply inferior to whites, that Abraham Lincoln thought that the freed slaves should return to Africa, that Elizabeth Cady Stanton thought that black voting rights would turn out so ugly that it would cripple any opportunity for women to obtain the vote, and that white New Orleans musicians were denying any African American role in the development of jazz.
Now, we are about to inaugurate a black president. OK, he is equally a white president. And, OK, he is not a descendant of slaves, but rather the son of a Kenyan with a Harvard Ph.D. But still it is an extraordinary step, isn’t it? Extraordinary.
I predict that, as far as his presidency goes, his color will not be a factor. But I am not sure what it will mean sociologically. We will just have to wait and see. It will be interesting to make sure that true progress results from the Obama years. And we will each have a role to play.