BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - JULY 29: Marty Stuart, Rosanne Cash and Ken Burns of "Country Music A Film By Ken Burns" speak during the PBS segment of the Summer 2019 Television Critics Association Press Tour 2019 at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 29, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California.
BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA - JULY 29: Marty Stuart, Rosanne Cash and Ken Burns of "Country Music A Film By Ken Burns" speak during the PBS segment of the Summer 2019 Television Critics Association Press Tour 2019 at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on July 29, 2019 in Beverly Hills, California. (Amy Sussman / Getty Images)

When I was growing up in rural Georgia, country music was as much the soundtrack of my life as Motown and the gospel singers Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland. But it has not been politically correct to declare oneself a country music enthusiast.

Now I have an explanation: My soul has just been responding to music that owes its existence to black spirituals and field songs, blues and jazz, as well as to the European influences on people in Appalachia and the Great Plains, according to Ken Burns’ new documentary series on country music, being shown on PBS this week.

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It must be messing with the heads of people who have thought of this genre as a bastion of whiteness, with room for only occasional interlopers like Charley Pride or Ray Charles or Darius Rucker. But only the most dyed-in-the-wool white supremacists will deny what’s before them: There would be no country music as we know it without its African American roots.

FILE - In this Nov. 2, 2016 file photo, Charley Pride performs "Kiss An Angel Good Morning" at the 50th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
FILE - In this Nov. 2, 2016 file photo, Charley Pride performs "Kiss An Angel Good Morning" at the 50th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. (Charles Sykes/AP)

The series shows white people in the formative days of what became known as hillbilly music or country music having no shame in singing songs they’d first heard black folks singing. These were the same folks whose humanity they denied and whose exclusion from public spaces they legislated — the same folks they terrorized while wearing white hoods, burning crosses and hosting lynchings as after-church entertainment.

That is so much of the real story of the U.S., though one still missing from most textbooks and one that has entered into mainstream discourse only recently. This story is an undeniably complex and messy entanglement of song and food and even blood lines. And yet the official narrative has for too long excluded what has brought flavor to the American stewpot.

In the documentary series, musician Wynton Marsalis observes: “The gene pool cries out for diversity. Tribal tradition cries out for sameness. In America, we’re caught in between those two things. So our music has ended up being segregated; and that’s not what the origins of the music would lead you to believe would be its trajectory.”

New origin stories, whether about music or the impact of the introduction of blacks into English colonies in 1619, are too upsetting for some old-timers whose own identity is dependent upon an American exceptionalism fueled by the genius of superior white people. Maybe Gen Z, the young people born between 1995 and 2015 or so and our most racially and ethnically diverse generation to date, will lead the way forward with their rejection of a fairy tale version of American history and their aversion to being confined by old racial, gender and social identities.

Take Kalamata’s Kitchen, a series of children’s books by Sarah Thomas and what she calls “a family food adventure brand.” With a brown girl as their guide, kids journey through foods and cultures and peoples. That spirit of the pledge that they take should be adapted by us adults in non-gastronomic areas of our lives: “I promise to keep my mind open and my fork ready, to try each new food at least two times and share what’s on my plate when someone doesn’t have enough.”

As encouraging as that is, so is a veritable explosion of efforts to acknowledge past injustices and to find ways to rectify the present. That’s happening with the Lauraville neighborhood in northeast Baltimore and the area’s anchor institution, Morgan State University.

A century ago, hysterical white people in Lauraville went racial when they learned that Morgan, then located in West Baltimore, planned to move to their part of what was then Baltimore County. Headlines warned of a “Negro invasion” and predicted — rather Trump-like — the dire consequences of the presence of a “Negro colony”: tuberculosis, cholera, crime, vermin and plummeting property values. Stunned at learning about this history during a presentation at a meeting of the Lauraville Improvement Association a couple of years ago, community leaders vowed to show that current Lauraville repudiates that past. According to Edwin T. Johnson, Morgan’s assistant archivist, a member of the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture and a Lauraville resident, his neighbors have been pushing back against the troubling racist climate evident across the nation and saying instead, “Let me do something to make sure my conscience is clear and my hands are clean.”

So they have planned a Peace, Unity and Reconciliation Ceremony for November, when Morgan celebrates its founding. Says Mr. Johnson: “Now is the right time for this.”

And also for Ken Burns’ documentary. I can hardly wait to discover what the next six episodes reveal.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: ershipp2017@gmail.com.

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