How Should We Tell Our History?

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Original Air Date: 
February 25, 2023

America is in the midst of a new debate over how we tell our history. You can see it everywhere – in arguments over critical race theory and AP history classes, in museums and state capitals, in the news and on talk radio. It’s fueled in part by an emerging generation of public historians who are re-shaping our national narratives.

Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfattah

Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah are the producers and hosts of "Throughline" from NPR. They explain why history belongs in the news and how they fell in love with it.

Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie is a New York Times columnist and political analyst for CBS News with a knack for providing historical context for present-day debates. It’s given him a distinctive voice among today’s pundits.

Charmaine Minniefield

"Praise houses" were places where Black people would gather in secret to affirm their African identity and cultural practices. Artist-activist Charmaine Minniefield explains how her Praise House Project pushes back against the erasure of history.


Show Details 📻
February 25, 2023
December 02, 2023
Full Transcript 📄

- It's "To The Best Of Our Knowledge."

I'm Anne Strainchamps.

(audio tape crackling)

In 1965, James Baldwin
gave a famous speech

accusing America of historical amnesia,

of denying the truth
about our long history

of slavery and racial injustice.

- What we are not facing

is the results of what we've done.

(calm music)

- I do think there is a
battle happening over history.

I think it's always been happening.

(calm music)

- That battle to face our history

and its consequences is still going on,

and today, a new generation
is joining the fray.

- What one begs the American
people to do for all our sakes

is simply to accept our history.

- The difference now is
that different people

are entering that battlefield

that I think than they used to,

and that's the difference.

- Like Ramtin Arablouei,
cohost of "Throughline,"

NPR's award-winning history podcast.

- I don't think this is new.

I think this has been happening
throughout American history

where the story that
we're telling ourselves

is constantly being refined and changed.

- When I was growing up,

I was told in American history books

that Africa had no
history and neither did I.

- We very much have a
particular perspective

in its most simple form,

which is that there's lots
of parts of American history

and world history that we're missing,

not only in school growing up,

but in the culture in general.

- I was taught that I was a savage

who had been saved by Europe
and brought to America.

- So what we try to do is poke holes

either in the mythology that exists

or add to the story
basically as much as we can.

- And of course I believed it.

I didn't have much choice.

Those are the only books there were.

- And I think that's
where it's gotten heated

because there's new people

and new perspectives entering the fray.

The country, I don't think has fully,

our society has fully adjusted

to that new kind of environment.

- One knows the power after all

which can be used against another person

who's got absolute power over that person.

(calm music)

(peaceful guitar music)

- America is in the midst of a new debate

over how we tell our history.

You can see it everywhere,

in arguments over critical race theory

and AP history classes, in
museums and state capitols,

in the news and on the radio.

It's fueled in part by
an emerging generation

of public historians who are reshaping

our national narrative.

This hour, we're gonna meet a
few folks on the front lines

of today's history battles,
beginning with the hosts

of one of my favorite podcasts,
"Throughline" from NPR.

Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah

are the producers and hosts.

They won a Peabody in their first season

for their series on Afghanistan,

and when they came through town recently,

they stopped by our studio.

We got to talking about why
history belongs in the news

and about how they fell in love with it.

(calm music)

Well, I know you both also talked

about coming from immigrant families,

that that really shaped a
particular approach to history

and a real love of and
appreciation for history,

history as you absorbed it
at home with your families

very much as opposed to how
history was being presented

in the public school system.

- Yeah, I mean, I think
for anyone who grows up

in an immigrant household,
you have a foot in two worlds.

You grow up hearing the
stories of your parents.

In my case, my parents were
refugees from Palestine.

Ramtin comes from Iran,
and his parents, you know,

left after the 1979 revolution,

and so both under traumatic
kind of circumstances

had to leave their homes.

It makes you think really
hard about what is home,

what is history, how do
you connect to places,

how do you connect to each
other, to other people.

It was definitely something
that was very present for us,

I think, both growing up.

And for Middle Easterners also,

history, religion and
politics and philosophy,

all of those topics are, like
those are the conversations

you have over tea late at night,

or as people are playing cards,

you're arguing over
like how to bring peace

to the Middle East and things like that,

or why they're on-
- I can see talking

about politics, but history, really?

- It's intertwined.
- I mean, what kind

of historical conversations
would you have growing up?

- I mean. (laughs)
- Oh, oh, I mean, all kinds.

I mean, I tell-

- Tell me!
- this story all the time,

but Rund's gonna roll her eyes here

'cause I tell this story a million times.

- It's a good story,
seriously. You should tell it.

- Basically, I was in a long cab ride,

and towards the end of the cab ride,

which happens if you're in
Tehran or if you're in Amman

or any other city in the Middle East,

you end up getting this big.
interesting conversation,

especially if they find out
you're from the US or you have,

in my case, I'm Iranian American.

So anyway, I'm talking to the guy,

and at the end of it, he says,

"You know, the problem is
that people in the West,

they never remember,
and people in the East,

they never forget, like,
they never let anything go."

For him, it was a critique of both sides.

And I think the way it
plays out in our household

is that, and this is a generalization,

but I think it's true,

whether you're Iranian or
Palestinian or Egyptian,

people from the Middle East have a sense

that they once had a great history,

they once had big kingdoms

and were the center of the world.

