Ken Burns and Mrs. Jennings

As the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, William Adams, noted at the beginning of last night’s Jefferson Lecture, Ken Burns was an extraordinarily apt choice to deliver this honorary talk in the celebratory 50th year of the Endowment. Tens of millions of Americans have viewed his landmark documentaries on the Civil War, jazz, baseball, and other topics pivotal to U.S. history and culture.

Burns began his talk with a passionate defense of the humanities. The humanities and history, by looking at bygone narratives and especially by listening to the voices of others from the past—and showing their faces in Burns’s films, as Chairman Adams helpfully highlighted—prod us to understand the views of others, and thus, we hope, expand our capacity for tolerance. We have indeed lost the art of seeing through others’ eyes—perspective-taking—to disastrous results online and off. It was good to hear Burns’s fiery rhetoric on this subject.

His sense that the past is still so very present, especially the deep scar of slavery and racism, was equally powerful. As Burns reminded us, the very lecture he was giving was named after a Founder and American president who owned a hundred people and who failed to liberate even one during his lifetime.

While there were many grand and potent themes to Burns’s lecture, and many beautiful and haunting phrases, in my mind the animating and central element in his talk was a personal story, and a person. And it is worth thinking more about that smaller history to understand Burns’s larger sense of history. (Before reading further, I encourage you to read the full lecture, which is now up on the NEH website.)

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When Burns was just a small boy, only 9 years old, his mother became terminally ill with cancer, and the family needed help as their lives unraveled. His father hired Mrs. Jennings, an African-American woman who was literally from the other side of the tracks in Newark, Delaware. Burns clearly bonded strongly with Mrs. Jennings; he loved her as a “surrogate mother” and someone who loved him and stood strong for him in a time of great stress and uncertainty.

Then came a moment that haunts Burns to this day, a moment he admits to thinking about every week for over 50 years. His father took a job at the University of Michigan, in part so that his deteriorating wife could get medical care at the university hospital. The family would have to move. They packed up, and on the way out of town, took a final stop at Mrs. Jennings’ house. As Burns recounts the moment:

She greeted us warmly, as she always did, but she was also clearly quite upset and worried to see us go, concerned about our family’s dire predicament. Just as we were about to head off for the more than twelve-hour drive to our new home, Mrs. Jennings leaned into the back of the car to give me a hug and kiss goodbye. Something came over me. I suddenly recoiled, pressed myself into the farthest corner of the back seat, and wouldn’t let her.

Burns sees this moment, which he had never recounted publicly before last night and which immediately hushed the audience, as a horrific emergence of racism in his young self. Internalizing the “n-word” that was used all around him in the early 1960s, he couldn’t bring himself, at this crucial moment, to simply lean forward and hug and kiss Mrs. Jennings.

In this way, and in this story, Ken Burns’s Jefferson lecture was, perhaps more than anything, a plea for forgiveness. In the largely white audience, you could sense, at that tense, core moment of his talk, the self-recognition of those in the darkness, who knew that they, too, had had moments like Ken’s—a deep-seated inability to treat a black friend or colleague or neighbor with the humanity they deserved and desired.

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Upon further reflection, I think there is something in the story of Ken Burns and Mrs. Jennings that Burns may not have fully articulated, but that, even through his painful self-criticism, he may understand.

That moment of “recoil” is, I believe, more emotionally complex. Undoubtedly it includes the terrible mark of racism that Burns identified. But he was also a 9-year-old boy whose mother was dying, who was being driven away from his childhood home, the address of which he still remembers by heart as a 62 year old.

Young children respond to intensely stressful moments in ways that adults cannot understand. Surely Ken’s recoil also included feelings of not wanting to leave, not wanting to acknowledge that he was being driven away from all that he knew, with another, certain, grim loss on the horizon. Perhaps most of all, Ken didn’t want to be separated from someone he deeply loved as a human being: Mrs. Jennings. Kids don’t have the same coping mechanisms or situational behavior that adults have. Sometimes when they don’t want to affirm the horror of their present, they retreat into themselves. I hope that Ken Burns can let that possibility in, and begin to forgive himself, as much as he wishes that Mrs. Jennings and his father, who lashed out at him for his recoil, could return and do the forgiving.

If he can begin to forgive himself and recognize the complex feelings of that moment, then the story of Ken Burns and Mrs. Jennings can serve as both an example of the cruel, ongoing impact of racism in the United States, and also as a source of how change happens, albeit all too slowly. Surely Ken Burns’s unconscious reflection on this moment with Mrs. Jennings has been writing itself, subliminally, into his documentaries, and through them, into our own views of American history.

Burns mentioned toward the end of the lecture how African-American pioneers and geniuses such as Louis Amstrong and Jackie Robinson changed the racial views of many white Americans. But just as important, and perhaps more so, are the more complicated, daily interactions such as that between boyhood Ken Burns and Mrs. Jennings, experiences in which cold, dehumanizing stereotyping battles warm, humanizing sentiment. It takes constant work from us all for the latter to win.

[With thanks to my always insightful wife for our conversation about the lecture.]

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