Thursday, April 26, 2012

Questions and Answers

After each official Tribeca screening of the film, Raymond, David, and I do a Q&A. It has been truly amazing to hear the immediate reactions of audience members.  I was fearful that the Q&A's would feel flat and that we'd be standing up there waiting for people to ask questions.  The opposite has happened.  The Tribeca moderators usually have to cut the Q&A short because the discussion goes on and on. After each one Raymond, David and I move into the lobby where people surround us and ask questions and often debate different issues surrounding the complications of race.

Tonight at the Q&A someone asked us why the whites in Greenwood were so angry about what Booker said.  I responded by saying that many of them believed that they had true friendship with him.  It never occurred to them that he would've minded some of the sour treatment he had to endure.  Booker mocked them.  He changed his tone of voice and moved his body to actually mimic them.  I said, "Imagine if you thought you were friends with someone and then you saw them on television expressing that you really weren't friends at all and then seeing that person mimic the way you talk."  It would be upsetting.

But there's another side to this coin.  I explained to the audience that in the course of making this film I got to sit down with Karen Pinkston, the current owner of Lusco's.  When she explained how hurt the Lusco's customers were I was able to express to her that Booker probably thought that he couldn't tell his white "friends" how he really felt.  He probably thought that he couldn't say, "Please stop calling me n-----."

After the Q&A was over I was in the lobby surrounded by people who connected with the work and having interesting discussions with them when David tapped me on the shoulder.  He pointed to an elderly white couple and said, "These people used to live in Greenwood, used to eat at Lusco's, and knew your grandfather."

I was delighted and horrified at the same time.  Delighted because once again I was given the gift of meeting someone who'd actually known my grandfather. Horrified because I had just tried to express the collective thoughts of their community and their peers.  After exchanging pleasantries I said, "I do hope that as you watch the film and hear us talk about it that we're accurately and respectively representing what was true in Greenwood during that time in regards to the complicated relationships between whites and blacks."  Before I could even finish my statement they were nodding at me.  They didn't feel offended and they felt like we got it.

This was probably one of the highest compliments I've received so far.  I have talked so much about "our national dialogue on race" that I'm practically blue in the face (although as a black girl, I really might be more of a dark shade of purple).  I have felt concerned for years about how difficult it is for people to talk about race.  I don't want to be a polarizing person.  I try to have these painful and difficult conversations in a way that is underscored by kindness.

Today I was asked to explain the position of the people who my grandfather waited on for most of his life.  Many of these people embraced him without ever recognizing how humiliated he felt.  It would've been easy for me to vilify them, but then I'd be a hypocrite.  If I want people to listen to Booker's heartache, I have to be willing to respect that sometimes whites then and now simply don't know what's going on or what to do.  There's no evil in that.

Finding the balance when talking about race is hard.  At least this time, I think I got it right.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Myth of the Angry Black Person

This past Sunday night I attended the premiere of “Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story” at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.  As I sat there in the dark listening to people react to the film my heart swelled with pride for Booker Wright.  “You did it,” I thought to myself as I watched my grandfather on the screen.

As hard as I’ve worked on this for so many years it wasn’t until Sunday that I finally grasped the true magic of my grandfather’s words.  If we let them, they can reach into our current discussions on race and they can inform, soften, and change our often hard edged views. 

Forty-six years-ago my grandfather risked his life to explain what it felt like to be on the receiving end of racism.  He paid dearly for his words.  His statement aired once, around the country no less, but still only once.  And then it was over.  White residents of Greenwood credit him for bringing the civil rights movement home to them, but I’ll never know if my grandfather was aware of how much of a difference his words made in his town. 

Today, in 2012, we’re in trouble when it comes to talking about race.  Many times if a black person says, “Hey, I think that kid may have been murdered because he was black,” many will accuse the black person of playing the race card, of having some sort of chip on their shoulder, or of simply rushing to judgment too quickly. 

If a white person says about the same crime that they think it had nothing to do with race, very loud voices in the black community will come out and accuse that person of being insensitive to race issues or worse, being a racist themselves.  It’s amazing to me to think that after so many years of dealing with race-based issues in America that it’s still so hard for us to even have the dialogue without hitting below the belt.  We make it personal.  We attack a person’s character instead of their argument. 