And a lot of that is true,
and that has gone away,

that now they're kind of living in a world

at the whims of people
who they used to consider

to be from the backwaters of the world,

so people from Western Europe.

And so I think there's
a certain embarrassment

and shame and bitterness
that comes from that,

and as a result, you end
up talking a lot growing up

about how you ended up in this country,

the sort of more recent
history and then also-

- Colonialism, yeah.
- Exactly,

imperialism and then also
the more ancient history,

which are the kind of the glory days.

- And I was gonna ask,
do you get that also?

Do you get the age of medieval Islam?

- Yeah, the Golden Age, right?

They'll say, "We invented
lots of medicine,

and look at our literature."

- Mathematics.

- Mathematics.

- Cosmology, yeah.

- And a lot of that is true.

Some of it's romanticizing,
but all of it is true,

and so it becomes a big thing.

You talk about history a lot.

Like I grew up, we both grew up learning

about a lot of the same
peoples, al-Tabari, al-Ghazali,

these like important kind
of like academic figures,

and even though we're from
different language backgrounds

and different parts of the Middle East,

these stories are shared and in common

because it's a point of
pride about our history.

And so those are the
stories we grew up hearing,

and we featured many of
those stories in the show.

So like the story of the "Shahnameh,"

which was part of our series

that won the Peabody about Afghanistan.

That first episode is centered
around this epic story

that was written in the Middle Ages

by an Iranian writer, poet,

which is I think the longest
continuous poem in history.

But it's like the Iranian
world's "Iliad," right,

or the "Odyssey."

(horse hooves clomping)

- "Years passed, he never returned home,

never met his child and did not even know

whether he had borne a daughter or a son

until one fateful day
on the eve of a battle

between two great civilizations,
their paths crossed,

Rostam and Sohrab, father and son,

strangers and soon to be mortal enemies."

- That story, we grew up
hearing it all the time.

So the stories that we were featuring

about Rostam and Sohrab in
the episode were just part

of what you had growing up.
- Yeah, the stories, yeah.

- So these are common stories

from a Muslim or Middle Eastern background

that are really common to our upbringings.

- But what I also really like
is that the larger narrative

that you're creating, the
kind of meta-narrative,

is that your lives and
the things that touch you

are so connected to people
very far away around the world

and in ways you may have no conception of.

I mean, I feel like that's something

you are always trying to do.

- Absolutely, really
whenever we're doing a story

about anywhere in the
world, we think about that.

We're like, "Okay, so someone
who's living in the US

is looking at this," and
often, unfortunately,

because of the way that
history's taught here,

it can exclude pretty much anything

that's happening anywhere else.

And I think it's something
that very naturally, again,

we sort of were aware of growing
up because it was always,

when we talked about 9/11
in our houses, I mean,

we each experienced it growing
up here on the Northeast.

I was living in New Jersey,
very close to New York,

and you know, I was in school with people

who lost people, you know, in the towers,

and at the same time, suddenly my identity

in their eyes had changed.

And so suddenly there is a grappling

of what is my place within this?

I was in touch with family
members in the Middle East

who are looking at this,
and they're horrified,

but then the news
reports on American media

are showing celebrations.

I'm like, "That's not what I'm
hearing from my relatives,"

right, who are watching
this, and they knew.

The thing is, partly they're horrified

that this is a loss of life,

and partly they knew there
is gonna be a retaliation

for this that's going to
completely disrupt the region.

And it was horrifying for people

all over the world for various reasons.

But yeah, again, for us, it
was almost not even a choice.

It was just, we were
sort of like seeing it

through those two different
kind of binoculars

at the same time.

- And people were seeing you differently.

- And Exactly.

- So with that kind of
double consciousness,

it must make telling
history even more complex

in the sense that it's one
thing to say, "You know what?

American history seen
from, say, an Iranian

or a Palestinian perspective
looks very different."

But you could say the
same about Iranian history

or Palestinian history seen
from an outsider's perspective.

- Yeah, I like the phrase
double consciousness.

That's a really nice way to put it.

And I think there's
just a necessary process

of sort of revisiting even the stories

that you think you know,
and looking at them

a little bit more critically,

and we try to do that with every topic

that we take on on the show.

- All history has a
mythological quality to it,

as Rund is describing.

There's a kind of ethereal
quality to the stories

we tell ourselves about ourselves
and about our societies.

And I think what we try to do on this show

is not to necessarily
destroy those mythologies

but to offer different
ways to look at them

so that maybe they evolve,

'cause these are
constantly changing things.

It's not like it's ever set in stone,

the stories we tell ourselves.

And I think what Rund is saying

is like the stories we
were told as children,

we're almost coming back to them a lot.

- And to ask why the stories were created

in the first place, who
created the stories.

Every country, especially
in the era of, you know,

suddenly you have nation-states

and new borders drawn in the 20th century,

it's just the whole world looks different

in the wake of that, and
new identities emerge

and new stories emerge, right?

And every country, including
the US, tells itself stories,

partly to unify, partly to
create that shared identity.

But one of the things that
you do by creating a story,

creating a quote,
unquote, shared identity,

is you often have to
leave out the ugly parts

or the parts that might,
you know, create disunity.

