[Blackstudies-l] Race/Related: ‘This American Experiment Never Had Me in Mind’: Sterling K. Brown on Lincoln’s Legacy

Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Sat Feb 13 09:41:31 EST 2021


Over the course of his career, Sterling K. Brown has asked himself, “What
is my responsibility?”
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February 13, 2021
The actor Sterling K. Brown.Chris Pizzello/Invision, via Associated Press

By Fahima Haque
Why Sterling K. Brown Wanted to Narrate CNN’s Lincoln Documentary

Sterling K. Brown, an actor who has starred on the hit NBC drama “This is
Us” since 2016, has won multiple Emmys, Screen Actors Guild awards, a
Golden Globe and an NAACP Image Award for his acting. But over the course
of his successful career, Mr. Brown has asked himself, “What is my
responsibility?”

“Do I just get to do good work?” said Mr. Brown, whose other notable roles
include characters in “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,”
“Black Panther,” “Frozen 2” and “Waves.” “Like, do I just want my art to
speak for itself? And then you recognize that people pay attention to you.
You owe it to the people who allowed you to reach the current level of
success that you do to say something of meaning, to make it easier for
people who are like you, who are coming up behind you, to be able to do
similar things and more.”,

A desire to do more was precisely what drew Mr. Brown to two upcoming
projects. He will join the cast of Will Smith’s Netflix documentary
exploring the 14th Amendment, and he has narrated a six-part documentary
series premiering this weekend on CNN.

In a phone conversation, I talked with Mr. Brown about the documentary,
“Lincoln: Divided We Stand,” which analyzes Lincoln’s legacy. Our interview
has been lightly edited and condensed.

How did you get involved with the documentary?

We were watching the election transpire, and we were seeing just how
divided the country is.

As we were going through the election process, this project came across my
table. First and foremost, it was a good dose of perspective that we have
been divided before. So when people say, Has the country ever been more
divided than it is right now? It’s like, well, we were divided to the point
where we actually divided. There was a secession, and we were two different
countries from other people’s perspectives.
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How was that navigated? President Lincoln found a way. There was bloodshed,
there was loss, but he found a way to keep this country together. I was
curious to see how this man navigated that period of time. They don’t
depict him as just a great savior, they don’t depict him as just a morally
supreme human being, but a tactile politician as well.

The combination of those things served him in terms of maintaining the
Union. I learned a lot about someone who I had an overarching view of. But
in his humanity, to see how he evolved politically from someone who was
against the expansion of slavery, to someone who was an abolitionist of
slavery, who still believed in the colonization of freed Black people, he
didn’t necessarily think that they should coexist in these United States
but should be somewhere safe for them to flourish. One of the big takeaways
was that, at no point in time, do I ever think were we ever meant to be
here as freed citizens.

What did this project bring up for you? Did you have any hesitations?

There was no reticence. It was more of an exploration of my own curiosity.
I actually gained a lot of respect for Lincoln and recognizing the
struggles that he went through to become who he was — being a self-taught
lawyer, growing up in a primarily agrarian society and having resistance
from his own father, who thought that he was wasting time in books. He lost
his mom early, lost his first love, lost two of his children, lost his
sister. He was plagued with depression for the majority of life and still
found a way to navigate the political landscape.
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What I took from it more than anything was not just his views on slavery,
but how delicate it is to actually maintain a union.
A scene from the CNN series “Lincoln: Divided We Stand.”CNN

Did you have any input in how the documentary was framed?

The most input that I had was when I read Lincoln’s quotes and I’m trying
to give them a voice and meaning, because reading Lincoln is like reading
Shakespeare, and I can see how people could interpret it in very different
ways. So really trying to get into the heart of the language, and in terms
of what he was trying to say, I probably had the most latitude and input in
terms of how I read those lines.
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All of this stuff that happens in a booth by yourself, it’s acting, kind
of. For me, when you get a chance to look into another human being’s eyes
and bounce off of them and you see life transforming between two people,
that’s something. But there’s a technical skill in terms of, what is your
operative word? What is the phrase that has the most impact and import in
this particular sentence? What is the cadence of it? Are you trying to pull
people in? Are you trying to admonish? I love Shakespeare, I love classical
texts, and I love breaking down words in that way.

