My country. My country?

A screening of Ava DuVernay’s documentary The 13TH stirs doubts about calling America home.

By Jasmin Stephens ‘20The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School, along with the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, and the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research hosted a screening on Oct. 18 of The 13TH as part of Harvard Kennedy School’s Race and American Politics series. The film lays out the case for calling our times a new Jim Crow era because of the mass incarceration of African American citizens. It also traces the intricate steps of oppression from ratification of the 13th amendment to the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin and Philando Castile. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay, director of Selma, is the mastermind behind this film. I attended the screening and discussion featuring Khalil Gibran Muhammad and Laurence Ralph and gained personal insights from this experience. Here is my narrative of the evening.

I checked my name off of the sign-in sheet walked into the screening room where on the seat of each chair was a free copy of the U.S. Constitution. Muhammad, who is a professor of history, race and public policy at the Kennedy School, greeted the attendees and said he was excited to see young and old faces, hoping it would foster an intergenerational dialogue about the history of America. After prefacing the movie with a quick summary of The 13TH, he took a seat, the lights dimmed, the movie screen sprung to life and President Barack Obama’s voice reverberated from the audio saying America has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned population. How ironic for the land of the free to hold so many in chains, I thought.

As the film went on, I became more and more aware of the challenge of thinking of America as my home. Seeing acts of oppression, such as depictions of all black men as rapists and criminals or the passage of biased

Laurence Ralph
legislation that targets more minorities than whites, was infuriating.  Seeing footage of Hillary Clinton calling young, black men “super predators” and learning about how Donald Trump advocated for the death penalty to be used on five young, black men who were wrongly accused of raping a woman in New York City, made me not only reflect on the past, but worry about the present and future of America.

I remembered being in the car with my dad as a policeman drove alongside us for three miles, harassing us for absolutely no reason. I remembered my friend telling me how her roommate thinks Black Lives Matter is a terrorist group. I remembered Trayvon Martin and Philando Castile and Emmett Till and Sandra Bland and other countless victims of what the film poses as the old and the new Jim Crow eras. I remembered how I exist in an America that is not built for me.

After the film ended, the room bellowed with thunderous claps and a cheering crowd. Some audience members

Khalil Gibran Muhammad
wiped away tears and stifled sniffles as they tried to recover from how emotional they had become during the testimonies in the films. Muhammad and Laurence Ralph, a professor of social sciences at Harvard’s department of African and African American studies, headed to the front platform for a discussion about The 13TH. The conversation was far ranging. Among the topics that came up were reparations for the people affected during the mass incarceration from the “war on drugs” and the 1994 Crime Bill. An audience member commented that we shouldn’t “allow systems of oppression to perpetuate inequalities.” This then pivoted to discussions about the recent HUDS workers strike on Harvard’s campus, the notions of politicians, such as Donald Trump and Richard Nixon, with platforms of “law and order,” and the possibility of centralizing black feminism to grant more political power to the Black Lives Matter movement.

In the end, I walked away from this screening and discussion with both questions and answers. But mostly I thought: Let’s see where America will go next.