- Mm-hmm, yeah, well, that reminds me

of a conversation you had
with Nikole Hannah-Jones

on the show recently, the
creator of The 1619 Project,

which is, you know, one
of the biggest examples

I can think of in recent years
of revisionist public history

where she is, and her "New
York Times" colleagues,

very deliberately creating
a new American origin story.

So I was really struck
by something she said

in the conversation to you,

"to study that which
we have not been taught

is a form of liberation."

I love that so much.

Anything else she said to you
that really stuck with you?

- That was a hard interview for us,

to be honest with you, leaning into it,

because we found ourselves
asking ourselves,

how do we push Nikole
Hannah-Jones' interview

and not just do a kind of, "Oh,
we really agree in principle

with a lot of ways you approach history,"

this is a, you know, and we did-

- Well, she got a lot of pushback
from American historians.

- No, of course, I mean, but-
- I mean, it's not like

The 1619 Project was
just universally lauded.

- No, no, of course, of course.

But I think like an NPR
interview would generally,

I think, be viewed as
like a friendly interview

to what she's trying to do,
and obviously we're not,

you know, a gotcha kind
of doing journalism,

but we wanted to really have
a philosophical discussion

with her about what does this all mean?

And Rund asked the question

that she just repeated right
now, which is don't you need

some kind of shared identity as a nation?

Isn't that required to some form?

And does your project contribute to that,

or does it kind of-

- Contribute to disharmony?

- Exactly.

- What did she say?

- I don't wanna
misrepresent what she said.

Do you remember exactly

what she said?
- Yeah, I think she

more or less said, "Well, that's
not my job to worry about."

- I don't know if there is one collective

unifying narrative about America.

I think that The 1619 Project
can be a unifying narrative,

but only if you believe
that Black Americans

can be heroes of the story

and that Black Americans
are just as American

and that a white American can
see themselves in the struggle

to make this a democracy
and a land of equality,

just the way we're expected

to see ourselves in white founders.

So can we get there? I don't know.

I don't think that is the
concern of a journalist

is whether we can have a
single unifying narrative.

I think the concern of the journalist

is to try to help us understand
the society we live in

and to get as close to
the truth as possible.

- I guess what that made me wonder

is whether you see "Throughline" itself

as part of a larger
social political movement

in retelling history.

- I mean, yes, I think on some level

what we're really trying to do

is we're trying to tell
stories using facts,

getting as close to the
primary sources as we can,

and figuring out where our blind spots are

as individuals and as a
society, and I do think,

it's interesting because
when we started this show,

we started thinking about this show

right on the eve of the 2016 election.

And it feels like, you
know, the whole conversation

has completely radically shifted.

So I don't wanna overstate our place

in this bigger movement, but I do think

that we were beginning to think about this

right on the cusp of this
hyperpolarization moment

that we now find ourselves in.

In the lead-up to the midterm elections,

we ran an episode about Frederick Douglass

talking about the most sacred
right, which he saw as voting.

And so yes, we are making
a very clear defense

of the right to vote and of democracy.

Is that controversial?

Many people would say no,
but some people would say,

"Well, in the current climate, yes."

- But the other thing I
think is so interesting

is you're not historians,

and neither is Nikole Hannah-Jones.

You are occupying a very
special different sphere.

You're doing public history.

And I'm just curious about
what that means to you

and why that matters to you.

I mean, I feel like it's
something big and beautiful.

- It is big and beautiful.
It is, it's epic.

It's a lot of fun.

So we really respect
the work of historians.

I think we consider
ourselves kind of translators

or people who go on these
journeys for the listeners,

and the thing we're
good at is storytelling,

writing, sound designing, scoring.

These are the skills that we have,

and that's how the stories are,

stories are transferred through emotion,

not just through intellect,

and our job is to create
that emotional space

or landscape for people to take it in.

- Yeah, I think there's also such a power

in hearing a lot of the archival tape.

The graininess I love.

There's nothing like going
through archival tape

and when you can hear
someone's voice from 1935

who's, you know, waiting in a line

during the Great Depression,

and you just suddenly
realize the connectivity also

between maybe what you
experienced during the recession

and what they were going through.

I do think audio is kind
of unique in that way.

- There's something about that connection

to the past and people in the past

that makes us feel better, safer somehow.

And I don't know how,
because they're all dead.

So why would that make me
feel safer? But it does.

- Because they live lives just like ours,

you know, they're-
- Yeah, they have

their joys, the sadness, the struggles.

It's whole societies and
civilizations have come and gone,

and you realize and the world continued.

There is something almost hopeful in that.

- Maybe that's why.

So my secret theory is that
during COVID, it's not just me,

it's lots of people started
reading more history

and turned to history as kind of-

- It did feel like that.
- an escape, I did, I mean-

- It did feel like that, that
there was this kind of like-

- Didn't it?

- Yeah, because history feels so alive.

I was just randomly thinking
about this the other day,

but I've been really obsessing

with the Golden Age of Islam,

particularly the Abbasid period.

When you read stories
about what life was like

pre-Mongol invasion and
post-Mongol invasion in Baghdad,

you know, get all into that,

but basically the city
was completely destroyed,

the largest city in the world,

and the descriptions
you read of life before,

it's like not that much different.

