ESSAY #15 – 11.3.20 POSTED 7.1.21

How We Get There, Part II, 7th In the Series

Once we have created a resource that every American can count on to find and understand our shared history, we must make it accessible to those who would otherwise not read it, by way of a high-quality documentary series. In addition, we must establish a second board of scholars that we can all trust to identify a process by which to create an equitable society.



In “How We Get There, Part I,” I made a big deal about creating a national website that provides an accurate, scholarly, chronological history of the black American experience, so that all can access the truth about our history. But now, I must admit to a small impediment to this plan:

White people don’t read.

White people watch Netflix and explore Amazon in just about every way possible, and when they are not doing that, they are driving on congested highways, dealing with their kids, going to the doctor, and fixing their leaky faucets. The average American spends 8.74 hours a week talking to their utility or internet provider, their printer manufacturer, or to a software provider whose tech adviser has a thick Mandarin accent and is named Phil. It is widely estimated that 6.33 of those hours are spent relistening to a 45-second loop of what was considered a pretty fine piece of music 30 years ago, regularly interrupted by a recording that says, “We are experiencing unusually high call volume, so we appreciate your patience. Your phone call is important to us. Please stay on the line and…” I’d like my providers to know that if you are “experiencing unusually high call volume” on a regular basis, it is no longer unusual. Hire some unemployed Americans and pay them a living wage!

Sorry, I digress. But it felt good to say that. The point is, most of us don’t read anymore. We buy the big books and give them as gifts, and sometimes we buy them for ourselves, and sometimes we do read them. But most of us, most of the time, don’t. We—especially those of us under 50—are constantly checking our phones, which are constantly alerting us to updates from our favorite sources of misinformation. We are constantly tuning into those sources that confirm what we already think, and it is hard to get us to look at anything else.

Nevertheless, I am calling for the creation of a scholarly set of papers, made available on the internet to every American, which tells the history of black life and racial relations, and which can be pointed to as a reliable source of information when the curiosity of an individual rises above the next ding on his/her phone. It has to be easy for thoughtful people (and there are many thoughtful people out there) to find the facts. The easier it is, the more likely it will be that they return to the source themselves, and that they will tell others about it. The story must be told simply, accurately, without exaggeration, and be readily available to anyone who really wants to know the truth. It must be easy to access. This online set of papers can then become the basis for what needs to come next—the marketing of the story.

Getting the word out

Once we have the story written down, we need to create a high-quality, first class documentary series that parallels the written history, and make it available on Netflix, Amazon, and all other major sources of video streaming. I am not talking about one of those documentaries that plays the cheesy excitement music between segments, and tries to create moments of drama. I am talking Ken Burns-quality, where the story is told broadly and deeply, and includes things we never knew about subjects we thought we knew well. There should be no hyperbole, no exaggeration, no stretching of the facts. The history of black America and racial relations is a compelling story. It doesn’t need dramatization—it needs to be told fairly and completely, and it should be widely available.

The narrators, occasionally seen on screen, should be familiar voices and faces that are recognized by the American public across the racial and ethnic spectrum. They should be not only recognized for their fame, but for the body of work that they have created that speaks of integrity and character. America stands for excellence, and when we are at our best, we also stand for truth, fairness, and inclusion. As important as it is that the content of this documentary series be accurate and objective, it is just as important that those who present it have a high level of trust and respect from the American public, as their faces and voices will lend credibility, compassion, and understanding to the telling of the story.

I am not a casting director, but these are the names that come to mind of people who command that very high level of respect: Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Tom Hanks, Meryl Steep, Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, Michael Douglas, and Halle Berry. I offer them in no particular order and only as examples—there may be better choices out there, and there are certainly more choices. But from what I am able to observe, these people have expressed excellence and integrity in all that they have done. Many of them would even consider their participation in this series an expression of patriotism.

This profound piece of film should rival Burns’s best works, and should be the quintessential series on the history of black America. It should include segments that tell the parallel stories of white Americans of each era, as a comparison to the development of black life in America. The number of episodes in the series should be determined by what is necessary to accurately tell the story, and no other consideration.

