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 world. 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 history. 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...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...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 Bridge. * 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 must." Good luck, Godspeed and congratulations.