“The Civil War,” which is airing on PBS this week in a handsomely remastered state, is Ken Burns’s most famous film. But while the documentarian’s subjects have ranged widely across the American landscape and American history, covering everything from the Shaker movement to the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and the trauma of the Dust Bowl, Burns has returned to race again and again. Whether he’s examining black art in “Jazz,” the integration of the national sport in “Baseball,” profiling American Indian leaders in “The West,” chronicling the rise and struggles of boxer Jack Johnson in “Unforgivable Blackness” or advocating for the men wrongfully convicted of rape in “The Central Park Five,” race defines Ken Burns’s America. And although “The Civil War” may have ended with a surrender, the issues over which the war was fought are far from settled.
“I think in some ways, the subsequent films have convinced me only more certainly of our thing about the war, that it was the central event. Race is one of the things of American culture. I’ve taken a lot of criticism for saying that,” Burns told me when we met in a New York editing studio in May. “So, doing ‘Jackie Robinson,’ has echoes with Ferguson. Doing ‘Central Park Five’ has echoes back to Emmett Till and some of the realities of slavery. All of the way the Ferguson municipality behaved to its own citizens, its majority citizens, is not dissimilar to the way Jim Crow sharecroppers experienced the pernicious substitute for slavery: ‘Well, if we can’t own you, we have to pay you something, it won’t be very much, but we’re going to own every other aspect of you. And by the way now, since you’re no longer my property, I can kill you with impunity, because you’re not valuable to me.’ … And while there was no law that protected African Americans in slavery, and there were supposedly laws that protected them afterwards, they weren’t applied, and in many cases as we learn with chilling regularity, still aren’t applied.”
For Burns, those insights took time to develop. As a child — he was 8 when America marked the Civil War centennial — he and his brother played with a toy soldier set, and Burns, “as the older brother, always insisted on being blue. He had to be the gray. Which ultimately meant that I would win without ever considering what the underlying historical realities were.” But “by the time I did ‘The Civil War,’ ” Burns explained, “it was really clear that that dynamic was old, it was shoddy, and it was most of all untrue, that African Americans, as every narrative heretofore, every popular narrative had suggested were passive bystanders, were in fact active, dedicated, self-sacrificing soldiers in an intensely personal drama of self-liberation. That it was at the heart of it.”
Burns doesn’t have much patience for narratives about the Civil War that suggest that its causes were anything other than race, pointing squarely at the South Carolina articles of secession: “Is there the words ‘states’ rights’ in their articles of secession? No. Is the word ‘slavery’ there? Yes. Many times.”
“People say, ‘Oh, it’s about states’ rights.’ ‘It’s about agricultural economics.’ ‘It’s about political differences.’ ‘It’s about social differences,'” he said, running through the list of justifications. “Yeah, the social differences based on a society that keeps people free or doesn’t pay their laborers. That pays for work or doesn’t pay for work. Right? That creates huge, different societal differences. And certainly it’s political, because as the equilibrium of power that the South had dominated in the presidency and in Congress is being challenged by new states that are increasingly less interested in slavery, they’re interested in taking their ball and going home. That’s the political reality. And the economic stuff? Yeah, they’re afraid that someone’s going to pass a law that’s going to deny them their single greatest wealth, which is the ownership of 4 million other human beings, in 1861 … Slavery is why the Civil War happened. And slavery is still this original sin that Americans have to figure out, somehow, how to transcend and overcome.”
And he’s sharply aware of the way these kinds of obfuscations persist in contemporary political discourse.
“So if the president wasn’t born in the United States, that’s another way of saying the n-word. If he’s Muslim, that’s another way of saying the n-word. All of these things are code, new racial code, for words that now have, at least in public, lost their respectability,” Burns continued, marveling at the way the end of the Civil War only forced white supremacist language and practices to mutate to fit their new circumstances. “You would rather be able to look at a black person and tell them what to do, and most often today, that means ‘Please stay out of sight. If that means we have to warehouse you in prison, if that means we have to treat your suburb that’s now growing increasingly dark, then we’ll tax you and fine you and keep you in jail to keep our coffers full, and coincidentally, you out of the way.’ All of those things are taking place today, today in the United States.”
Given the role of race in Burns’s films and thinking, I asked whether he ever considered making a film about Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War when the states that seceded were reintegrated back into the United States — and when the promises made to freed slaves immediately began to falter. As it turns out, Burns had actually contemplated making a Reconstruction movie before “The Civil War,” and it’s only now that the film has achieved what Burns refers to as “inner emotional traction.”
“I’ve said yes, fully, to it,” he told me. “We’ve got a skein of films under production that go to 2020, so I imagine even before that, we’ll begin work on it.” The series doesn’t have an official title yet, but right now, Burns is referring to it as “From Emancipation to Exodus” and planning for it to run three episodes.
“It’s that period from Jan. 1, 1863, when African Americans get their freedom, but they get nothing but their freedom, through the end of the Civil War, the promise of Reconstruction, the collapse of Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan and lynching, through black leaders who are trying to adjust to this new dynamic — Booker T. Washington, urging accommodation, W.E.B. Dubois urging the strengthening of institutions, Marcus Garvey even suggesting that blacks go back to Africa, finally culminating with the post-World War I [sentiment]: ‘You know what, eight out of ten of us still live in the South, let’s get the hell out of here,’ initiating the Great Migration that would take place over the next several decades.”
He even knows what the last words of the documentary will be. “They would head, as the poet Langston Hughes wrote, ‘towards the warmth of other suns.’ ” In all the time Burns has been chronicling American history, that dream hasn’t been accomplished. But the journey continues.