The Christophers: Ken Burns on our better angels

Earlier this year, The Christophers held our 69th annual Christopher Awards ceremony to honor creators of books, film, and television programs that affirm the highest values of the human spirit. Our Life Achievement Award went to documentarian Ken Burns. Having won multiple Christopher Awards in the past, Burns said, “I feel very at home here. I’ve been here many times over the last three decades, and there is a sense of recognition and comradeship and fellowship that I feel in the impetus behind the Christopher Awards and the people I meet here…We have The Christophers to remind us that the things that we do in this business of ours require something more than the pursuit of the bottom line, the almighty dollar, and some glory in this short passage.”

Burns first won a Christopher Award in 1981 for Brooklyn Bridge. He would go on to win six more, telling iconic stories that capture the essence of the American experience, including: The Statue of Liberty, The Civil War, Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Jazz, Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip, and The War.

Talking about the power of stories, Burns noted that as a historical documentarian he is interested not just in those old stories that glorify our nation’s past, nor in those newer takes that, as he said, “seem to suggest that American history is only a catalogue of white European crimes.” Instead, Burns said, “I’m interested in listening to the voices of the true, honest, complicated past that’s unafraid of controversy and tragedy but equally drawn to those stories and moments that suggest an abiding faith in the human spirit and particularly the unique role this remarkable but sometimes also dysfunctional republic seems to play in the progress of mankind.”

Burns reflected on the recurring question his documentaries always seem to ask, “Who are we?”—and on the even more complicated question this inevitably raises, “Who am I? What am I doing here? What am I supposed to be doing?”

He concluded on a hopeful note by quoting what he called his “second favorite sentence in the English language.” (The first is, “I love you.”) He said, “On the eve of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln…still hoping to keep his country together, he’s speaking to the mostly southerners in his audience: ‘We must not be enemies, we must be friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break the bonds of affection.’ But, then this poet president went on in one of the greatest sentences ever constructed. He said, ‘The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’”

It has been such a privilege for The Christophers to have the opportunity to honor Burns’ work from the outset of his career. Our recognition of great storytellers provides everyone the opportunity to discover and support those creators who strive to bring a message of hope to the world. I would also encourage everyone to consider the great storytellers of the future who might be in your family or parish community. Offer them support and guidance, and one day they may join the ranks of the storytellers we honor and bring a message of hope to our nation and the world.

For free copies of the Christopher News Note on
Where There is Hatred, Let me Sow Love, write:
The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square,
New York, NY 10004;
or e-mail: mail@christophers.org.

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