It’s important to recognize that racism is a centuries-old, systemic element of the United States. To better appreciate how deep racism in this country runs and how common it is, we at the Stanford Storytelling Project have tried to educate ourselves by making documentary pieces that engage race in the US and beyond.
We’ve put together a playlist of SSP-produced pieces from over the years that investigate and consider structural forms of racism. Here’s the link. The playlist is embedded below, too.
We’re also proud to share statements by two of our student producers with pieces in the playlist. These are their reflections on the opportunities of storytelling to engage — and do what it can to heal — racial (in)justice.
Adesuwa Agbonile ’21, producer of Experiencing Sankofa
In the past couple of weeks, following the murders of Ahmed Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade (to name a few), many have been forced to reckon with the state of racial inequality in America.
During this public reckoning, I have been thinking about my piece Experiencing Sankofa. Specifically, I remember the conversations I had with the Black artists and activists Mizan and Sizwe Alkebulan-Abakah about the power of remembering our collective histories and ancestries.
This wisdom became a touchstone for me as I made the story. I tried to become a student of history while making the piece, asking – how does the past inform and mirror the present? In the process, I stumbled across the story of Dr. Omowale Satterwhite, and Stanford’s 1968 Take Back the Mic, which ended up being an integral part of my piece.
The process of making Experiencing Sankofa helped me see that when we take time to remember our (real, not imagined) histories, we can discern how the present moment we find ourselves in is almost identical to the past that we emerged from. How our world today is the same as the world Emmett Till lived in six decades ago. The same as the world that held the bodies of countless enslaved Black women, whose bodies were plundered by J. Marion Simms. And so on, and so on.
Remembering is key. And what better way to begin this process of remembrance than by turning to art and storytelling to understand the lives of our ancestors? I am grateful for the voices contained in this playlist. They drive us toward that vital goal – beginning to remember.
Melina Walling ’20, producer of Brains and Bronze: How Octavius Catto Came Back to Life
When I pitched this story, I didn’t even realize it would be about race. Sure, it was centered around a statue of a Black man, but I initially thought it would be just one part of an investigation into how public art connects people to their cities.
As it turned out, that statue of Octavius Catto did connect someone to their city: me. It led me to places where systemic racism had claimed innocent lives. Catto showed me a history of Philadelphia — and more broadly, of America — that I had never fully seen before.
Even as I worked on the script over many months, I struggled to process or fully articulate what I had “discovered.” As a biracial person (my dad is white and my mom is Indian), I thought I already knew about race-based discrimination. After all, I had spent my whole life hearing how my parents faced intense and painful intolerance as a result of their interracial relationship.
And yet despite all that, the America I thought I knew was a place I could safely and fully lay claim to my racial identity. But over the course of making this story, I learned just how much of my country’s history I had failed to understand. While I’ve been fortunate to spend my life largely sheltered from the pain and realities of racial injustice, many others continue to live with its consequences each and every day.
Today, I would probably hesitate to make this story at all. As a white-passing person and an outsider to the community at the heart of this story, I question whether I was the right narrator for this piece about the longstanding and cyclical mistreatment of Black people in Philadelphia. Even after extensive research, I’m not sure I was able to access the nuance necessary for a story of this scope.
Nevertheless, I am profoundly touched by all the help I had from my interviewees in following Catto’s story through history, and I do not take lightly the gift of reeducation that this process has given me. I share this piece as an archive of my own learning process, and I hope that Catto’s statue will catalyze others to listen, learn, and take action.
In 2020, protesters gathered around Catto’s statue once again, this time in extraordinary numbers after the death of George Floyd. Some protesters also graffitied and defaced the statue of police chief Frank Rizzo, a known perpetrator of race-based brutality, that stood on the opposite side of City Hall. The statue of Rizzo was removed on June 3, 2020.
Finally, I acknowledge that I am a non-Black storyteller who has already taken up 18 minutes of airtime with this podcast about Black history and experiences. If you haven’t already, please also make space in your queue for Black voices.