Sunday, May 26, 2024

‘Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America’ Makes a Damning Case

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We, as white people, often oversimplify racism. A telling example would be to look at films about race made exclusively by white people versus films made by exclusively Black and Brown artists or, at the very least, a diverse cast of voices in front and behind the camera. The differences are stark not just in how racism is expressed but in how it is defined.

I mention this because Jeffery Robinson’s one-person show/documentary Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America must be taken in part as another brick in the wall of voices calling for a reckoning of one of the founding principles of the country: white supremacy. Robinson, a lawyer, makes his case with a clear-eyed meticulousness while also struggling to rein in his justified rage.

Part documentary and part presentation, Who We Are, has Robinson traveling the country, uncovering the history of white supremacy, some well-known and others not. Robinson builds his case that America has always been racist and how that has affected and infected this so-called great country. 

Directed by Sarah and Emily Kunstler, they cut between Robinson on stage making his case to the audience with footage of him on the road. The segments with Robinson on the road tend to feel like news interviews or specials, the kind we might expect to see from Soledad O’Brien or Dan Rather. Robinson engages with his subjects but also tries to keep a cool head and interrogate their responses.

One interview has Robinson arguing with a white man protesting his right to wave the Confederate flag. Robinson expertly breaks down the man’s belief system, exposing that the man understands that racism is wrong, slavery is wrong, and that it is inexplicably tied to the flag. But the man can’t bring himself to say it because it would mean reimagining his entire worldview. The moment is not new, and it’s hard not to feel for Robinson as he is clearly on the verge of losing his temper.

I’m reminded somewhat of Marielle Heller’s documentary of Heidi Schreck’s one-woman show What the Constitution Means to Me. There Shreck attempts to show how the systemic violence in America has affected women of all ages, races, and sexuality. As practiced debater, Shreck, like Robinson, builds a case and lays out the facts.

The Kunstlers’ Who We Are show the violence done to Black communities without marinating in it. Yes, they offer multiple photos of lynchings, but that is because Robinson is trying to make the point that lynchings are so intrinsic to American life they are all but police sanctioned. Indeed they must be, for how else could they be so widespread and well documented.

White supremacy is like a poison. It infects everything it touches. It’s also such a broad topic that it’s almost impossible to cover in one sitting.

Robinson is attempting to make sure woke people understand how easy it is to fall back asleep while also striving to wake them up even more. Yes, many people know about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. But how many know that historians have come to believe that the mass grave containing 4,000 dead Black men and women is underneath the local interstate.

In a literal sense, Who We Are is trying to tell us where the bodies are buried. The Kunstlers sidestep any stylized aesthetic and instead let people talk. It’s easy to accuse the film of being a bunch of talking heads, except that Robinson and the Kunstlers allow their subjects time to speak and think. As a result, they stumble over words, and the Kunstlers don’t attempt to make it more polished with editing, instead allowing the pain of the memories to come through as they witness being Black in America.

Although early on, Robinson attempts to distance himself from Police abolitionists by stating he believes there are good cops, I get the sense that it was a rhetorical tactic more than a stance. For by the end, while he never says it, he has planted the seeds of facts and evidence of how policing, an outgrowth of fugitive slave patrols, is a violent specter haunting American life.

At the same time, the people who need to see this, white people, probably won’t. I hope I am wrong, but I feel that I’m not. In any instance, even the white people who think they don’t need to see this will probably learn something. Not just because of things like learning about Francis Scott Key’s verse for the “Star-Spangled Banner,” which Robinson has a 4-part choir beautifully sing, their talent and sonorous voices giving life to the ugly and disturbing lines. 

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight, and the gloom of the grave,

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave

Robinson also attempts to make us understand that there is history and there is recent history. He talks to Lessie Benningfield Randle, who at little over one hundred years old, is one of the last few remaining survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre, and to surviving family members of race killings that aren’t as famous, such as Larry Payne’s sister Carolyn. 

The Kunstlers and Robinson are trying to impress upon us that these are all history. How we sanitize and simplify this history does us harm, not because it is simply not the truth; as Robinson quotes Orwell, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” The show was filmed in 2018, but it’s impossible not to think about the current white supremacist backlash to Critical-Race Theory.

After Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, it was discovered what was going to be his last speech was entitled “America May Go to Hell.” White supremacy is a poison. It infects everything it touches. Who We Are tries to diagnose precisely how and why it spreads. The treatment depends on what we do today, tomorrow, and the day after. 

Images courtesy of Netflix

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