Enslaved

After my last blog post, I’ve expanded what I believe is important to put into the world about racism.

Can our white society fully acknowledge the chilling travesty and lasting impact of slavery?  If ancestors were treated as beasts of burden, the experience for both sides never goes away. The great great great grandchildren of the enslaved feel that betrayal in their marrow. White people flinch at the sight of that great great great grandchild, knowing in their marrow that their ancestors benefited from slave labor and the concept of white supremacy.

Both know this in the instant. It is the dark skinned group that will later find the humor in the encounter. That is the genius of the culture. It is the white group that will lynch, burn, and break spines in police vans to confirm something about themselves by the blacks’ terror of them.

Why is media required before we believe dark skinned people’s stories? Without television, Bull Connor’s hoses, billy clubs, and attack dogs, unleashed against peaceful civil rights demonstrators, would not have been exposed and thus believed. Without smartphone video apps, we could not witness white police shooting black suspects in the back or kicking their heads into unconsciousness. Credibility of the dark skinned person’s victimization requires visual evidence that is shoved in the public’s face.

Countless essays and poems and novels have been written about this. W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Soul of Black Folks,” Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time,” and most recently, Claudia Rankine’s “CITIZEN: An American Lyric.” This searing and compassionate book of prose poems and art is the only thing I have read that conveys to a naïve white person what living as a black person is like. Will it change the way white people think? I do not have hope. Will it change the way a few white people think? Probably, but is that enough?

The Museum of Modern Art in New York is exhibiting Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series. Lawrence researched and painted these 60 works of art in Harlem from 1940-1941. They detail the exodus of blacks from the South to the North. They are together for the first time in a very long time. “Two impressions stand out. One is the terrifying obstinacy of racial injustice on the eve of the Second World War. The other is the moral grit that was needed to overcome it.” Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for the New Yorker magazine.

To celebrate this achievement, ten world renowned black poets were invited to write poems about Lawrence’s work and the experiences that inspired this collection. On May 1, 2015 they gathered at the museum to read their poems. The video of this remarkable event is available on the internet, documenting that Lawrence’s effort was not to make art history, but to change the world.

This caused me to circle back to “CITIZEN: An American Lyric” with its unannounced sledgehammer art dropped like bombs amongst Rankine’s poetry. The combination of poetry and art creates fierce beauty and wisdom.

Would I be as sensitive to all of this if I had not walked through the world for sixteen years beside my black husband? Absolutely not. I am a fifth generation Texan. I grew up in segregated Sweetwater, Texas, and remember with shame the last time I said n*ggertown. I was a sophomore in college before I fully understood the racism in a word that was commonplace. My husband had to teach me about Emmitt Till’s murder and point out how insulting the black characters in Gone with the Wind were drawn by the author and Hollywood. Racism is complicated and simple.

To understand the micro-aggressions Ms. Rankine reveals in “CITIZEN: An American Lyric” requires either personal experience or careful and empathetic reading.

How can we generate understanding and empathy in the hearts and minds of the white people of the United States of America? The press is full of speculation about what Barack and Michelle Obama will do, after they leave the White House, to improve our race relations.

Baldwin said it isn’t the politicians or the priests, it is the poets who create the space to invite understanding. Yes, it is the poets, artists, playwrights, essayists, dancers, filmmakers.

These visionaries must continue to tell the truth by any means necessary, even if that means being enslaved by the media to deliver the message.

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