Don’t underestimate the ability of people to reason. As Joan Didion wrote in “The White Album”, our minds can make sense of the unsensical to help us move forward. It is human nature. I have a good understanding of it. How we get up each morning is determined by our ability to reason. It’s how an adulterer sees himself in the mirror. How the victim moves past his trauma. How we, the country, reconcile with a past that we may not be ready to or willing to share publicly.
Jeffery Robin spent the last ten years trying to deprogram fellow Americans. He is a civil rights advocate and deputy director of the ACLU. He has traveled across the country to give an important lecture on the complicated history of white supremacy in America — a history many either reject or have long since rewritten. Robinson’s presentation is surprisingly nonconfrontational and moderate in intent for such a topic. It serves as the backbone of Emily and Sarah Kunstler’s “Who we Are A Chronicle of Racism In America,” an engaging essay film that makes clear its points, supported by evidence for those who are open-minded enough not to believe their education was incomplete.
The bulk of “Who We Are”, was recorded in Juneteenth 2018, just before a packed audience at New York’s Town Hall Theater. Robinson is not the only one on stage delivering a TED Talk about America’s original sin, and how we can deal with it moving forward. (Keep in mind that this format can sometimes prove to be quite effective, as Al Gore’s “An Unconvenient Truth.”) Robinson travels to Charleston, S.C. to meet with protestors fighting for the preservation of a Confederate monument. Robinson takes a bus to the Old Slave Mart Museum. There he sees fingerprints in bricks. This is, like so much in Black history, a permanent trace of the enslaved who built so much.
The film follows Robinson to Memphis, Tenn. where he visits Lorraine Motel, which is the location of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. 1968. Robinson shares a memory of having attended a public demonstration to support striking sanitation workers in the city one week earlier, a demonstration where Black 16-year-old Larry Payne was fatally shot by police. The Harvard-educated lawyer says that it was one of those moments in my childhood that made him realize how fortunate he was. He reminds listeners about the many ways Black Americans are treated with respect. It sends a message every time such a crime goes unpunished.
That message, Robinson argues, suggests that we are a society that values Black lives less than white lives, today as at