Like living in Baghdad in
1110, the descriptions of it

sound a lot like living
in New York City now.

- Hmm, cosmopolitan.

- There's restaurants, there's
stores, there's people.

You get up every day, and you
go get bread from the bakery,

and you come home and you,

for me, it makes me feel a lot less alone,

not only in the time I live in now,

but that I'm a part of a larger continuum

of human beings who have come and gone.

I'm another piece in that.

- Ultimately, to me, there's
something optimistic in that,

you know, especially right
now as we face, I mean,

who does not kind of spare a
few thoughts every now and then

for the possibility of
civilizational death?

And yet knowing that in fact
that has happened before,

civilizations have come and gone,

and there are rebirths afterwards.

It's kind of hopeful.

- I think James Baldwin,

who we've also done an episode about,

as much as he faced during his time

and as much as he kind of
struggled and saw very clearly

the mechanics of oppression
and what could be seen

as a hopeless situation
for Black Americans,

his message ultimately was about hope.

I return to that episode
sometimes because it's very easy,

especially with climate change looming

and civilizational collapse, as you said,

potentially looming and all of that,

it's not something that, you know,

I look forward to living through.

There's very understandable
fear and anxiety

around all of that, but I think he said,

"I am alive, and so I am optimistic."

- Yeah, he said, "I can't be a pessimist

because I'm alive."
- "I can't be a pessimist

because I am alive,"
yeah, that's the line.

- I leave with a more optimistic feeling

working on this show every single day,

which always surprises people

because we touch on so
many dark, difficult topics

in history because, you know,
we've been through a lot,

and we'll get through the next challenge

that comes our way as a species.

And if we see ourselves in that continuum,

it's just a lot easier to
take on the everyday things

we have to go through, I think.

(calm guitar music)

- Thank you both so much for your show,

for your work, and for this.

I can talk with you forever.

- Aw, thank you so much.

- Thanks for having us.

- Yeah.
- Thank you.

(calm guitar music)

- Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei.

They're the creators and cohosts

of NPR's new history
podcast, "Throughline."

If you haven't heard it yet,

you should definitely check it out.

It's one of my favorites.

(calm guitar music)

Coming up, do we need a consensus version

of American history?

(calm music)

- We're talking about the narratives,

the stories that we tell
about American history,

and one argument that I've heard

about why we seem to be so polarized now

is that there's not one national narrative

that most Americans agree on.

I don't agree with that
because I don't think

there's ever been a
singular national narrative.

(calm music)

- "New York Times"
columnist Jamelle Bouie.

(calm music)

- For a long time, the national narrative

such that it existed was
sort of like a product

of a triumphalist post-World War II

kind of like America as
beacon of democracy narrative.

- People from different countries
with different religions,

different colored skins,
they can live together

and work together and
build America together

because they're free.

- Before that, you know,
a national narrative

that many people bought into

was America as City on the Hill.

- It was a tall, proud
city, built on rocks,

stronger than oceans,
windswept, God bless,

and teeming with people of all kinds

living in harmony and peace.

- And there's America's
melting pot, right?

- They're part of the largest migration

of people in world history.

They are the human ingredients

that make America the melting pot.

- The melting pot, the melting pot.

- Great melting pot of different cultures

and ideas and thoughts.

- America, the nation of immigrants,

immigrants, immigrants, immigrants.

- But when those things change,
that is no longer tenable.

(static hissing)

- Give me your tired and your poor

who can stand on their own two feet

and who will not become a public charge,

charge, charge, charge.

(mellow music)

- Debating American historical narratives,

next on "To The Best Of Our Knowledge"

from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

(calm music)

There's an old saying that journalism

is the first draft of history.

For Jamelle Bouie, journalism
itself can be an exercise

in revising and rewriting history.

Bouie is a "New York Times" columnist

and political analyst for "CBS News,"

a former chief political
analyst for "Slate,"

but I would also call him a
public historian of sorts,

because whatever Jamelle Bouie writes

about politics and race today,

whether it's the latest
case of police violence

or GOP culture war salvo,

his ideas are grounded in
and shaped by the history

of Black political thought

and the American democratic tradition.

Steve Paulson wanted to know why.

- One thing I've always
appreciated about your writing

is how historically informed it is.

It's sort of like you are a historian

masquerading as a journalist in a way,

and clearly you're a history buff.

But I'm wondering if you see
a large part of your project

as sort of bringing the
forgotten or largely unknown

pieces of history into our
political consciousness.

- The answer to that is yes.

I do see part of my project,

part of what I'm doing with the column

is trying to bring things
that are well-researched

and well-known in the
world of academic history

but not so much well-known to the public

and sort of using the resources I have

to kind of translate academic history

to a larger public audience.

But the other thing I'm doing
is using academic history

to push back against what
I've taken to calling

folk civic myths about the United States,

about its system of government,

about the origin of its
system of government.

Everything about this country

and our institution specifically,

there is no timeless wisdom
that undergirds them.

There are political choices
and political compromises

and political circumstances.

I happen to think that
American political institutions

are in desperate need of reform

and a lot less static than
I think it appears to be.

- As opposed to it was all locked in

when the founding fathers did their thing.

- Right, right.

