WORLD Channel, in partnership with PBS’ Independent Lens, presents a new animated musical series about America’s reckoning with race and injustice: The History Of White People In America. The series takes the audience on a journey through American history, starting in the 17th century, and looks at how the crafting of the idea of the white race — of whiteness — helped shape the nation’s history.
Jazz singer Nnenna Freelon — a six-time Grammy nominee whose son, Pierce Freelon, is a co-director of the series — lends her voice to portray Sally Hemings, a woman of mixed race enslaved by President Thomas Jefferson, who is believed to have fathered her six children. She is a complicated and vital figure in America’s early history.
Freelon was born and raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is a graduate of Simmons College in Boston. In the above interview, Freelon speaks with Eric Jackson, Host of Eric in the Evening on 89.7 WGBH Radio, on embodying Hemings, the musical improvisation process, and what role the series plays in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement. Here are some highlights from their conversation:
On the questions addressed in The History Of White People In America:
Nnenna Freelon: I think curiosity has led the way with this project. How did whiteness translate into power and money and authority? The things we're seeing displayed on the national and international stage are a result of a fiction in a lot of ways. It's a result of a fiction that “white is right.” And so, the curiosity that goes underneath that construct and just interrogates — how did we get here?
Eric Jackson: One of the things that struck me immediately when I watched was, although I had a general sense of what was said, [the series] actually names names and give dates for things that are going on. And that was certainly new to me.
Freelon: Isn't that mind-blowing, that it's history that's not taught? That is so curious to me, and it's on purpose. The information is there, it exists; how you interpret it is another whole thing.
On embodying Sally Hemings:
Freelon: They [the filmmakers] respected my Black womanhood enough to listen to what I had to say if I were in this person's shoes. First of all — let me just back up. Sally Hemings bore children for Thomas Jefferson, and that fact was in dispute for many, many years. Is love possible? Because, then another narrative was expressed that it was consensual, that there was real love and real affection in that relationship. And I had to really ponder that. I had to take a walk with that; I had to sit with that. Can love, as we understand it, be expressed in an institution of slavery? And after sitting with that in my mind, I came to the conclusion that it could not.
I did my own research and came up with a very complicated, heart-wrenching, not-easily-explained in a nice little sentence, tumble of feelings around what Sally Hemings might have felt.
On the music in The History Of White People In America:
Freelon: That was a collaborative process and it was improvisation. We took many takes. Sounds, utterances, growls, moans, all of those things that are nonverbal, but it’s not scat singing either. Even the way I phrased the words mattered. When I was reading Thomas Jefferson's letter, where you put the emphasis, where you took a breath, where there was sadness or emotion in your voice or excitement — it was almost like voice-acting in a way, to be true to what was playing out on the visual.
On how the film resonates today:
Jackson: In this time where there's a loud cry, Black Lives Matter, what do you think is the place that this film serves?
Freelon: So let's take the question and pose another question. If race is a made-up thing, if it is a construction designed to distract us, designed to put certain people ahead and above others — if that's true, then a whole lot of other mountains of things we've been told have to fall. Race is difficult to talk about, let's acknowledge that, but why is it difficult to talk about?
And if race is a construct, maybe we can all relax around it and have a constructive conversation about how we move forward. I think it has a potential to unravel in a nonviolent way. A lot of the things that we're fighting over — I have a sneaking suspicion that when you keep digging, money and power are in there, and people are very, very reluctant to let go of that.
Jackson: What I noticed in the film and this is actually something that I've said before — that the real reason for slavery was not race. The real reason for slavery was money and power, and race helped sell the idea of the justification of being able to enslave a particular group of people.
Freelon: Indeed, indeed. History has a way of coming back to haunt you.
Check out the annual PBS Short Film Festival, which features The History Of White People In America, from July 13 to July 24.