Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America


“We have decided to move into our house because my father – my father – he served it for us, brick by brick.” – Walter Lee Younger (Sidney Poitier) in Lorraine Hansberry’s masterpiece, “A Raisin in the Sun”

A recurring image used by lecturer Jeffery Robinson in Emily and Sarah Kunstler’s sober documentary, “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” is a ball that reaches a turning point, just inches away from making real progress , until it is forced to slide backwards. One of the most important historical cases of this recurring setback is the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which took place in Robinson’s hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, before the civil rights leader had the chance to give a speech entitled “Why America Can Go to Hell.” Shortly afterwards, the houses in the Black Quarter, where Robinson’s family lived, were bought up, prompting his father to make a deal with the builder. This resulted in Robinson’s family, not unlike the one in Hansberry’s play, buying a new house in a white community, thus ensuring that he and his brother would receive the good Catholic education their parents wanted for them. Robinson vividly remembers how their neighbor was bringing them his beloved dessert of chocolate cakes until she realized that his family was not really “helping.”

It was his “unicorn parents” combined with pure luck that Robinson credits for the path that led to his graduating from Harvard Law School and serving as legal vice president of the ACLU. Despite receiving the best schooling the American education system could offer, Robinson was shocked at how much was left out of the history books, thus inspiring his titular one-man show as we see him perform at Juneteenth 2018 in New York City City Hall Theater. Just as Al Gore detailed the inconvenient truth of global warming and the devastating impact it currently has on our planet, Robinson shares a mighty unpleasant truth that has only magnified in subsequent years. Both “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Who We Are” call for urgent fundamental changes in how we live our lives, and neither film is the dry lecture it may seem at first glance. Robinson is matter-of-fact, thoughtful, and hugely compelling in illustrating hidden chapters in our common history, such as the 1921 ethnic cleansing in Tulsa that many people first heard about thanks to HBO’s ingenious 2019 series, “Watchmen,” with its bold yellow letters , which was later repeated in Black Lives Matter street art.

Emily Kunstler’s editing effectively compiles Robinson’s presentation with footage of him visiting topics in various corners of the country, including the lovely Lessie Benningfield Randle, a 107-year-old survivor of the Tulsa violence that was triggered by the experiment from citizens in Greenwood. , an enclave called “Black Wall Street”, to prevent a lynching. Only the steps to the city remain, a harrowing reminder of a groundbreaking community that was never rebuilt. Robinson argues that such atrocities, including the estimated 4,000 racial lynchings that took place in the century after liberation, could only have been allowed as a result of “acceptance or direct involvement” by law enforcement. His observation that today’s police departments were originally formed as slave patrols serves as part of his interview with the mother of Eric Garner, who believes her son is a victim lamb. His murder at the hands of officers is one of countless modern tragedies that confirm how the law that exempts the murder of a slave person from being considered a crime is still upheld.

The film is guaranteed to leave you wondering why a slaveholder like Andrew Jackson remains on the $ 20 bill, why Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner” – a verse celebrating the murder of enslaved people – is our national anthem, and why the request for Compensation is always questioned, especially in light of Lincoln’s Compensated Emancipation Act, which compensated slaveholders with a million dollars for their “lost property.” One of my favorite images in the film is a pair of suitably withered flower bouquets, sympathetically placed in the fence around the room where a statue of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was removed, thanks to the efforts of activist Tami Sawyer. Robinson reminds us that John Ehrlichman of the Nixon administration did not put into words when he admitted that the infamous “war on drugs” was simply intended to disrupt communities that the government felt were a threat, and to associate hippies with marijuana and black with heroin. What prevents this film’s stomach-churning history lesson from numbing our senses is Robinson’s ability to make himself a vulnerable human presence on camera, as when he admits to being disappointed with his own results in the Harvard’s Implicit Association Test, which indicated that he has a negative impression of black men like himself.

An emotional climax in the picture emerges during Robinson’s trip back to his former Catholic school in St. Louis. Louis Memphis, where he and his brother became the first black students enrolled there. His former basketball coach, Richard Orians, tearfully recounts how he tried to protect Robinson from the racist vitriol expressed in Walls, Mississippi, after they traveled there to play. Robinson even gives a Confederate flag-waving man in South Carolina the chance to advance his cause, thus removing any shadow of a doubt that his beliefs have trumped any threat to knowledge. Viewers who are skeptical that white supremacy is being normalized in American classrooms should look no further than the proposed Indiana State Senate Bill 167, which removes the right of instructors to learn that the Nazis and similar political parties are “of low moral character. ” “Who We Are” should be made the required display in any American school, as we are once again at a crucial turning point. The hope found in activists of all races demonstrating together in the midst of a pandemic is underscored by the joyous gospel music over the closing lyrics. It is Robinson’s goal to guide our eye to see the truth about our past, which is so often overlooked. This is perhaps most indelibly expressed by the fingerprints left in walls throughout Charleston by the enslaved people who built our cities, our economy, and our country, brick by brick.

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