- Yeah, so you read a lot
about politics and race,

and it's striking about how you've clearly

spent a lot of time studying
particular historical periods,

the transatlantic slave
trade, Reconstruction,

that period right after the Civil War,

and I'm wondering if you see
a few historical throughlines

that you feel like are essential to unpack

to understand the moment
that we're in right now.

- I do think that there
are, Reconstruction,

especially the period
after Reconstruction,

I think those things
can be very instructive

in thinking about our present.

The problem is that you can very easily

run into doing this thing

of making these one-to-one
direct analogies,

"This is like this, that is like that,

these things are the same."

The past is actually the past.

You know, the past doesn't repeat itself.

Like, I don't think that's the case.

Things are different.

So what you want to look
for are underlying dynamics,

underlying forces across time.

When you look at a period
like Reconstruction,

things that that period questions,

that period raises for a reader.

Is it possible to build a
integrated democracy, right?

Like, what is the relationship of labor

and freedom of labor
to democratic practice?

Those are the things
that I think are salient

from the period.

What is the role of violence

in constructing political communities?

Those are the things I
wanna encourage readers

to think about.

- What is the role of violence

in constructing political communities?

I mean, we normally think
that violence is horrible,

but it's not really part of our politics.

- Right, this is one of the things

that I've tried to push back upon.

Sort of Americans do have this idea

that the general way things
go in American politics

is that people make arguments
and people have debates,

but the truth of the matter
is is that political violence,

both small scale and large scale,

has been a hugely important part

of the shaping of the United States,

of the shaping of American
political community.

Among Southern whites,
the vigilante groups

that emerge in the years
after Reconstruction,

most famously the Ku Klux Klan of course,

but there were a bunch
of them going around,

there's vigilante groups for
as much political community

as they were attempts to
terrorize former slaves.

There's a great book called "Ku-Klux"

by historian Elaine Parsons.

What the Ku Klux Klan did,

especially in this very kind of Wild West

of the Reconstruction South

where people were piecing together

a political order once again,
is it was a way to build

these kind of cross-class coalitions

among white men, among local elites,

young men who may not
have very many prospects,

and it bound them together
into a kind of community

that then if they have
successfully, you know,

terrorized a Black sheriff

or they've succeeded in
their political goal,

can go on to become the fuel and basis

for other kinds of
political activity, and-

- And you're saying there's a direct link

between that violence
and then what happens

at the election booth.

- Right, exactly, so there's
a direct link between that,

and then when you're thinking
about our present, you know,

you can dismiss something like January 6th

are just people kind of just wilding out

for the sake of Donald Trump.

But I think it's important
to look at the ways

in which you have these
conspiracy theories

that kind of create this virtual community

and then the insurrection being a moment

of trying to actualize
that virtual community,

sort of bringing it into
being as a real thing,

and it's a glimpse in how
violence can be a crucible

for forming those kinds of communities.

And I think Americans
would do well to recognize

the extent to which
violence has consistently

played that part in our history.

- So play that out for me a little bit.

I mean, what we saw on January 6th,

which might seem just like a one-off,

I mean, this weird, crazy
thing that happened there,

but they seem to have not have succeeded

if the goal was to get
Trump to stay in office.

How is that violence still with us?

Or what are the implications of it?

- So one thing you've seen,

there have been
prosecutions of some people

involved in this.

One thing you've seen is how that event

has taken on almost sort
of like a titanic power

among the far right,

and it's become the basis
for further organizing.

It's kind of like a proof of concept,

and it linked people together.

It linked people who may
not have had connections

to themselves together.

It showed what was possible

obviously for the former president.

The whole stolen election has become

kind of a talisman that he wields.

And I think you can see
in how the far right

has reacted to January
6th, not repudiating it,

but hailing it as something important,

as using it as the basis for new

and future political action,

whether it's non-violent or violent.

- So let me bring up another
hot potato issue here,

critical race theory,
which has obviously become

the battle cry for conservative activists.

Chris Rufo, the guy who
made this a centerpiece

of the culture wars, was very upfront

about using this to
score political points.

And I guess the question is, why?

Why is this good politics for Republicans,

and is it necessarily a
losing issue for Democrats?

- So on paper, critical race theory stuff

really shouldn't work, right?

Like, if you ask in
polling, if you ask parents,

"Do you think schools should teach

about the history of slavery?"

Large majority say yes.

"Do you think schools
should teach about racism?"

Large majority say yes.

And of course here I'm gonna presuppose

that critical race theory
like means these things.

- Right, I mean, that's
a whole other thing.

- Yeah, a whole other thing.
- There's a complicated

legal definition,

but then there's the
more popular definition.

- Yeah, the quote, unquote,
critical race theory.

But you look at the polling,
and it's pretty overwhelming

when you sit down with
people and spell things out,

"This is what this looks
like, do you support it?"

They tend to say yes.

But obviously this has
been a potent rallying cry

for Republican voters
and has shown no evidence

of harming Republicans' standing
with the public at large.

And I think the way
they square that circle

is to recognize that
people are not moved by,

they don't look at
issues and evaluate them

in some sort of like rational way.

They're moved by emotion,
they're moved by grievance,

they're moved by excitement,

things that are the
hot-blooded characteristics

of being a person.

