Transcript

Judy Woodruff: Tonight's Brief But Spectacular features an artist who uses his work to shed light on the truth.

Paul Rucker has created pieces that explore mass incarceration, systemic racism, police brutality, and the continuing legacy of slavery in this country.

His story is also part of Canvas, our ongoing series on art and culture.

Paul Rucker: The L.A. riots happened on my birthday. They started on my birthday, April 29.

And that was one of the turning points for me that I realized that I can't make artwork about nothing.

In making artwork, it's really important to bring truth to light. And that's power. We repeat history over and over again, whether we, as a country, allow lynchings to take place, thousands of lynchings to take place without any kind of accountability, we have police shootings or shooting by civilians, such as Trayvon Martin.

There's parallels systems as far as slavery and the prison system. We went seamlessly from one system to another system.

Did one time lapse that showed the growth of the U.S. prison system over a couple hundred of years. Since 1976, we have built, on average, one new prison a week in the United States.

We currently have 2.3 million people incarcerated right now. That's one in every 99 people. My work is not really about black history. It's not white history. This is American history.

You have a visceral understanding of history when you hold something that was once used on humans. This is a ship's branding iron, and it was used to brand Africans, humans, before they were put on the boat. The branding is S for slave.

I want to keep these pieces and show these pieces. And I allow people to hold them so — because they tell a story. These objects hold power over all of us right now.

And until we, as a society, admit and confront that systemic racism is sewn into the very fabric of who we are as a country, we will never be able to dismantle this ugly legacy of slavery.

My father could have been lynched if he didn't yield a sidewalk to someone. My father could have been lynched if he said the wrong word to someone. He lived during a time where you had to be really brave, and, unfortunately, really careful.

And, right now, I shouldn't have to be careful. But, as person of color in America, I have to be careful. So it's my responsibility to bring awareness, regardless of how dangerous it is.

My name is Paul Rucker. This is my Brief But Spectacular take on the normalization of systemic and structural racism.

Judy Woodruff: And you can find more Brief But Spectacular essays on our Web site. That's at PBS.org/NewsHour/brief.