For over a decade, Jeffery Robinson has told an unvarnished history of the United States in an ever-evolving lecture presentation. His talks, now presented as part of his organization Who We Are Project, explore how anti-Black racism has been linked to the country’s heritage since its inception. The new documentary “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America‘ captures Robinson’s insightful account (filmed at Town Hall in New York City) and includes interviews with civil rights activists and others from his travels around the country.
The film, directed by Emily and Sarah Kunstler, joins a series of documentaries that unearth race and the history of marginalized people in America, such as Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro and Ava DuVernay’s 13th.
“This isn’t ‘Eyes on the Prize,'” Robinson said of the new film, which is available on major digital platforms. “But I think it’s a call for us to be something radically different going forward.”
When Ben Kenigsberg reviewed “Who We Are” for The Times, he made it a critic’s pick, writing, “It’s a confrontational film, but never an alienating one.”
Robinson, a criminal defense attorney by trade, was the director of the ACLU’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality in New York, and he recalls passing by the former Cotton Exchange on his way to work. I spoke to him and the Kunstlers (whose last feature film, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, was about their father, the civil rights attorney). These are excerpts from our interview.
Who We Are aims in part to show the role of white supremacy in US history. How did you go about it?
JEFFERY ROBINSON I say it as a rhetorical question in the film: “What if I said America was founded on white supremacy? Someone might say, ‘Jeff, that’s really extreme.’” But when you read the words of the people who founded our country and see what they did, I think it’s an inescapable conclusion. Some people have said the Constitution is a compromise between those who wanted slavery and those who didn’t want slavery. This “compromise” protected the institution of slavery, gave representatives of the Southern Congress and Electoral College votes to protect the institution of slavery, and rendered black attempts at freedom unconstitutional. It was unconstitutional that I was trying to escape from my owner!
SARAH ARTIST And they accomplished all of this without using the word slavery. We have a long history of hiding what we mean as a country. When we make laws that preserve and uphold white supremacy, we don’t really say what we’re doing.
ROBINSON There’s no way you can associate white supremacy with a law that says you can’t change the name of iconic monuments in the state of Alabama — until you understand that these are essentially monuments to slavery and the people who enslaved people to have.
The film also uncovers the details of lived Black experiences: for example, the fingerprints left by enslaved builders on the walls they built.
EMILY ARTIST The abstract facts mean nothing if you can’t relate them to actual human experience. These fingerprints are an example of a memorial to a history of lived experiences of enslaved black people in Charleston, SC, and indeed across the country, that remain despite best efforts to erase them. Also the foundations for the houses in Tulsa, Okla., [site of the 1921 massacre]still exist where the houses were never rebuilt.
ROBINSON There was a moment when we spoke to each other mother Randl [a survivor of the Tulsa massacre] and she said, “There was a pile of dead bodies.” A cold shiver ran down my spine – this woman, who was over 100 years old, remembered this memory in her life.
Jeffery, how did it feel sharing your and your family’s experiences of racism, like that school basketball game the hosts didn’t want you to play in?
ROBINSON We went to dr. Tiffany Crutcher and asked her to talk about her feelings her brother is killed on live television, practically by the Tulsa Police Department [in 2016]. And it felt like, okay, I should share something. Thick [a basketball coach who stuck up for Robinson] was 21 years old when this incident occurred in Walls, Mississippi. This is just a few years after civil rights activists in Mississippi went missing and were murdered. Where he got the courage to do it the way he did, I just don’t know. But it was clear that if I didn’t play, we would all leave. And he wouldn’t do that to me at 12. I think he basically saw me as his younger brother.
Could you talk about starting the conversation about slavery with a man you met at a Confederate statue who represented Flags Across the South, the pro-Confederate flag group?
EMILY ARTIST I felt that it encompassed the thesis of the film. I asked Jeff, “Do you think this gentleman could be reached?” And Jeff said, “I don’t know if he’s reachable, but I know he certainly won’t be if nobody tries.” It is valuable to bother, valuable to state the facts and continue to do so. We cannot be silenced by people who think differently, speak very loudly, and come out in droves waving Confederate flags.
ROBINSON The conversation didn’t go the way he might have imagined, in terms of me getting mad at him or something. There was a little twitch in his face when we left, and I think we got at least a few wheels turning in his head.
How does the film relate to the controversy over laws banning the teaching of certain American history?
ROBINSON The first time we met in person to talk about it [movie] was June 20, 2017. Nobody even talked about CRT [Critical Race Theory] back then. It would have been like, “What’s that, a breakfast cereal or something?” So it wasn’t in response to those laws. But these coming laws can tell you how scared people are of the information contained in this film.
This goes back to the concept of the “minds of the rising generation”. As early as 1837, John C. Calhoun, one of the most vicious racists in American history, said that we cannot teach children to abolish slavery in school because if we teach that, slavery is finished. The day before [Trump] When the government left office, they published something called “The 1776 Report,” which spoke of a return to patriotic education, and they use the exact same quote as John C. Calhoun: “the minds of the risen generation.”
SARAH ARTIST Before there were anti-CRT laws, there were textbook wars. So there is an endless battle over what and how much our children are taught in school about our nation’s history. One of the most compelling things about Jeff’s speech is that it is based on primary sources. You don’t just have to learn that in school. You can look for it yourself.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/01/movies/who-we-are-jeffery-robinson-emily-sarah-kunstler.html Using Movies to Tell a Personal Story of America and Race