By Kenya Vaughn
The critically acclaimed documentary “Jeffrey Robinson’s Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” revolves around a 2018 Juneteenth talk at The Town Hall Theater on Broadway in New York City by Robinson, the former ACLU Deputy Director. But filmmakers Emily Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler skillfully weave together personal narratives and historic flashpoints that provide texture beyond the movie’s original perception of a two-hour TED Talk on racism.
Robinson’s lecture is the main entrée of the film. His ability to connect with both the audience in attendance of the 2018 presentation and the viewers of the film makes it in itself worth the watch.
But additional footage and sidebars help aid in the processing of just how deeply embedded white supremacy and racism are as a part of America’s story.
“Slavery is not our responsibility. Slavery is not our fault. It is our shared history,” Robinson said as part of his opening remarks. “And when we try to turn into something that it is not – when we try to make more light of it than it was, then we are denying who we really are, and impeding on our ability to truly move forward as a community and as a nation.”
The talking points are very compelling — and telling — about how deeply slavery was tethered to the wealth and prosperity of America. It also supports the additional footage that details how the racism that is the brutal institution’s direct descendent continues to rear its ugly head more than 150 years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Early on in the film, Robinson approaches a man waving a Confederate flag to engage in dialogue. The man insists that the Civil War was not about slavery, but about his ancestors protecting their money and property from greedy Northerners.
Robinson points out to the man that more than 90% of that wealth was the direct result of slave labor. And while the man doesn’t dispute that fact, he refused to acknowledge that slavery played a role in the South’s succession and ultimate violent treason against the nation by way of waging war.
In his talk, Robinson uses a hero to Southern sympathizers to dispel any delusion from those who romanticize the Southern states’ attack on America by way of the Civil War.
He quotes Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who famously said, “If we ain’t fighting for slavery, then what the hell are we fighting for?”
Robinson also pointed out that he had to walk past a bust of Forrest whenever he entered the capitol building in his home state of Tennessee. The statue was removed in 2021 after relentless protest.
Robinson also mentions the often-ignored legislation approved by President Abraham Lincoln that provided reparations to the most unlikely of benefactors.
The Compensated Emancipation Act allowed for 900 slave owners to be paid more than a million dollars in 1860s currency for “loss of property.”
“When people have a discussion about reparations for slavery, it’s a false debate,” Robinson said. “Because reparations have already been paid — to the slave owners.”
He also shares how racism impacted his life growing up in Memphis — including how he felt as an 11-year-old boy when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in his hometown and the racist housing policies that impacted his parents’ process for buying his childhood home.
Other elements within the film include a conversation with the mother of Eric Garner, who died at the hands of police in New York while being subdued during an attempted arrest. Robinson talked to former White House staffer Darren Martin about his experience of having police called on him as he moved into his New York City apartment when neighbors accused him of breaking in.
“This could have been another landmark where a Black man was killed by police,” Robinson said while speaking with Martin.
In addition to other police killings, other incidents of racial terror — including The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and a 1947 lynching — are also touched upon in the film.
“Ignorance is not bliss, because it allows a false history to thrive,” Robinson said.
“Jeffrey Robinson’s Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America” opened in theaters on February 4 and is now playing in select cities. For more information, visit https://thewhoweareproject.org/.