Booker Wright went on camera and with detail and vulnerability described the heartache he experienced every time that he went to work in the white’s only restaurant where he was a waiter.  He explained how it made him want to cry on the inside.  He described how when whites got angry with him and hurled racial slurs at him that he simply wondered what else he could do to appease them. 

Sharing our shame can be hard.  It’s hard to describe the moments in life when we’re the butt of the joke.  It’s hard to tell people about how we’ve been abused, demeaned, or disregarded.  Exposing our wounds weakens us, so we don’t do it.  We especially don’t do it on national television.  Booker Wright went against the grain.  In doing so, he debunked the myth of the angry black person.  He is our evidence that before there was anger there was hurt.  Underneath the loud cries and the screaming voices are a people who simply want to be embraced.  

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

"My wound is geography." - Conroy

Sometimes I don't blog because I feel like I can't tell the whole truth.  I try lots and lots of different ways to write things that are provocative but that won't get me in trouble, but I really don't know how to write like that.

I am leaving soon to go to New York City for 11 days.  Our film is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival.  I'm doing TV, radio, and more.  I did a one hour interview with the NY Times a few weeks ago and another with the Amsterdam News last weekend.

But there is that pesky little problem, that theme that just won't rest.  Whenever I think I have a handle on it, it snaps back and knocks me in the face.  Family.

The Times reporter wanted to interview my Tornado.  When I called to ask her if she was interested in helping tell the story of the first man to ever love her, the man who met her every day when she walked home from school and swooped her up and swung her around and around in the air, when I asked her if she wanted to tell his story to the Times she said no and hung up on me.  Last summer she learned for the first time that I was molested.  Her only response was to accuse me of using that revelation to tarnish her image.  I know, she's broken.

It's always been like this.  I've had years and years of counseling over this.  It still hurts like hell.

So, why am I downcast tonight?  Because I am going to the premiere of my movie alone.  None of Booker Wright's children are coming.  I tried.  I cajoled.  I was turned down.  Dateline will be there to film me walking into the theater......alone.

This is the story, right?  It's because of stuff like this that I have a story at all.  My family is broken.  I honestly believe that members of my family experienced horrors in Greenwood that left them almost beyond repair.  By all appearances they look fine.  We all do.  But there is something in our family that alters us, traveling like a mark on an unsuspecting chromosome.  It makes us act like enemies when really we desire nothing more than one another's company.

Over and over again I ask myself if I'd lived their lives and the lives of my ancestors, what kind of a parent would I be?  If I was a man who knew that he could not protect his wife from rape or his children from being sold into slavery, could I ever give my heart to them?  Would I ever look into their sweet, unknowing eyes?  Would I ever even smile at them?  Would they be able to give their hearts to their own children? How many generations would have to pass for this to heal?

What if I was a black woman living in Greenwood where the only way out was for the right man to get me pregnant?  What if romantic love was a luxury that only white people got to indulge in?  What if I couldn't look for love, I could only look for economic security?  What kind of a family would I form with that man?

What if I lived in Greenwood in the 1960's as a sharecropper with too many mouths to feed?  My oldest children miss school to work the fields, their younger siblings miss school to care for their even younger siblings.  It's all I can do to make it through the day before falling into bed each night.  Every morning I wake up in a panic, wondering how I will feed my children.  I don't read books to them at night. We can't afford books and I don't have the energy.  When they do go to school, I don't understand their homework.  I don't think about how to create complex, deep character in them.  I don't teach them to love Sinatra or fret over which piano teacher will be best.  I just pray that the boys don't end up in jail and that the girls don't get pregnant.  That's all I've got, because I'm black and I'm from Greenwood.

This is the mark that stains us.  There's more of course.  Alcoholism, incest, and the like.  Children robbed of the innocence of their childhood, only to have it replaced by fear.  Then they grow up and have children of their own.  But no matter how far we stray one thing will always be true: We started out in Greenwood.

I left there when I was two, but I still seem to wear the mark.  Will my children wear the mark?  Will they read this and understand that each day that I parented them I was inventing it out of thin air?  Like trying to write a symphony with only a few music lessons to call upon.

