Messenger - Vol. 2, No. 3, Page 6
Summer 1993
Kinship of the soul -- 1993 Commencement address by filmmaker Ken Burns

     At Commencement May 29, filmmaker Ken Burns, creator of the
award-winning documentary The Civil War, received the honorary doctor of
humane letters degree from the University, joining the ranks of such
previous recipients as George Bush and Sandra Day O'Connor.
     Andrew B. Kirkpatrick Jr., chairman of the Board of Trustees,
conferred the degree upon Burns, praising him as an "historian, writer,
editor and filmmaker (who has) added significantly to the body of knowledge
of the historical and cultural experience in America."
     The citation also read, in part: "Recognized chronicler and
interpreter of our nation's sociology and history, you have enlivened these
disciplines through a career that has earned you nearly 100 film and
television awards....Gifted artist, you have fulfilled varied roles as
writer, cinematographer and music director, displaying an extraordinary
perception and talent concerning the interplay of the visual, aural and
cognitive senses....Former resident of Newark, Del., you are the son of
Robert and the late Lyla Burns, and you attended Newark's West Park Place
Elementary School while your father was a member of the faculty of the
Department of Anthropology here at the University of Delaware. Kenneth L.
Burns, for your significant contributions to our life, the University of
Delaware salutes you."
     Burns, who has been making documentaries for 15 years, has won major
film and television awards for the 11-hour, nine-part series, The Civil
War, for which he was filmmaker/director, producer, co-writer, chief
cinematographer, music director and executive producer.
     Five-and-a-half years in the making, it was the highest-rated series
in the history of American public television, attracting 40 million viewers
during its premiere in September 1990.
     Since then, it has been repeated several times and shown around the
     At Commencement, Burns delivered the following address, which received
a standing ovation from the $18,000-plus attending.

