Our lens on history powerfully influences how we envision and shape the future. October 2, 2020 two of our country’s most accomplished storytellers, Ken Burns and Isabel Wilkerson, discussed the complexities of the American narrative and how grappling with the past might lead us forward.
Journalist Isabel Wilkerson was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama in 2016 “for championing the stories of an unsung history.” The first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, her book The Warmth of Other Suns, a sweeping and intimate examination of the Great Migration, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. Her new book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, examines the entrenched hierarchies that shape American life. Told through intimate personal narratives and deeply researched history, Wilkerson examines the ties between the American caste system and those in India and Nazi Germany, and points to ways America can move beyond our artificial and destructive human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.
Ken Burns has been making documentary films for over forty years. Since the Academy Award nominated Brooklyn Bridge in 1981, he has gone on to direct and produce some of the most acclaimed historical documentaries ever made, including The Civil War; Baseball; Jazz; The War; The National Parks: America’s Best Idea; The Roosevelts: An Intimate History; Jackie Robinson; Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson; The Vietnam War; The Central Park Five; and Country Music. His films have been honored with dozens of major awards, including sixteen Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, two Oscar nominations; and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. His new website UNUM rearranges clips from his past films into playlists to add historical context to the present.
This conversation was moderated by Lynette Clemetson, Director of Wallace House, Knight-Wallace Fellowships and the Livingston Awards at the University of Michigan. A longtime journalist, she was a correspondent for Newsweek magazine in the U.S. and Asia, a national correspondent for The New York Times, and senior director of strategy and new initiatives at NPR. Wallace House works to sustain and elevate the careers of journalists, foster civic engagement, and uphold the role of a free press in democratic society.
This event is part of the Democracy & Debate theme semester with support from Wallace House and the University of Michigan Museum of Art, UMMA.