Future historians will have a lot of material to work with when they write about the first quarter of the 21st century and the last days of the American Confederacy, when statues memorializing white supremacy and the old South slave economy were taken down in many places, including Memphis. Few documents cut to the heart of the moment like the "Whose History?" episode of the Epix docuseries, America Divided, which originally aired in May 2018.
- Jussie Smollett
When Sons of Confederate Veterans spokesperson Lee Millar says these statues celebrate "our ancestors," episode narrator and Empire actor Jussie Smollett is quick to remind that this narrative erases black history and a legacy of violence and social control. "I don't think that's trying to extract that, or trying to cover that up, I think the emphasis is on promoting the good side and the bravery of the soldiers," Millar answered, unaware that he was demonstrating in the clearest possible terms, the difference between history and neo-Confederate narratives and illustrating Rhodes College history professor Tim Huebner's earlier claim that Confederate monuments and their defenders "were really good at not telling the whole truth."
"Whose History," which gets a repeat screening at the Brooks Museum this week, courtesy of Facing History and Ourselves, spends most of its time in Memphis, but it opens in Chattanooga with the last words of Ed Johnson, an African-American male accused of committing a crime against a 21-year-old white female and hung from the Walnut Street Bridge by an angry white mob. "God Bless you all, I am a innocent man," he said. Those words resonate hard with the show's concluding moments in another corner of Shelby County, and a story about the vicious lynching of Jesse Lee Bonds. "Some things you can't put behind you," Bonds' surviving brother Charlie Morris said. "You look back and it's in front of you."
These conflicts may seem like yesterday's news, but like the man said, they're still in front of us. Solid perspective on recent history.
"America Divided: Whose History?" at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art Wednesday, January 16th, 7 p.m.