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Seeking Racial Reconciliation in the Heart of Texas at a Screening of Human Zoos

Human Zoos

On a cold but sunny Sunday afternoon on Martin Luther King Day weekend, I found myself deep in the heart of Texas. I was visiting the town of Athens, 73 miles southeast of Dallas, for a screening of my documentary Human Zoos at First Baptist Church. The film has just been posted to YouTube after previously being shown on cable television and released on DVD, Blu-ray, and Amazon Prime.

Human Zoos communicates some hard truths about the misuse of science to promote racism in America. It examines the public display of Africans and other indigenous peoples as “missing links” between apes and humans; and it exposes the crusade by scientists and politicians to breed a “better” race through the “science” of eugenics, which drew direct inspiration from Darwinian biology.

Being white and not having grown up in the South, I admit I initially didn’t appreciate the full significance of screening Human Zoos at First Baptist Church in Athens. I understood a lot more once I had a conversation with physician Bruce Woodall, a member of First Baptist who helped arrange the screening. 

First Baptist Church, in a Southern Context

Woodall told me how in the South a town’s First Baptist Church was traditionally a symbol of segregation and white privilege. Athens’ First Baptist Church was no exception. The church and its current senior pastor have worked hard to overcome that legacy, and the church now has several Hispanic pastors on staff. Nevertheless, the upcoming screening would be historic, Woodall told me. By screening a film on racism in America — and by welcoming the town’s African-American and Hispanic communities into its sanctuary for the event — First Baptist was sending a powerful message of inclusion.

I later learned that for three weeks leading up to the screening, a group of African-American, white, and Hispanic pastors had been meeting to watch my film and discuss how it could be used to further the work of racial reconciliation in their community. 

Deep Wounds of the Past

The wounds from the past are deep, and Woodall didn’t know how many people would actually attend the public screening, warning me it might be fewer than 50. It turned out more than 240 people showed up, and the senior pastor (who was in Rome as part of an ecumenical tour) even watched the post-film discussion by live-stream. 

I had previously showed Human Zoos to predominately African-American audiences in the heart of Chicago, at the world’s largest museum devoted to African-American history in Detroit, and for predominately white audiences in Seattle, Illinois, and Canada. But the screening in Athens was special: For the first time, the audience was genuinely interracial, including African-Americans, Hispanics, and whites, all sitting in the same auditorium and experiencing the film together. 

Dr. King’s Prophetic Critique

After the film, I shared the stage with four pastors — two African-American (one male, one female), one Hispanic, and one white. I commented on how appropriate it was to have this event on MLK Day weekend, because Dr. King was a prophetic critic of the abuse of science, including the misuse of science to promote racism. 

Discussion after the film was robust, and honest, at times painfully so. Attendees highlighted their community’s continuing struggle to treat everyone as worthwhile and created in the image of God. 

Some in the audience shared that they found the film hard to watch, because the abuses exposed were so horrifying. Others pointed out that we need to learn about the past so we don’t repeat it, which is the message of the film’s ending epigraph, taken from George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I love taking part in post-screening discussions of my films because I get to hear and learn from perspectives different from my own. In Athens, I heard deep hurt, but I also saw deep hope — and a yearning for a future that wouldn’t just be a repeat of the past. 

As I listened to people talk about their fears and hopes, I was amazed that my film had provoked such a response, and that it was being used to further the process of racial reconciliation in a particular community. To have played even a tiny part in sparking that kind of discussion was a humbling experience.

Photo: Post-screening discussion at First Baptist Church, Athens, TX.