That's what moves people
to participate politically,

to vote, to phone bank, whatever.

That can be positive,
that can be negative,

the emotions can be positive or negative.

And the critical race theory
attack is sort of predicated

on fanning people's
anxieties about patriotism,

fanning people's anxieties
about their ability

to transmit their own
values to their children.

And even if you in the
abstract would agree

that kids should learn
about slavery in school,

you may still feel those anxieties.

Fanning those anxieties may push you

to be sympathetic to a candidate to do it,

because they're speaking to something

that you may not be able to
articulate, but you feel.

That's why it has proven to
be effective for Republicans,

and on the flip side,
that's why I think Democrats

have had a hard time responding to it,

'cause I think they're responding to it

in this very, "Well,
obviously this is not popular,

so you know, it shouldn't work."

- Isn't, though, the other
big underlying question

that some people talk about,
but maybe not a lot of people,

is this whole notion of white privilege.

You know, a lot of white
people don't wanna say,

"Hey, I'm inherently privileged
because of my skin color."

- I mean, so I sort of
studiously do not use

that term in my writing.

I do not think it's a very
useful or effective term.

I can see why it appeals to people,

because it's sort of very
individualistic things

or a moralistic thing.

You know, you can kind of admit
and confess your privilege,

and that brings some sort
of like moral absolution.

But you know, my concern personally

is not so much with the
individual souls of anyone

but sort of material and
structural inequality,

and so I'm less interested in privilege

and more interested in hierarchy.

I mean, if I were a political strategist,

I probably would say the people,

don't talk about privilege
for theoretical reasons

and because I think it does
rub people the wrong way.

- So you mentioned that
you're from Virginia,

and I'm gonna get a
little more personal here.

My understanding is that you
went to University of Virginia.

I believe you live in Charlottesville now,

- That's right, yeah.

- Of course, where the notorious

white supremacist rally happened in 2017,

also the home of Thomas Jefferson,

one of the most complicated
political figures

in American history, one
of our first presidents,

guy who wrote most of the
Declaration of Independence,

also a slaveholder, the
father of, I believe,

six children with Sally Hemings.

I don't know if this is something

that you sort of think about,

but how do you personally
calculate the ledger

of someone like Thomas Jefferson?

- Yeah, so I don't know
if I calculate the ledger.

I'm not sure it's possible

to sort of just like balance
these things out, right?

Sort to say, well, on one
hand, he was a slaveholder,

on the other hand, he wrote the
Declaration of Independence,

so it's a wash.

I don't think that's
how these things work.

I think those are the
kinds of questions you ask

if you're trying to hold someone
up for like public acclaim.

But if you're trying to understand someone

as an historical figure or understand them

in their terms and in their time,

I'm not sure how useful
that exercise actually is.

- Although it does come into play

when there's a statue of
Jefferson in front of a building

or his name is on something.

You know, what do you do with that?

- Right, right, for me,
just in terms of Jefferson

or Madison, all these guys
live like in this area.

So Madison is 40 minutes outside
of C'ville at Montpelier.

James Monroe is about 20 minutes

out of of C'ville at Ash Lawn,

George Washington about
an hour and a half away

at Mount Vernon.

I mean, they're all there.

My approach to this is
just to sort of treat them

as historical figures,

not try to become like
emotionally invested in them,

to sort of condemn them
where, or hold them to account

or whatever where that is appropriate

but also recognize that ideas can exist

a little bit disconnected from the person.

- That's interesting what you're saying.

I mean, you're basically
saying it's probably a mistake

to say, "Oh, this person
overall was good or bad."

The thing to do is to understand
the historical context

for the very specific
things that that person did.

- Right, right, and again,
the good or bad thing

I think comes into play
when you're talking

about public memorialization.

There are things that these
people do that are bad,

that are immoral.

Jefferson, if someone wants to argue

that we should take
down Jefferson's statue

because he was an unrepentant slaveholder,

I'm actually not gonna argue
and disagree with them.

I think it's an entirely
legitimate perspective.

I think a legitimate perspective is to say

that we're not honoring the
Jefferson the slaveholder,

we're honoring the
Jefferson the Declaration.

And although the response to that is,

"Well, you can't really
disentangle the two,"

like Jefferson's conception
of himself as a free man

is actually intimately tied
to his conception of himself

as a slaveholder and patriarch,

I think you can still
say in response to that,

the Declaration of Independence

has taken on such world
historical importance, right,

inspired people across cultures,

across time that we keep
the statue to Jefferson

for that less so Jefferson the man.

And if you wanna put a plaque there

that says Thomas
Jefferson owned 600 people

over the course of his life

and freed exactly like five of them-

- All who are related.

- All who are his children,
then I think you should do that.

(calm music)

- That's "New York Times"
columnist Jamelle Bouie

talking with Steve Paulson.

They met at a conference on
American power and democracy

at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Next, remembrance as resistance

and the Atlanta artist
preserving praise houses.

(calm music)

- These small wooden structures

were where we would gather in,

in secret safe spaces during enslavement,

and those structures still
exist, some of them today.

- Oh, really?
- Even the floors

are like sacred ground.

- Have you found any

old ones, like where?
- Yes, they're, yes, yes.

