The first episode of the web docuseries The History of White People in America was released shortly after Independence Day during a time that is bubbling over with civic unrest, demand for social change and the amplification of the endless injustices against the Black community. From the title alone, the series presents an American history that the majority of the country hasn’t been taught.
The series from PBS’ Independent Lens and WORLD Channel brings to the history of race to the forefront. In particular, it spotlights how the idea of the white race helped shape the nation’s history while regulating other groups to the margins. As a result, being white became the standard. This subjugated “the othered” which result in wide-ranging ramifications on social class and life experience that exist to this day — which can easily be read in today’s headlines.
Out of the gate, with its historical storytelling through a hip hop lens, the series immediately draws comparisons to Hamilton. It’s a very grassroots iteration of the Tony-winning musical — and it’s a comparison that Pierce Freelon, who co-directed the series, does not mind.
“I don’t shy away from the Hamilton comparisons, I embrace them,” Freelon admitted to Deadline. “I think Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius and to be called a grassroots version is just so humbling.”
Freelon is no stranger to web series, the arts, education and advocacy. He co-founded the Emmy-winning PBS web series Beat Making Lab, is a professor of Black Studies, founded the digital company Blackspace and even ran for Mayor of Durham, North Carolina in 2017. With his skills, he collaborated with a talented team to bring The History of White People to life including producer Leslie Arvio, animator Ed Bell, producer Clementine Briand, producer/writer Jon Halperin and composer Aaron Keane, animator/editor and Drew Takahshi. Through animation, spoken word and hip hop music, the series deconstructs the construct of race.
The first episode begins this exploration of whiteness with Jamestown, Virginia, where an uprising of poor indentured Europeans and enslaved Africans against rich landowners led to new laws designed to undermine unity between the poor of all backgrounds, and how “skin became color, color became race and race became power.” Two more episodes were released on July 7 and 8 on the WORLD Channel YouTube page but this is just the beginning.
“Our goal for the series is to do 16 vignettes into how whiteness has grown, developed, shaped, and transformed in America,” said Freelon. “Moving forward, there are international stories we want to tell. There’s a lot of things where we could go with this, but we’re focusing on America.”
From the web series premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018 to its relevance to today’s social landscape, Freelon talked to Deadline about the journey of The History of White People in America, how hip hop served as an education for him and how the series serves a difficult and complex history of racism that is often swept under the rug.
DEADLINE: How long has The History of White People in America been in the works?
PIERCE FREELON: 2016 is when the first seeds were planted. That’s when we started recording, producing and tossing ideas back and forth from North Carolina to the West Coast to New York. We completed the whole first episode without ever having met in person, before that became necessary because of COVID. It’s been four years in the making now and we’re happy.
DEADLINE: Four years is quite a long time.
FREELON: It’s been such an incredible journey. I remember getting into Tribeca was huge. The animated shorts category was curated by Whoopi Goldberg, who I’m a lifelong fan of, and that was really big — but then we had to sit on it for another two years after that. So for the longest time, I was feeling very frustrated. I felt that this needed to be released. This is an important story. But now is actually the most important time it could be dropping.
DEADLINE: Speaking to that, since you started so long ago, how has your perspective of the project changed from when you first started to now to the pandemic, protests and the Black Lives Matters movement?
FREELON: I think that the pandemic has been so complicated for many reasons, there’s the quarantine, there was the murder of George Floyd and the call for radical change, which in Durham, I have been a part of that political narrative. I ran for mayor in 2017 when we first started working on this project and calls to defund the police and re-appropriate resources were part of my platform so that was kind of already on the radar. I think Durham, even in terms of Confederate monuments, we ripped ours down in 2017 after Charlottesville. I’ve been feeling, “It’s about time”.
It just feels like a super important time to be telling the story of the history of how race — this social construct — and this system of oppression began. We are in this moment where so much radical work is finally on the table to undo some of the structures of white supremacy. That is just not something I could have predicted or prayed for. It just feels really divine. My grandmother used to say, “A delay is not a denial.” It’s easy to hear that when your grandma says it because she’s trying to get you to be patient — but my goodness, it just feels really appropriate and an important context too, because some white folks are asking themselves for the first time, “What does it mean to have privilege?” and “What does it mean to be white?” With these viral “Karen” videos dropping every week, there are some people really doing that reflective work. I’m really glad that they’re doing that work. History of White People In America is a tool that can help you process some of how we got here — and it’s in short form, animated and it’s musical.
DEADLINE: How do you think framing these often overlooked moments in history through a contemporary hip hop lens helps amplify the message?
FREELON: It is the culture of young people and really around the world, that’s the case. For me, growing up in predominantly white classrooms with a very Eurocentric curriculum, it was the hip hop artists that were dropping all the gems that I didn’t hear about again until college. It was KRS-One. It was Lauryn Hill. It was Nas with songs like “I Can” where he raps: “There was empires in Africa called Kush/Timbuktu, where every race came to get books”. I didn’t learn a damn thing about no Timbuktu in high school, but when I got to college and I was like, “Yo!” The place where I recognized the curriculums they were presenting was in the bars of my favorite rappers. It was not in the bars of my history, social studies or English teacher. They didn’t have those gems.
DEADLINE: So it’s safe to say that hip hop was another teacher for you and helped inform the series.
FREELON: I was an African American studies major. I studied pan African studies in grad school at Syracuse. Hip hop drove me to the discipline and that was the one place on campus where I felt affirmed in the curriculum, that and gender studies. It was music that really resonated with me. I feel like I’m using that same language that helped liberate me from a Eurocentric and white-centered curriculum. I’m using the same tools to pass that gift forward — the gift of a story told from a Black perspective, but also of Black culture in the labor that went into creating and crafting the elements of the story. That just felt right. It felt at home. It felt natural and it felt liberating to do that in my own language, culturally, through hip hop.
