A Pathway to Equality Through Narrative

In 2013 the Nelson-Atkins Museum partnered with the American Jazz Museum and the Black Archives of Mid-America to create an exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in 1963 and the signing of the Civil Rights Act the following year. History and Hope: Celebrating the Civil Rights Movement showcased the work of artists and musicians who participated and were influenced by the Movement. It also included recorded inerviews from local Black artists, educators, business people, and political figures who recounted their experiences. Sly James, Lonnie McFadden, and NedRa Bonds were among many who were interviewed.

The videographer on the other side of the camera was photographer and filmmaker Jason Piggie and it’s this experience of capturing these interviews that brought him to his Rocket Grant project. “The common phrase that kept being repeated was ‘racial equality’,” he says. Although the interviewees from History and Hope spoke to their experiences in the 20th century, Jason wants to activate it with a 21st century perspective. “We need to find a pathway to racial equality and part of that is through narrative. There needs to be a counter-narrative to the way that minorities are portrayed in the media and on the news.” 

Danny Lyon, American (b. 1942). SNCC workers outside the funeral for girls killed at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church: Emma Bell, Dorie Ladner, Dona Richards, Sam Shirah and Doris Derby, Birmingham, 1963. From the History and Hope Exhibition

He planned to build three recording booths that people could step into, watch a portion of the original interview on a tablet and then record their own statement or response. The interviews and responses were going to be edited to become a short, twenty minute documentary. But as Jason returned to and reflected on the original footage, he decided that was not enough. He started reaching out to professors at UMKC and people who work in corporate diversity departments. “It’s important to balance the emotional force of the interviews with the facts of the broader historical context,” he says. He projects that the final cut of the documentary will be a feature-length 90 minutes. 

Another change from the grant proposal is the size of the recording booths from 6 feet tall and 4 feet deep. This decision was logistical. “I’m going to be leaving them at various locations around the city and they were just too big to be easily transportable, easily tucked into a space.” The new booths are shorter and shallower. Jason has a list of locations where he will leave them, including UMKC, Penn Valley Community College, East High School, Lincoln Prep, Brush Creek Community Center, and Morningstar Baptist Church. He is working on confirming locations in the predominantly white suburbs, as well.

Mrs. Edioth Gawin, still from original Nelson-Atkins interview, by Jason Piggie.

He’s in the process of choosing 90 second clips from the hours of original interview footage that he would like people to respond to. There is one clip that he already knows he wants to use: one interviewee spoke to her belief that integration was bad for the Black community. During her experience during segregation, she felt as though the Black community was stronger because it “enriched itself from within”. After integration, the community became more spread out. “I had to really think about what she was saying and reckon with that myself,” Jason says. “In some ways I understand her perspective, but once we stepped out of those supportive communities, we were oppressed–lynched, mistreated by the law, and everything else.” He is interested in how other people reflect on that notion. 

The documentary is slated to be finished by December, a deadline that Jason has set for himself. He says that he has to stay in the practice of self-imposed end dates for projects so he can keep moving onto the next thing. “My pops writes stage plays and screenplays. Whenever we work together we have these disagreements on when something is ‘done’. He could just keep working on it, but I have to decide when it’s time to stop.” After its completion, he will screen it at festivals as well as host screenings at local theaters. He intends for it to live online where people can have access to it in the future, and would also like for it to be used in local school curriculum. He hopes that his documentary can humanize and contextualize this era in Kansas City’s history. “I think we all have a place here.”

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