- Tell me about going

to visit them.
- They're all

in the Southeast, especially
in the Gullah Geechee Corridor,

but mine that I grew up in was in Indiana.

So they are in different places,

wherever you see that gathering practice,

which is basically the
beginnings of the Black church.

The Black churches are
basically everywhere.

- Remembering African American history

in an immersive public art project,

next on "To The Best Of Our Knowledge"

from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

(calm music)

I was in Denver last year for CODAsummit,

an annual conference on the intersection

of technology and public art,

and I met someone whose work
gives a whole new meaning

to the term historic preservation.

(calm music)

- Charmaine Minniefield,
a visual artist-activist

from Atlanta working on
the "Praise House Project."

(calm music)

The "Praise House Project" is a series

of site-specific installations
of small replicas

of historic structures
called praise houses

that my ancestors would gather
in as secret safe spaces

to assert and affirm
their African identity

and to express their culture with freedom.

It was an act of
resistance against erasure,

against laws that were
intended to dismantle

their identity and community.

The resistance was the gathering itself,

and the structure was the result,

because it was the drum.

We could not use drums

because it was a form of communication.

The floors of our praise houses
became our communal drums,

so a whole new technology was
created in that experience,

and that was called the ring shout.

- So I'ma sing one the slave
song that they liked to sing.

This after they come out of
slave, they sang the song,

"Jubilee in the Morning."

♪ Jubilee, jubilee ♪

♪ Oh, my Lord ♪

♪ Jubilee in the morning ♪

♪ My Lord, jubilee ♪

♪ Jubilee in the evening ♪

- There's an element of resistance in it,

because there is a element
of victory and overcoming

that you're celebrating, your endurance,

and it's having you move forward

and press on and be uplifted.

♪ Jubilee, jubilee ♪

- We stood in circle. We
sang in call and response.

We moved counterclockwise,

and all of our bodies moved together.

And that would go on all night long.

♪ Shout, my children, 'cause you're free ♪

♪ Oh, my Lord ♪

♪ My God brought you liberty ♪

♪ My Lord, jubilee ♪

- One of the most famous ones

was called Watch Night service.

It was on Freedom's Eve, New Year's Eve

before Lincoln announced
emancipation, Watch Night service.

Praise houses and ring shouts
were happening everywhere,

and all of that has nothing
to do with religion.

It's more so about the will to live.

♪ Oh, my Lord ♪

♪ Jubilee, jubilee ♪

- Did you grow up with any
of this, was it transmitted?

- Yes, I was raised Pentecostal,
in the Pentecostal church.

The shout tradition remained,

and it's sort of taken for granted

that the folks who are
Black church members

or Christian in North America
and of African descent,

we retained our African
ceremonial traditions

of actual physical movement
and merged those traditions

with our religious practice
because of our circumstances.

So it expressed in a contemporary way

as shouting in Black churches.

That all comes from the
ring shout that we created

once we arrived here to these parts.

- You said at the beginning
that it was your grandmother

who taught you how to shout.

- Yes.

- Yeah, what was she like, and how did she

she teach you that.
- Oh, my god.

She was four feet, nine
inches, yes, my great-grand-

- And you are tall!

- I'm six feet tall.

My great-grandfather was seven feet.

- Oh, wow.
- And they have

awesome stories, like, my
great-grandmother and grandfather

arrived in our small industrial
northern town of Indiana

and built the first praise house there.

- What did it look like?

- It was a small, rickety little church

that had makeshift pews
and hardwood floors.

And it was a small structure
that grew over generations

depending on our needs,

and it's still our
original church back home.

But some of us didn't have
means to have structures,

so we had hush harbors.

- What's a hush harbor?

- It's a low-sitting land
where there's shelter

from the trees of the higher land

for you to be able to go into

and then have your
ceremony or your ritual.

Hush harbors, they're all over.

So the earth was actually receiving us.

(calm music)

This came to me when I was in The Gambia.

- How did you wind up in The Gambia?

- I ended up in The Gambia in 2020, yes.

- At the beginning of the COVID.

- My flight was canceled.
I could not make it back.

I was stranded there for 14 months.

- I mean, it was COVID, but it also feels

like the hand of the ancestors,

doesn't it?
- Yes, right?

So what I did was, first of all,

it was a complete flood of messaging

and awareness from them, and I just,

they flooded over me, like across my face,

over my ears, down the front
of my chest all the time.

That's just how I say it.

I felt them just over me all the time

and still do, and still do.

And when George Floyd happened

and I lost my niece to COVID, 17 years old

in April.
- Oh, oh.

- I'm over there watching
all this just loss happening

right and left and police
brutality and all of that.

I started to recall the shout,
my grandmother's prayers.

I asked her in my own prayer practice,

"What would we do in the worst of times?"

And my grandmother said, "We would shout.

We were a praying people."

And so I began to record myself

in movement and shouting as medicine

because our stories have been forgotten.

Our place has been denied.

♪ I ♪

♪ Lay ♪

(feet stomping)

- So no longer will we be erased anymore,

and I will go right into
the darkest of places,

and I will find the
recipes of my grandmother

that were medicines in my body,
and no longer be denied it

and affirm and assert it
in contemporary space today

as a salve here forward.