DEADLINE: What did you hope the first three episodes of The History of White People In America establish for the path of the entire series?
FREELON: We wanted to set some foundations. The story of when first time the word “white” appeared in a legal document is told through episode one. Prior to Bacon’s rebellion…actually, prior to that moment in pre-American history because Jamestown, Virginia was a colony at the time, the word “white” had never been used to describe a human being in any legal capacity until the Virginia House of Burgesses. We wanted to lay that foundation.
With episode two, it picks up the first time “white” appears in a legal document to prevent marriage. That was the institution — and that’s such an important institution. The family is such an important institution for white supremacy to have a hand in disrupting. For me, that was really interesting to discover in our research: that marriage was the first place they began to codify white supremacy, patriarchy, and all these other interlocking systems — and we see that play out in episode two. There’s an interracial couple — a Black man and a white woman. It’s completely legal and socially acceptable for them to have a family, own land and do all these things, then all of a sudden, somebody comes with a nail and a scroll and bangs onto a post and says, from here on out, it’s illegal.
It was from there that the rest of the laws and slave codes unraveled. We only just made same-sex marriage legal in this past decade. The Loving decision was in the ’60s. For those in our 30s, that was our parents’ generation. They were alive at a time when it was illegal to be interracially married. This is so recent. It’s not ancient history. It is today’s history.
LGBTQ rights — starting with marriage equality moving forward — is such an important and crucial place to start because that’s where white supremacy started in this country. It starts with that family unit and marriage, but guess what? It leads to “We’re not going to hire you”, “We can fire you without consequence” and “You can’t have a house in this neighborhood”.
DEADLINE: From this three-episode foundation, it seems that there is so much story to tell.
FREELON: What we wanted to establish from a storytelling standpoint is how racism got started and how white supremacy became codified in American law. Beyond that, we also wanted to put a pilot together to show a funder like ITVS. Now they have funded three more episodes, which is great. This is the beginning of the story, but there are so many places to go from here. We’ve got an opportunity here to continue to tell the story of how race changed.
It wasn’t always the case that Irish people were considered white. They assimilated into whiteness in the early 1900s. There were places that said no n*****s, no Irish and no dogs. They became white. So what changed? What changed from the WASPy, British descendant white to their creation of something like Caucasian, which is its own creation. So if they can make stuff up and it can have such significant consequences for our lives, then what else is possible? What else can we make up? What liberation spaces and ideas and identities can we make up for our liberation and not for our oppression? That’s my big question.
DEADLINE: Leaning into that, how do you hope this series impacts conversations that we’re currently having about race, privilege and even whiteness?
FREELON: Part of it for me is this is the legacy of white America and of white supremacy. It’s important for you to know your history. I recently did a conversation and was asked, “How do you balance the narrative of Thomas Jefferson as a noble forefather?” First of all, I don’t look at Thomas Jefferson and see nobility. David Fagen and Harriet Tubman are noble. Let’s define what he actually was — that’s the whole conversation going on with the monuments in this country, even down to Mount Rushmore. How noble is it to occupy indigenous land, to break treaties and then carve your face into their mountains? That’s not an act of nobility. That’s an act of piracy. That’s an act of theft. You know what I mean? But, white people — and by white people, I mean American systems, American governments, American classrooms, American curriculums — they love to push this white supremacist narrative that everything was just peachy keen and Thomas Jefferson was a hero. No, Thomas Jefferson enslaved and impregnated a 16-year-old girl who was his property since birth. He had six kids with this woman, Sally Hemings.
In his autobiography is talking mad sh*t about how trash Black people are while he has six Black children with this Black woman that he thought is less than human. Thomas Jefferson needed to explain himself. That is what the series does for me. It questions the norms of the history and the stories we’ve been taught. We’re retelling those stories through hip hop and animation from the perspective of the people that push and struggle with whiteness, not from the conquering narrative of those who committed genocide against indigenous folks; committed atrocities in the form of institutional slavery and the systems of Jim Crow — and still want to talk about how awesome they are all the time.
DEADLINE: When can we expect more episodes?
FREELON: We’ve produced three, which have been released on WORLD Channel and Independent Lens. We just got approval to do three more episodes that have not been produced yet. We’ve got 16 episodes that are written, three finished and we got three more and are looking for funding to tell the rest of those stories. The question is what three do we do? What stories to tell next? We mapped these 16 episodes out in 2016. The world has completely turned upside down since then for a myriad of reasons. Are the 16 episodes that we mapped out in 2016 the same 16 episodes and stories that need to be told in 2020? We’re kind of raking over the foundations of the series and reshaping it accordingly.
DEADLINE: Does the series plan to expand to non-Black people of color, the LGBTQ community and other marginalized stories in history? How much of a deep dive are you going to go into with future episodes?
FREELON: We’re going to try to go as deep and as wide as we are able. One of the next stories that we talked about telling is a story from an indigenous perspective — we’ve reached out to some folks. I don’t want to name names because we haven’t 100% confirmed anyone yet, but we definitely want to get an indigenous writer, musician, storyteller, co-director to envision what story needs to be told from that perspective. There are so many options for me. I really want to tell the story of an indigenous woman because of that intersection of white supremacy and patriarchy. You can name so many indigenous men like Geronimo, but the voices of indigenous women aren’t uplifted often. As is the case with Black history as well. There’s lots of Martin Luther King’s and Malcolm X’s — we don’t always hear the story of Black women as often.
Everything from the story of the first Chinese immigrant to come into America, Japanese internment camps during World War II — whiteness rears its head in lots of colorfully problematic ways. So there’s no shortage of stories to tell.