John Legend has said that Black people need to own the “narrative” of their own stories as he condemned the ongoing battle over schoolbooks across the country.
Speaking on stage alongside civil rights leader Rev Al Sharpton and New York film director Spike Lee at the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday night, the singer warned that there is an effort to “sanitise” the stories and struggles of Black people.
“It matters that we’re able to tell our own stories,” he said on the eve of Juneteenth.
“Basically if we don’t have control of our own narrative and can’t tell our own story…
“Now, we’re seeing when we’re not in charge of own school boards or libraries… and folks are trying to get rid of our stories and our struggles out of our libraries and textbooks.”
Over the last year, Republican states have been banning anti-racist teachings in schools and removing books from school libraries.
Mr Legend said that the efforts to stop Black people from telling their own stories is part of a “backlash” against the racial reckoning that came after the 2020 Memorial Day murder of George Floyd.
“We see what that means and they know what that means too – that’s why they’re putting in so much effort to sanitise these stories and get rid of our narrative,” he said.
“They saw what happened with George Floyd and every time we have progress, there’s a backlash, and the backlash is: ‘Oh, we’ve got to control this narrative.
“Everybody knows how important narrative is and how important who’s telling the story and what perspectives are being represented.”
The singer said that he sometimes finds it “frustrating” caring about justice for Black people because whenever there is progress made, a backlash follows.
“It can be so frustrating at times as it can feel like we take one step forward and get knocked back,” he said.
“And the backlash has been so stong over the past year and a half or so in response to what we call a racial reckoning after George Floyd, it’s been very discouraging”.,
But, despite the frustration, he said that he was inspired to keep fighting by watching Loudmouth, the documentary about Rev Sharpton which premiered at the festival on Saturday night.
Loudmouth chronicles Rev Sharpton’s life spanning more than five decades as an activist and religious leader during major points in the civil rights movement including the 1986 lynching of three Black men in Howard Beach, New York, and the 2020 murder of George Floyd.
In the documentary, Rev Sharpton says that the hunter always gets to tell the story about the lion and the hunter.
Mr Lee, who said he became a director “to tell our stories”, called for a change in the “playbook”.
“Young people aren’t getting the real story – they might be getting the sanitised version, not the radical version of our leaders,” he said.
He called for Loudmouth to be shown to children in schools, as he mocked being taken on an early school field trip to see Gone With the Wind.
On stage, Rev Sharpton admitted that at first he was “a loudmouth” as he had to be “louder than the city of New York” to get people to pay attention to the fight for justice.
“Most civil rights leaders came from the south. I was born in Brooklyn,” he said.
“Growing up you had to compete with the Broadway lights and Times Square and Radio City,” he said, adding that “you had to do something that was going to get people’s attention”.
When asked about his story being told by a young, white director Josh Alexander, Rev Sharpton said he instantly pushed back.
But he said he was persuaded that this would be more “objective”.
“[They said] he didn’t he didn’t grow up loving you or hating you… by getting a young Jewish guy out of San Francisco they’ll believe it,” he said.
“I said: ‘I’ll tell you what. If it works, I’ll be there to take a bow. If it don’t, I’ll be meeting you outside,’” he joked.