Dialogue with Professor Carol Anderson

New York Times best-selling author and professor of African American studies at Emory University

On September 7, 2022, the Bertelsmann Foundation, Humanity in Action and Emory University hosted the premiere of the Foundation’s new documentary, “I, Too”, at the Carter Center in Atlanta. The film, which features New York Times best-selling author and renowned African American studies scholar Professor Carol Anderson, focuses on the intersection of race and history to help explain the erosion of American democracy.

Following the screening, Rose Scott of WABE, NPR’s Atlanta affiliate, spoke with Anderson, and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown, to discuss the film and U.S. political polarization.

This is an excerpt of the conversation. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Rose Scott (RS): What do people get wrong about defining democracy?

Carol Anderson (CA): It's the battle that we're having right now in this nation, where you have legislators forbidding the teaching of real American history because what they want is a myth. What they want is this really clean, clear, sanitized narrative that has these heroic founding fathers who are basically demigods, if not gods, who just — like BOOM! — came up with the idea of democracy, wrote this flawless constitution, and then created this incredible nation all by themselves.

When you have this historical narrative that has greatness … and then you have … this nation built only primarily by white men, then that becomes foundational for the kinds of warped policies and views that we deal with today that [make you ask], “Well, who built this? Who are the makers? Who are the takers? Who is deserving, and who is unworthy?” … [Y]ou get this sanitized history that doesn't want to make people feel uncomfortable. Well, history is uncomfortable.

RS: Folks talk about who our founding fathers are … what they had in mind in terms of a vision for this nation. … [Y]ou've heard these words: liberty and equality. The reality is that [that] did not happen for everyone in this nation.

CA: Right. And so, part of what makes this nation this nation is that language of liberty and equality [is] in the language … of justice. It means that this is an aspirational nation. Part of the problem is that you get these folks who try to treat those aspirations as achievements, as if we've already got democracy, as if we already have liberty and equality and justice, and they don't treat it as aspirational. But it is in those aspirations where you see folks fighting for their freedom. And that is the part that is, to me, a key element in American democracy. It’s watching African Americans fight for their equality. Watching women fight for their equality. Watching indigenous folk fight for their equality. Watching immigrants fight for their equality. Watching Latinos fight for their equality. Watching Asian Americans fight for their equality. Watching the LGBTQ community fight for their equality. That is American history, not the sanitized crap that they tried to stuff down our throats.

Where we are right now in America is in a battle with these two visions of what American democracy could be.

RS: Something that's always intriguing to me is the mindset of the voter right before a big election. And I ask a lot of political science professors questions [about] the characteristics, the mindset of a voter. And [these professors] always talk about how it's strategic, it's been building up. Whether it was in 2016 or in even all of these periods … [mentioned] in your film, it's building into the mindset of these folks — mostly, obviously, white here — that democracy, their democracy, is going to be taken from them.

CA: It will push out whites from having political power. It will push out whites from having economic power. It will push out whites from having socio-cultural dominance. And where we are right now in America is in a battle with these two visions of what American democracy could be. One vision is where you have a small strat[um] of whites with enormous power. But part of the trick is that you convince a larger share of whites that they, too, will benefit from having all of those resources. Then you have the other vision, and that vision is [of a] multiracial, multiethnic, multi-religious democracy that is vibrant, that sees a place for all of us, that sees that there are resources for all of us.

RS: What should people know about what democracy looks like?

CA: [F]reedom dreams. When you begin to really think through what it would be like to be in a society where you're not worried when the cops pull in behind you. Where, when you get sick, you can actually afford to get well. When you go to vote, you could actually vote. … It could be what you imagine. In terms of being able to live to your fullness and hav[e] a society around you that values your fullness. That's what we can be.

And that is also part of what this fight is about. African Americans have consistently been asking themselves, “What is my place here?” And you have … different answers. You have … an answer to not leave the United States and go to Africa or go to the Caribbean. You have … answers that deal with finding your own segregated space and building that community there and trying to keep it … a safe zone. You have seen, as well, the push to integrate into America. What I see is that after hundreds of years of unpaid labor and building this incredible space, we don't abdicate from that.

This is as much our [place] as anyone else's. And the real history is knowing that and fighting for it. Envisioning what it could be. Figuring out where the crooked spaces are and straightening them out. We've come this far, and I know sometimes it feels like — Lord! — but we have come this far because of that unrelenting struggle.

In terms of being able to live into to your fullness and having a society around you that values your fullness. That's what we can be.

Take the story of my great-grandfather. My great-grandfather was enslaved on a plantation in Tennessee. He fell in love with a woman next door, and my [great-]grandfather wanted to be married to her. And so, he told his master that he was not going to do any work until he could be with the woman he loved. Now, that is some hardheadedness. You've got to think about this. I'm not working until I can be with the woman I love. And so, his master bought her. They married. And then my great-grandfather worked extra to buy his freedom and hers. And then they got the hell out of Tennessee. When we abdicate, bad things happen.

When I used to go out on the road and give talks on white rage, my audiences were overwhelmingly white. And what I discerned from that was that many whites aren't comfortable with the way that this nation is going. They know something's not quite right, and they are seeking knowledge. You have another core that refused to be educated, refused to learn, refused to engage. …

You've got to know you got a problem first before you can get some help. You got to acknowledge you've got a problem. We have a core of folks who will not acknowledge that, evidence be damned. They are living in a world where you have alternative facts. But the good news is that I really believe that the vast majority of Americans want to know good history. They want to know how we got here. They want to engage. They want a nation where you don't have this kind of destabilizing crap that's going on. Crap is the scholarly term, and I can't give you a better prescription than that.

… [W]e have been dealing with a bunch of myths about a key piece of that mess [that] happened in 2010, in the 2010 midterms. Where folks were disappointed that Obama had not parted the Red Sea, walked on water and fed the multitude. And so, you have a large number of folks [who] just stay[ed] home. You have this massive takeover of state legislatures where they began to implement laws, and gerrymandering, and voter suppression laws, and bathroom … laws, and you just name it. And we have been fighting that rearguard action from what happened in 2010 for this entire doggone decade. That's what … abdication looks like.

Jericho Brown: Hey, Carol. Story well told. Thank you so much for that. … [W]e all have … questions, and we have … friends in the family who are teetering on the outskirts of the other side. So, not when you're across the table from [former President Donald] Trump, but when you're across the table from your cousins and brothers, what has been one of the most successful talking points that got them to stop in their tracks and say, “Oh, I never thought about that.”?

CA: It has been the storytelling. … I talk about how, for instance, in Mississippi in the 1950s, in the 1960s, that was hard. When Fannie Lou Hamer was determined to register to vote, and what she received was a nasty beating. Kicked off of the land and forcibly sterilized for daring to fight for her citizenship. And she kept fighting.

What you all are doing is so important in terms of not just simply disseminating information like what I do every day, but equipping the future [generation] with the necessary tools they need. So that maybe 100 years from now … we don't have to have another screening to talk about what democracy looks like.


Originally published
in Transponder Issue #3: Reslience
Dec 8, 2022

Anthony T. Silberfeld

Director, Transatlantic Relations
Bertelsmann Foundation