                            * * * * * * * * *

     President Roselle, members of the Board of Trustees, distinguished
faculty, proud parents, graduating students-the great and glorious Class of
1993, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I am deeply honored that you
have asked me here today, on this glorious occasion, to receive an honorary
degree from this magnificent institution. I am doubly honored that you have
asked me to say a few words; that you might find what I have to say worthy
of your attention on such an important day.
     This day is personally important because I am returning home-that
great American pasttime-returning home to a town I lived in and went to
school in, returning to a University where my father taught, to a community
where my mother, long dead, was a cherished force. I do so with my two,
young daughters, Sarah and Lilly-the best antidote I can think of to the
trials and pain of life.
     I cannot help thinking, as I behold this extraordinary University, of
the great 19th-century drive, some would say, rabid desire, by both
amateurs and professionals, men of religion and men of science, to create
what had never been done before: that is, to perfect a perpetual motion
machine. Some spent years of their lives trying; some went mad; others
created the damnedest contraptions; and all failed. But it occurred to me,
as I was preparing my remarks, that this institution, this University of
Delaware, indeed, all true schools are our perpetual motion machines. I'm
very pleased to be caught up in your whirlwind for just one day.
     When I began to prepare for this address, I spoke to a number of
friends who had practice in this sort of thing. Their advice and collective
wisdom was very helpful. One said to "avoid cliches like the plague."
Another gave the best advice for me (and for you): "Be yourself." But one
of them said, "By all means, don't tell them their future lies ahead of
them. That's the worst."
     I thought about this, and I am now convinced that our future lies
behind us, in our past-personal and collective. If you don't know where you
have been, how can you know where you are going? In the last 15 years of
filmmaking, I have learned many things, but that history is our greatest
teacher is perhaps the most important lesson. I now feel like I am an
American possession, like Samoa or Guam. I am possessed by American
     However, this enthusiasm is by no means shared by all. History, and
its valuable advice, continues to recede in importance and emphasis in
schools across the nation.
     The statistics are frightening. A majority of high school seniors did
not know who Winston Churchill or Joseph Stalin were. They did not know of
the Emancipation Proclamation, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of
Independence, which came first and what they signify. And a majority could
not tell the correct half century in which the Civil War took place-the
most important event in our past.
     So, I would like to talk briefly about history, about remembering and
forgetting, about things that are coming up in your world that reverberate
with our past.
     We Americans tend to ignore our past. Perhaps we fear having one, and
burn it behind us like so much rocket fuel, always looking forward. And
that's a bad thing. The consequences are not just ignorance, or stupidity
or even repeating. It represents the deepest kind of inattention and
becomes a tear or a gap in who we are.
     I think that in each of my films, and with each film more strongly and
completely, I have been seized by an aspect of American history, something
that spoke to the aspirations and the struggles and the motives of people.
     That thread is the essential American one: the struggle for human
freedom, whether of movement and design, of sheer achievement in the
Brooklyn Bridge, of political freedom in the Statue of Liberty, or of
spiritual freedom, freedom of the hand and the heart, in the experiment of
the Shakers. And I know this is what has drawn me to the Civil War, for, in
that war, the issue of human freedom came for this country, for our people,
to the profoundest and most tragic crux. The historian Shelby Foote has
called it the crossroads of our being, but somehow when we crossed over, we
had forgotten where we had been.
     Slavery. That rift-slavery-stands at the very center of American
history; it is the great challenge to which all our deepest aspirations to
freedom must rise. If we forget that, if we forget the great stain of
slavery that stands at the heart of our history, we forget who we are, and
we make the rift deeper and wider. And that's what forgetting is: making
the human rift wider.
     And we are forgetting it now, on campuses and in suburbs and cities,
forgetting that, after all, only 127 years ago, 4 million Americans were
owned by other Americans; that 620,000 Americans died over that issue, when
our population was a mere 30 million. Two percent died. We too often tend
to think, and this is part of the forgetting, that those people, those
Americans, were not the same as us, and thus, we cut the thread of identity
and responsibility that really binds us to them all the same. But they were
very like us. They were health faddists and faithhealers, into nature
cures, water cures, free love and women's rights; there was evangelical
fervor, spiritual experiment and religious movements of every kind. But
they were worldly realists, too. Two days after the first battle of Bull
Run, canny real estate speculators bought up the battlefield to make a
second kind of killing as a tourist attraction. Sound familiar?
     The forgetting in our lives begins early and continues. Photography
came of age during the Civil War, and more than a million images were taken
in four years for a public obsessed with seeing, and perhaps also thereby
subduing the shock and carnage they were inflicting upon one another. But
the public appetite for war photographs, fantastic during that war, dropped
off sharply after Appomattox. Mathew Brady went bankrupt. Thousands of
photographs were lost, forgotten, mislaid and misused. Glass plate
negatives were often sold to gardeners, not for their images, but for the
glass itself. In the years immediately following Appomattox, the sun slowly
burned the filmy image of war from countless greenhouse gardens all across
the country, as if the memories might be erased. Still later, the glass
would be used as lenses in the face-plates of World War I gas masks.
     So, it comes down to us, whether we know it, or want to know it, or
not. I think we must want to know it, and to know it, we must listen to it
and see it, and not let the image fade. It is not enough to blame it all on
the ultimate glass plate negative-TV. We must take more responsibility for
our memories than that.
     What I am trying to say in all of this is that there is a profound
connection between remembering and freedom and human attachment. And that's
what history is to me. And forgetting is the opposite of all that: a kind
of slavery, the worst kind of human detachment. It is a profound irony that
last month as our president eloquently dedicated a memorial to the
Holocaust, the very same kind of genocide was taking place in Bosnia, and
our government and the world has absolutely no idea what to do about
it...again. Which is why we must remember, even when, precisely when, what
memory has to tell us is so appalling. It has seemed to me that the meaning
of our freedom as Americans is the freedom of memory, which is a kind of
obligation, which you today now inherit. We must remember that our country
was born under the sign that all men were created equal, but we must also
remember that proclamation did not include the poor, women or
Afro-Americans. We must remember that Abraham Lincoln signed the
Emancipation Proclamation, but we must also remember that Lincoln thought
of re-colonizing blacks to Africa or Panama as late as 1861. We must
remember that the 13th and 14th amendments secured some kind of equality
before the law for blacks. But we must also remember that equality as a
human fact did not come at once, has still to come, and if we do not
believe that, we forget.
     Two years ago, the world lost a towering historical and literary
figure, the novelist I. B. Singer. For decades, he wrote, almost sang,
about God and myth and punishment, fate and sexuality and family: history.
     He wrote in Yiddish, a marvelous, expressive language, sad and happy
all at the same time, somehow maddeningly all-knowing and yet resigned to
God's seemingly capricious will. It is also a language without a country, a
dying language in a world more often interested in the extermination or
isolation of its troubled, long-suffering speakers. Singer, first writing
in the pages of the Jewish Daily Forward, almost single-handedly helped to
keep Yiddish alive. Now, our own wonderfully mongrel American language is
punctuated with dozens of Yiddish words and phrases, parables and wisdom.
And so many of these words are perfect onomatopoeias of disgust and humor,
description and hubris. If you've ever met a schmuck, you know what I'm
talking about.
     Toward the end of his long and prolific life, he expressed wonder at
why so many of his books, written in this obscure and, some said, useless
language, would be so widely translated-something like 56 countries all
around the world. Why, for example, he wondered, would the Japanese care
about his simple stories of life in the shtetls of eastern Europe a
thousand years ago? "Unless," Singer paused, answering his own question,
"these stories spoke to the kinship of the soul"; kinship of the soul, that
which connects all of us together, that which we all share as part of life
on this planet.
     I have had my own wonderful brush with this "kinship" the last few
years as I attempted to digest the reaction and impact of The Civil War on
the country. Nowhere is the profundity of response more pronounced than in
the wonderful, touching, expressive letters I have received. To my surprise
and delight, the eloquence of the common man that we had worked so hard to
put in our film came through in thousands of new letters from Americans who
were supposed to be completely numbed by television. Let me read you just
one example:

