Haysbert shares lessons learned from his participation as host of a moving documentary miniseries that explores the Civil War.
Actor Dennis Haysbert
Tavis: Over the next two years, to commemorate what will be 150 years since the end of the Civil War, the Smithsonian Institute is devoting much of its resources to exhibitions and public programs about that divisive time in our nation’s history, including a three-part series for the Smithsonian Channel called “Civil War 360,” which concludes this Sunday.
That hour is titled “Fight for Freedom” and hosted by actor Dennis Haysbert. We’ll take a look first at a clip from the series.
Tavis: I’m going to make an assumption here. I could be wrong about this, but I doubt that you have ever done any project in your life for television where you learned more than you learned this time out. I could be wrong.
Dennis Haysbert: No. No, you’re not wrong at all. (Laughter) You can go a step further. In doing this, shooting this show, when I was, I didn’t know what artifact I was going to be discussing until the cameras were rolling.
Tavis: Oh, till the moment of.
Haysbert: Till the moment of.
Tavis: They kept you in suspense.
Haysbert: So you can understand how that could have an emotional impact on what I was doing. It’s very interesting, shooting that and looking back at this particular clip and all the other clips. This is going to be a very fascinating show.
I was watching Ashley Judd last night, and just kind of happy-go-lucky, kind of dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.
I just – I don’t know, I guess I smiled a little bit in the shooting of this, but a lot of it was kind of dour for me. It kind of – it hurt and at once I was, oh, God, I was kind of liberated in my thinking of all the people that came together, that tried to stop this, that tried to end it.
So I have a whole new outlook on the people that tried to help and the people that tried to exacerbate the situation.
Tavis: Yeah. See, the dour part, I’m not surprised to hear you say that, Dennis. The dour part I get, because as we know, certainly for us it’s a dark period in the nation’s history, no doubt about that.
Tavis: On the other hand, there are some artifacts that you got a chance to see that speak to the courage and the conviction and the commitment of people.
You got a chance to look at Harriet Tubman’s artifacts, and see her notes in the margins.
Tavis: That’ll lift you up.
Haysbert: It does, and especially when you find out how tiny she was.
Tavis: Yeah. Oh, she’s like yeah, like 4’2″. (Laughter)
Haysbert: Yeah, but she was powerful.
Tavis: Oh, yeah.
Haysbert: You did not want to cross that lady. (Laughter) I’m thinking about the day, I said, oh, man, and you caught hell if you gave away your position. It was almost military-like. So it was just enriching to find out all the stories behind these artifacts. I hope every child, man, woman, can watch this show. I really do.
I know that’s not possible and that they’re not going to do it, but I tell you something, if you really want to learn about what it was like in those days, the good, the bad, the ugly, the indifferent, then you should watch this.
Tavis: Whenever I’m in a classroom – I have a foundation that works with young people. I know you have a foundation as well, but I have one that works specifically with young kids, and I have found myself on any number of occasions speaking to a classroom full of kids all across the country.
When the subject of Harriet Tubman comes up, I will have, I’ll try to find somebody in the class, a short person, obviously, who’s about the size of Harriet Tubman, and it is amazing to watch the eyes of these kids when you bring a young girl to the front of the classroom and you size her up and you say, “This was about the size of Harriet Tubman.”
This was the stature of Harriet Tubman, and every kid in that classroom goes, “Whoa.” Because we really don’t realize how small in stature Harriet Tubman was. Then I make the point – you’re a pretty tall guy, you’re a little bit taller than I am – but I make the point that Harriet, that Shaquille O’Neal wasn’t the first tall Negro, so that Harriet Tubman was taking seven-foot Negroes to freedom way back in the day when she stood this tall.
It is amazing, just the visual these kids see. I always bring the shortest person up in the classroom and the tallest person up in the classroom, and then I show them, this is what she was leading to freedom.