So it was a fun intellectual exercise, especially for someone from 2020
trying to interpret the words of someone from the mid-1800s and the
political crucible that he was in the midst of trying to find language that
spoke to both the North and the South simultaneously. Because his ultimate
end game was to keep the Union together. It was to make this experiment
work and not see it fall apart on his watch.

Could you listen to Lincoln’s speeches to get a sense of how he spoke?

There’s not a lot to listen to, or at least I did not find very many. So, I
read a few and it was very interesting, too, because they’re not
straightforward at all. It’s almost like going back to a Bible verse and
you could hear every preacher interpret a Bible verse in a multitude of
ways. This dude got doublespeak in the lines themselves, and based upon
whatever it is that you want to pay attention to, you can take from it what
you want.

And that’s a gift, but it’s annoying to read. You can see how people from
both the right and the left can quote this president as a means of
supporting whatever argument that they’re making in the present.

Was that the most surprising thing you learned? And what was the most
heartening or disappointing?

There’s a speech, and I wish I could remember the quote exactly, where he’s
saying unequivocally that he does not feel as if Black people should be
considered to be on par with white people. That was never his intention in
abolishing the institution of slavery — that they should not be competing
for the same sorts of jobs. I was like, ‘Oh, wow, OK.’ That’s a quote that
had been swept under the rug, that they should not be property, but they
should not be considered equal either. This is his humanity showing in a
way that’s not so beguiling to yours truly.

Also, to the point about colonization — and I don’t think that it was
intended in such a way that it was nefarious — I felt like he felt that
Black people could not truly peacefully coexist with white folks, so they
should go somewhere where they can actually thrive and not have to worry
about the competition.

There was a moment when we were recording, and I took a moment and stopped.
This American experiment never had me in mind. It never had me in mind. You
could say that the drafting of the 14th Amendment was the beginning of
considering whether or not I was going to be a part of this experiment, but
up until then, I wasn’t supposed to be here. That was a sobering moment.

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[image: Article Image]

PepsiCo
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/newsletter/Cb84gslsyfhHUVoZzHqvWA~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRiCkSHP0TyaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAyMS8wMi8wOS9idXNpbmVzcy9hdW50LWplbWltYS1yZW5hbWVkLXBlYXJsLW1pbGxpbmctY29tcGFueS5odG1sP2NhbXBhaWduX2lkPTM3JmVtYz1lZGl0X3JyXzIwMjEwMjEzJmluc3RhbmNlX2lkPTI3MDk0Jm5sPXJhY2UlMkZyZWxhdGVkJnJlZ2lfaWQ9NDI3NDA4OTcmc2VnbWVudF9pZD01MTYwMiZ0ZT0xJnVzZXJfaWQ9MzkzOGYxN2Q4MTgyYTIyZmRlMTQ2N2ZmOWQwYmI1YzVXA255dEIKYCGHvydgg3NnK1IQbGltYUBnZW5lc2VvLmVkdVgEAAAAAA~~>
Aunt
Jemima Has a New Name After 131 Years: The Pearl Milling Company

Quaker Oats announced it would drop the name Aunt Jemima last summer after
the killing of George Floyd and the widespread protests over racial
inequality.

By Neil Vigdor
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/newsletter/Cb84gslsyfhHUVoZzHqvWA~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRiCkSHP0TyaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAyMS8wMi8wOS9idXNpbmVzcy9hdW50LWplbWltYS1yZW5hbWVkLXBlYXJsLW1pbGxpbmctY29tcGFueS5odG1sP2NhbXBhaWduX2lkPTM3JmVtYz1lZGl0X3JyXzIwMjEwMjEzJmluc3RhbmNlX2lkPTI3MDk0Jm5sPXJhY2UlMkZyZWxhdGVkJnJlZ2lfaWQ9NDI3NDA4OTcmc2VnbWVudF9pZD01MTYwMiZ0ZT0xJnVzZXJfaWQ9MzkzOGYxN2Q4MTgyYTIyZmRlMTQ2N2ZmOWQwYmI1YzVXA255dEIKYCGHvydgg3NnK1IQbGltYUBnZW5lc2VvLmVkdVgEAAAAAA~~>
[image: Article Image]