        "Dear Sir:
        Again, I am watching The Civil War-enthralled, inspired, heartbroken.
   So much to think about, so much to feel.
        The eloquence of ordinary people resounds. It humbles me.
        Such dignity in the archival faces of my people, who were enslaved 
   but who never surrendered their souls to slavery.
        Then I hear the Southerners in your film who not only kept my
   ancestors in bondage, but fought to the death to do so. And I hate them
   for that.
        Then the choir sings in your film: 'Do you...want your
   freedom?' A good question, for we are not yet truly free, none of us.
        To achieve that, white America must abandon its racial conceits-and I
   must abandon my hate. They must change, and I must forgive, for us both to
   be free.
        Lincoln was right. 'Malice toward none, charity for all.'
        So, at the end, I wonder. Does my white counterpart, hearing that
   choir, realize that that final question is meant for both of us?
        'Do you...want your freedom?'
        I know what my answer is. I will wait for his."

     A remarkable letter. So what do we make of all this? Let me speak
directly to the graduating class. (Watch out, here comes the advice.)
     * As you pursue your goals in life, that is your future, pursue your
past. Let it be your guide. Insist on having a past and then you will have
a future.
     * Keep involved with your school. It needs your attention as well as
your money to keep this machine perpetually moving.
     * Do not descend too deeply into specialism in your work. Educate all
your parts. You will be healthier.
     * Do not confuse success with excellence. The poet Robert Penn Warren
once told me that "careerism is death."
     * Travel. Do not get stuck in one place. Visit Appomattox, where our
country really came together. Whatever you do, walk over the Brooklyn
     * Give up addictions of all kinds. Try brushing your teeth tonight
with your other hand. Try even remembering what I just asked of you.
     * Insist on heroes. And then be one.
     * Read, read. The book is still the greatest manmade machine of
all-not the car, not the TV, I promise you.
     * Write. Write letters. Keep journals. Besides your children, there is
no surer way of achieving immortality. Write. Send messages. Remember,
there is nothing more incredible than being a witness to history.
     * Serve your country. Insist that we fight the real wars and the right
wars. Convince your government that the real threat comes from within.
Governments always forget that. Insist that we support science and the
arts, especially the arts. They have nothing to do with the defense of our
country. They only make our country worth defending.
     Eric Sevareid, the great journalist who died in the past year, once
wrote this magnificent paragraph:
     "Man himself is a precarious balance between love and hate, generosity
and selfishness, peaceableness and aggressiveness. He is not perfectable
but he is improvable, and nothing in his history or his nature obliges one
to abandon belief in him. He may indeed be forever 'trapped between Earth
and a glimpse of heaven,' but he will hold to that glimpse, as (we) all
     Good luck, Godspeed and congratulations.