Haysbert: Yeah, and will jack you up -
Tavis: Would jack you up if you got out of line. (Laughter)
Haysbert: Seriously. She was -
Tavis: All she had was a gun and a Bible. That was it. If some people needed, they needed some encouragement, she’d open the Bible.
Haysbert: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: If that wasn’t enough for you (laughter) – you were not going to give up our position, and if you go back, they’re going to kill you.
Haysbert: That’s right.
Tavis: So I’m going to kill you here before you get back and tell all the secrets about the Underground Railroad.
Tavis: Courageous young lady, and for you to be able to see all of that and see her artifacts and all the other stuff you saw is pretty amazing.
Haysbert: I think it was that she married, when she did finally marry, she married someone who was 20 years her junior. Back in that day, that’s – even today, that’s -
Tavis: That’s heresy. (Laughter)
Haysbert: That’s unheard of for a woman.
Tavis: She needs to have some energy to keep up – this is Harriet Tubman, now. You got to have some energy to keep up with Harriet Tubman.
Haysbert: I’m telling you.
Tavis: (Laughs) So I quite understand that. Is there anything that you learned about yourself hosting this documentary series?
Haysbert: Oh, God. Just, oh, a whole bunch of stuff I learned about myself. I learned about what, how steadfast I am in how I approach life. Because I saw on this show and I saw when they were introducing these artifacts just how cruel things were, how inhumane things were.
But on the other side, I found bits of humanity that didn’t quite jibe with what’s going on. There’s one gentleman in the stories who had a book that he wrote and that his family wrote, and he was a slave. I don’t like to call our people slaves. I call it being enslaved.
Tavis: He was enslaved, yeah.
Haysbert: He was allowed to leave for the weekends and go down to the next plantation, which was about 16 miles away, and visit his wife. Now in all the inhumanity that was going on, that was very human.
But still he had to go on down to the next plantation to visit his wife, and they’re not at the same plantation, so they were sold separately. So there was little spatterlings of humanity in that.
But it’s still kind of hard to see humanity as a whole in that situation. You understand what I’m saying?
Tavis: Yeah, mm-hmm.
Haysbert: That’s what I learned, is just all the degrees – if you can have humanity in degrees.
Tavis: You’re right; there are degrees and gradations for how people view the humanity of other people.
Tavis: Which is another conversation into itself, but.
Haysbert: What I think people will also learn about this, in this particular show, is that slavery was not looked upon as a great or cool enterprise. It was actually looked down upon by most people, but it was also the most lucrative business to be in at that time.
So it was kind of mind-blowing in that respect, because on the one hand you have all these people thinking oh, God, that’s such a terrible business, a horrible business, but everybody participated in it. So I don’t know, what do you say to that?
Tavis: The great thing about the Smithsonian as an institution, number one, is that they have so much of this stuff in their vault. I would love – I’m sure you got a chance to go into the vault as one of their favorite friends now.
But I would love just to run through the hallways of the Smithsonian vault, because they have everything in there, number one.
Haysbert: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: Then the other great part of it is that they get a chance every now and then, they’re nice enough to open up these vaults and let a TV series kind of see what’s there, and the rest of us can be empowered and educated by what comes out of that vault.
So this is a three-part series. The last part airs this Sunday, hosted by Dennis Haysbert. There are two other parts, though, hosted, as he mentioned, one part by Ashley Judd -
Haysbert: Yeah, and Trace Atkins.
Tavis: – and the other by Trace Atkins. So Trace Atkins and Ashley Judd both host other pieces of this. So if you haven’t seen the other two, then I’m sure you can go online and get a chance to see it. Go to the Smithsonian Channel; I’m sure they’ll repeat it.
But this Sunday, the last of that series airs with Dennis Haysbert as host, talking about the pathway to freedom. Dennis, good to have you on, man.
Haysbert: It’s always good.
Tavis: Good to see you, as always.
Haysbert: Good to see you.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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