29 Jun Bubbled
We all live in our own little bubbles. There’s no avoiding it; it’s just the nature of “culture”. We can work to step outside them, but it does require sustained effort, and we often slip back in to these bubbles before we even realize it. Sometimes though, the information just flows so heavy and so strong that the bubbles pop and our minds get a little bit blown. Things that we could not see through the reflection of our bubbles appear in stark relief and we have to deal with them in the moment. I got three big pops in two days and this morning I’m thinking about our cultures’ perverse race problem in technicolor.
On Monday I woke up to a facebook feed filled to the brim with re-posts of the above Jesse Williams’ speech at the BET awards. A lot of peoples’ bubbles were popping on Monday as his sharp words flew off the screen. In the middle of his speech he states,
“The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander. That’s not our job. If you have a critique of the resistance then you better have an established record of critique of our oppression.”
That night I caught “The Look of Silence” on POV. It’s a devastating film about the pervasive effects of the 1965 genocide in Indonesia. An optometrist confronts the men who killed his brother 50 years earlier as he checks their eyes. There has been no reconciliation process to heal the wounds of that genocide and the killers still enjoy wealth and status that they gained as a result of their crimes. Those who ordered the killings are still in power, and they were aided and abetted by the US government. When he informs them that they were involved in his brother’s death he sits silently as they threaten him for making them uncomfortable. It is hard to watch. I couldn’t stop thinking about Jesse Williams’ speech.
The next evening we sat down to begin watching “Made in America”, the OJ Simpson documentary series on ESPN. The first episode focuses a good deal on the American race problem in ….1965. While our government was aiding the Indonesian military’s effort to slaughter suspected “communists” The LA neighborhood of Watts was exploding in riots. OJ was playing community college football and preparing to head to the USC campus, a wealthy enclave that butted up against Watts . While this episode tracks OJ’s explosive football exploits it also focuses on his desire to live outside of the racial paradigm. While other prominent athletes are shown using their position to to draw attention to racial disparities, the documentary focuses on how OJ consistently used his platform to assimilate into the dominant/white culture. He quickly became White America’s black friend. As the first African American corporate pitchman he was a daily reminder that the race problem was getting better.
This morning as I drove my daughter to camp I listened to NPR. The reporter was talking to a protester in Baltimore after the riots there last year. He explained that he was frustrated that Obama had referred to the looters as thugs and explained that the president hadn’t done much for his community. When the reporter then presented this critique to Obama himself, the complaint was dismissed with the idea that change never happens fast enough for some people. The reporter gave President Obama a pass. However, the very next story focused on the fact that while White youths and youths of color smoke pot at about the same rate in Colorado, where it is legal for those over 18, Black and Latino youth are arrested at twice the rate of White kids. The story points out that while cops may not be targeting these kids intentionally, there are a myriad of factors at play- including the fact that almost all of the legal dispensaries are owned by White people.
The underlying idea of “The Look of Silence” is that the deep wounds of the genocide cannot heal if they are not dealt with, if they continue to be ignored. As an outsider to Indonesiam culture that idea could not be more clear. However, the unstated subtext of “Made in America” is that we face a similar dilemma here in the United States. As a culture we don’t want to recognize that the vast majority of Black people in this country are here because of an unspeakable genocide. Whole cultures of people were ripped from their roots and then physically and emotionally tortured for centuries. As soon as they were freed from the bondage of legalized slavery they were thrust back into land bondage and terrorized in other ways.
I grew up in the university town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I went to school shortly after the end of segregation and was not very consciously aware of it when I was young. Still though, I did learn some aspect of the history. However, I never heard anything about the Wilmington Massacre of 1898 until last fall when I saw the film “Wilmington On Fire”. If there was ever a case for reparations and reconciliation this sounds like it. Despite the efforts of many activists almost no one seems to know about it. in 1898 Wilmington was a diverse town with a majority black population that was quite prosperous. Two days after an election that saw a fusionist government put in place White supremacists Democrats carried out an insurrection and seized power. President McKinley did not send in troops because the governor did not request them. Upwards of 60 Black people were murdered, thousands fled the city, and the property of prosperous Black families was seized. This property was retained by those who led the insurrection. This wrong was never corrected. Consider your bubble popped. Now you know.