It should be assumed that the average viewer knows nothing about the inception of slavery, the African roots, the voyage across the sea, or the wide variation in the treatment of slaves. Few Americans know much about the Jim Crow era, or the discriminatory legislation that was passed during the Great Depression and post-World War II, in the waning years of Jim Crow. I doubt that any American—white, black, or brown—approached on the streets would know how the great cities of America ended up with highly dense black populations, or why their poverty has become systemic. To know what to do about that, a majority of the American population has to understand how it happened, and how and why it persists. If done properly, this documentary will market the scholarly, historically accurate website, and be the public voice of the true history of America.

A new body to plan our approach

In “How We Get There, Part I,” I suggested we need to appoint a scholastic board to control the content of the black history website. In addition to that, we need to establish a second board—one that is responsible for generating a comprehensive, national approach to repairing and reconciling racial relationships, in order to bring equity to our economic, justice, and social systems. This body would be known for its lack of political direction and its complete affinity for identifying the issues and promoting pragmatic solutions that address those issues. Its members would be capable of comprehending the necessity of a two-generation solution to a fifteen-generation problem, and would represent a broad spectrum of expertise, from psychology to economics, from education to urban planning. The board will have to be large enough to be broad, but not so large that it can’t function in a single room. I might sound overly-prescriptive here, but it is for the sake of making a point about what we are dealing with, and not for the sake of dictating the rules that this board’s creators must follow.

In our democratic society, it would be assumed that any such board would need to be balanced, and operate with a simple majority vote. That assumption is based on the perspective of the type of society that we are attempting to create—a society where equity for all is the norm. Of course, to begin, there would need to be 100% alignment on the fact that that is indeed what we are attempting to create. However, this group needs to be reflective of where we are today, working toward where we wish to be. So here is my thought: However many people are on the board—20, 30, or more—it should be 50% black and 50% non-black, as well as 50% men and 50% women. The majority vote on anything adopted by this board should require a majority vote of black members and a majority vote of non-black members.

I have repeatedly stated two things—first, that what needs to happen needs to happen for all of us, and second, that blacks do not have a monolithic mind on race or policy. Having said that, it is still going to be necessary for the black community to come together and say what they need, agree on the essential issues confronting the black community, and confirm that they are being addressed adequately by what the whole group decides. It will then be necessary for the non-black community, in turn, to confirm that it is in agreement that the issues identified by the black community, and only those issues, can be realistically addressed by the community, collectively, to the benefit of all.

In the end, everyone will find agreement on what is best for all, but each will also look at the issues from their personal perspective, which cannot help but be informed by their cultural background. But is this a set-up for potential conflict? I hope so, as the nature of the conversation is bound to be conflictual, and if this body cannot deal with conflict, then how can we expect the American public, with its vastly differing views, to accept it? The credibility of this board’s process is the vehicle that moves us toward resolution, reconciliation, and resetting racial relations inside this highly culturally and politically diverse democracy.

This body might begin by putting together the process for creating the scholarly historical record, or it might begin once the record is created. But its purpose would be to identify the issues which need to be addressed to create an equitable society, and the process by which to achieve it. From the functional perspective, they would determine which specific issues to study, who would study them, and the criteria for success. Further, they would coordinate and integrate the recommendations, and come to a comprehensive plan to move the nation forward. There should be no elected officials of any type sitting on this board, and no board member should have any personal or political ambitions in conflict with or beyond the stated purposes of the board. Personal and issue integrity should be the parameters of anyone serving on the board. And what about former politicians? Sure, it would behoove the board to have that experience amongst the members—former politicians are some of the most pragmatic people out there.

The conversation

It is the open, broad, unharnessed-by-the-calendar conversation that most engages the American population, and this conversation is what will change how we relate to each other. It has to be done with curiosity about what we don’t know and don’t understand, and not with adamance about the positions we already have. It is a difficult, unwieldy process that will, at times, look like a huge debacle headed for failure. That seems about right for a set of issues that we simply don’t yet know how to talk about. But it can be done, and it can be done successfully. What is essential is that we all recognize our common goal: to create a nation that is truly equitable for all.

Finally, I want to leave you with a quote from cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Just give it some thought.