(singer vocalizing)

I'm gonna do praise houses
to recall and remember

in a way that is restorative
for an entire community.

To have that actual gathering
that the ring shout was,

we can have it again
and invite our allies,

our communities together to
restore and repair harms done.

We can start with historic preservation.

♪ Ooh ♪

♪ Lord ♪

♪ My right hand he is ♪

- What happens when you
go into, as a visitor,

into a "Praise House"?

- Into a praise, oh, my goodness.

It looks like a replica
of a historic praise house

when you walk inside.

It's a completely empty container,

but it's an immersive digital
experience of the ring shout.

And my collaborators, Kimberly Binns,

who's an amazing filmmaker
and digital media artist,

created a whole collage of
images of the ring shout

as it's performed all over the world

throughout the diaspora.

I got a chance to record the ring shout

as it was performed in The Gambia,

and that collage wraps around you

as you stand inside of the praise house.

The score was performed
by Malesha Jessie Taylor.

It runs for a little over six minutes.

We played it nonstop for three weeks.

♪ My Lord ♪

- And no one tired, people came every day.

They sat in meditation.

♪ Hmm, freedom, freedom ♪

I mean, it is our anthem.
It really is our anthem.

(calm music)

I did one at Oakland Cemetery

to honor the 879 unmarked graves,

still asserting those memories

of our ancestors as we recall them.

- What happened to the,
tell me about the 879.

- The Atlanta City Council in 1866

ordered the Oakland
Cemetery Administration

to remove all of those who
were interned in Slave Square

and cast them into a flooded zone

where they were basically
buried in a mass grave.

We lost them.

We found them again in 2016
through new technology,

heat-sensing radar technology,

and now they just restored
those burial grounds.

The next "Praise House"
will go to the cemetery

that we created in response
to that mistreatment.

It took 20 years, but we bought land,

and it was in 1886 that South Atlanta

had its own cemetery called South-View.

Dr. King's family is buried there,

Congressman John Lewis, I
mean, everybody is there.

Now we're gonna put a "Praise House" there

to honor the 1906 Race Massacre victims.

In Atlanta, in 1906, a white terrorist mob

terrorized all the way down Auburn Avenue,

an African American prominent community,

and made its way to South Atlanta

where South-View Cemetery is
and murdered and destroyed.

Those who rest South-View,
we will honor them,

and the other "Praise Houses"

will lift up similar history in the city.

We just, you know, we're really hopeful

about the technology part of it.

We want to advance the scale of it.

We'd love to take over
the cityscape of Atlanta,

really, we'd like to with
"Praise House," the ring shout.

So that's what we're hoping.
- I this idea

of contemporary digital technology

in service of, you know,

restoring history.
- Yes, yes!

Well, that's what the ring shout was.

It was a new technology.

♪ Lay down, body ♪

♪ Lay down a little while ♪

♪ Lay down, body ♪

♪ Lay down a little while ♪

♪ I know you're tired ♪

♪ Lay down a little while ♪

♪ Lay down, body ♪

♪ Lay down a little while ♪

♪ You is tired ♪

♪ Lay down a little while ♪

♪ Your soul needs restin' ♪

- Wherever you came from

under these circumstances of slavery,

you knew the drum, you
knew the language together,

and we recreated the
language with our bodies

and with our feet inside of praise houses.

So to me, of course we
would expand and ride

and express inside of technology.

Like, what is a hashtag
except for reach, you know?

The same as the drum, the ring
shout, and the talking drum,

you know, the call out to
community, so let us gather.

All of those tools still
express in technology

in contemporary ways.

It's just being present, as
an African woman displaced,

acknowledging it as the story
and no longer being forgotten

or excluded or silenced, you
know, for being finally free.

- Mm, thank you so much.

You've been so kind and
generous with your time.

♪ Lay down a little while ♪

♪ I know you're tired ♪

♪ Lay down a little while ♪

(upbeat music)

- Charmaine Minniefield is
a visual artist-activist

from Atlanta and the creator
of the "Praise House Project."

The historic ring shouts
we heard were performed

by the McIntosh County Shouters.

Malesha Jessie Taylor performs the score

from the "Praise House Project."

Thanks to CODAworx for
bringing us together

at their annual conference
on technology and public art.

♪ Yes, I'm free ♪

♪ Freedom, freedom ♪

♪ Freedom ♪

- And thanks to you for listening.

♪ Freedom ♪

- "To The Best of Our Knowledge"

comes to you from Madison, Wisconsin,

and the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio.

♪ Freedom ♪

- Our producers are Angelo
Bautista, Shannon Henry Kleiber,

Charles Monroe-Kane, Mark Riechers,

Steve Paulson, and me, Anne Strainchamps.

Our technical director and
sound designer is Joe Hardtke

with help from Sarah Sarah Hopefl.

The music you heard in today's episode

is from Monplaisir, Chad Crouch,

the McIntosh County Shouters,

Malesha Jessie Taylor, and Salah Ananse.

And as always, you can
find more information

and pictures on our website at

- We're talking about freedom!

- Be well, and join us again next time.

♪ Freedom, freedom ♪

♪ Freedom ♪

♪ Freedom, freedom ♪

♪ Freedom, freedom ♪

(bright music)

- PRX.

Last modified: 
November 28, 2023