Justin J Wee for The New York Times
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/newsletter/6iSGfBY4n7_eqjBR1kHY6A~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRiCkSHP0TcaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAyMS8wMi8xMS9tb3ZpZXMvYXNpYW4tYW1lcmljYW4tY2luZW1hLmh0bWw_Y2FtcGFpZ25faWQ9MzcmZW1jPWVkaXRfcnJfMjAyMTAyMTMmaW5zdGFuY2VfaWQ9MjcwOTQmbmw9cmFjZSUyRnJlbGF0ZWQmcmVnaV9pZD00Mjc0MDg5NyZzZWdtZW50X2lkPTUxNjAyJnRlPTEmdXNlcl9pZD0zOTM4ZjE3ZDgxODJhMjJmZGUxNDY3ZmY5ZDBiYjVjNVcDbnl0QgpgIYe_J2CDc2crUhBsaW1hQGdlbmVzZW8uZWR1WAQAAAAA>
A
Vision of Asian-American Cinema That Questions the Very Premise

Lulu Wang, Lee Isaac Chung, Bing Liu, Alan Yang, Justin Chon, Sandi Tan and
Mira Nair talk forthrightly about staying true to themselves while
navigating Hollywood and issues of identity.

By Brandon Yu and Justin J Wee
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/newsletter/6iSGfBY4n7_eqjBR1kHY6A~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRiCkSHP0TcaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAyMS8wMi8xMS9tb3ZpZXMvYXNpYW4tYW1lcmljYW4tY2luZW1hLmh0bWw_Y2FtcGFpZ25faWQ9MzcmZW1jPWVkaXRfcnJfMjAyMTAyMTMmaW5zdGFuY2VfaWQ9MjcwOTQmbmw9cmFjZSUyRnJlbGF0ZWQmcmVnaV9pZD00Mjc0MDg5NyZzZWdtZW50X2lkPTUxNjAyJnRlPTEmdXNlcl9pZD0zOTM4ZjE3ZDgxODJhMjJmZGUxNDY3ZmY5ZDBiYjVjNVcDbnl0QgpgIYe_J2CDc2crUhBsaW1hQGdlbmVzZW8uZWR1WAQAAAAA>
[image: Article Image]

Photo by Jon Henry. Johnson's “Anxious Red Painting (Work in Progress)”
(2020).
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/newsletter/fMiGKfph8FZN1FL9FTU3_w~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRiCkSHP0TiaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAyMS8wMi8xMi90LW1hZ2F6aW5lL2JsYWNrLWFic3RyYWN0LXBhaW50ZXJzLmh0bWw_Y2FtcGFpZ25faWQ9MzcmZW1jPWVkaXRfcnJfMjAyMTAyMTMmaW5zdGFuY2VfaWQ9MjcwOTQmbmw9cmFjZSUyRnJlbGF0ZWQmcmVnaV9pZD00Mjc0MDg5NyZzZWdtZW50X2lkPTUxNjAyJnRlPTEmdXNlcl9pZD0zOTM4ZjE3ZDgxODJhMjJmZGUxNDY3ZmY5ZDBiYjVjNVcDbnl0QgpgIYe_J2CDc2crUhBsaW1hQGdlbmVzZW8uZWR1WAQAAAAA>

Arts And Letters
Once Overlooked, Black Abstract Painters Are Finally Given Their Due

In the 1960s, abstract painting was a controversial style for Black
artists, overshadowed by social realist works. Now, it’s claimed its place
as a vital form of expression.

By Megan O’Grady
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/newsletter/fMiGKfph8FZN1FL9FTU3_w~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRiCkSHP0TiaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAyMS8wMi8xMi90LW1hZ2F6aW5lL2JsYWNrLWFic3RyYWN0LXBhaW50ZXJzLmh0bWw_Y2FtcGFpZ25faWQ9MzcmZW1jPWVkaXRfcnJfMjAyMTAyMTMmaW5zdGFuY2VfaWQ9MjcwOTQmbmw9cmFjZSUyRnJlbGF0ZWQmcmVnaV9pZD00Mjc0MDg5NyZzZWdtZW50X2lkPTUxNjAyJnRlPTEmdXNlcl9pZD0zOTM4ZjE3ZDgxODJhMjJmZGUxNDY3ZmY5ZDBiYjVjNVcDbnl0QgpgIYe_J2CDc2crUhBsaW1hQGdlbmVzZW8uZWR1WAQAAAAA>

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