Most of us have never contemplated or meditated on what it would feel like to be a grown black man who is called "boy" by a white child.  Most of us have never considered how a black waiter might feel every time he adopts an awkward high pitched voice and smiles the smile of the jolly negro so that he can keep his job. Consider this:  How does one live a humiliated life and then go home and give gifts of love and character to their children?

When I first learned that my grandfather was an unacknowledged civil rights figure, the first person I called, with tears and excitement, was someone in my family.  The next call was someone else in my family.  So was the next one and the one after that.  I felt so excited and so honored to be able to gift my family with a kind of celebration of him.  I felt like I had been called to tell his story.  Last year when we started making the film it felt like something bigger than me was making this whole thing possible.

For months I have imagined attending the premiere.  I always, always, always imagined that my dad, my mom, my aunt, my brother, and my children would all be there with me.  I imagined that we'd be high and giddy with joy - unable to contain our smiles.  I imagined that we'd feel special, together.  I am trying to hold onto the specialness of this vision, while letting go of everything else.  It's in moments like this that I wish celebrity and media meant more to me.  But they don't.

I long for my family.  I am 37 years old and I am still listening like an eager child for their congratulations.  But they won't be there.  I will be alone to celebrate a man that I never met who loved them desperately.  I guess it's fitting.  Booker and I started this journey alone - no one in my family knew about his appearance in Frank's doc - so, I'll finish it with him alone.  I will imagine myself holding Booker Wright's hand, while he whispers his thanks and congratulations to the little girl in me.

But this is the point, right?  This is the story, right?  It's entertaining, right?

People of Color

Now this is interesting.  It's an article about how ABC's shows "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette" have never featured people of color in lead roles.  In 23 seasons they've never featured a black person (or any person of color for that matter) looking for a mate.

When I was a little girl there were white people everywhere.  Even my fairy tale stories taught me that Snow White was beautiful because she was "the fairest of them all."  I didn't see blacks in movie, in magazines, or in the news unless they were the news.  I understood in very clear terms that white skin was prized above all else.

Obviously, we've moved past that.  Black people can be seen as regulars on TV shows, heck we even have a black President.  But even in 2012, it doesn't strike me as odd that ABC can't seem to find black leads.  Certainly many have applied. Is black skin not marketable enough?  Is our skin too ashy?  Are they afraid that they'd have to endorse interracial relationships or only select black contestants?

ABC is claiming innocence on this one.  Maybe they are innocent.  The race issue of today, the true race debate is not about people wearing white hoods or working hard to hold blacks back.  Today's race debate is about the subtle, deep-seeded psychological race-based bias that most of us have in spite of ourselves.

One of the biggest challenges about dealing with race today is that most people (with lots of help from Hollywood) have grown to equate anyone with racial bias as monstrous.  They're dirty.  They're haughty.  We'd never invite them into our homes.  Their racism is just one of a cesspool of filthy character traits they possess.  The average white person can't stop waving their hands in protests and vigorously shaking their heads long enough to just consider whether or not they too may have some latent issues with race.  The very idea, the mere proposition is enough to end even the longest standing relationships.

Nevertheless, there is a form of racism that almost always goes undetected.  It can't be marched against and it is incredibly difficult to quantify.

People who are kind, give to charity, feed the homeless, and keep clean houses may find a small level of discomfort when they see a tall thin black man walking through their neighborhood at night.  They brush the feeling away, but not before locking their doors.  This small act of bias, this singular solitary moment is a poison that informs our politics, our relationships, and how we choose contestants for popular shows.

Who cares if you're not quite comfortable around black people?  The black people. We care.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Post Race Space

Last summer I told myself that I would write a book about my grandfather's life - sort of a comprehensive biography.  So, everyday I would go out to work on my book but I would blog instead.  

After reading this blog, people started to say that I should scratch the idea of the Booker Wright bio (thank goodness) and write about my journey to find him.  Think: Little black girl growing up post civil rights feeling different first because everyone around her was white and second because her parents were somehow broken because they've been saddled with the horrors and the humiliation of growing up black in the South - my journey to find my grandfather forced me to face and to reconcile my feelings about race and family.

Now, the vision for the book is set, and writing it is like a dream.  It's not easy, it is definitely a discipline, but I feel like I am my truest self when I'm writing it.  I'm the Yvette that I was always meant to be.

Where am I going with this?  The book and the blog have traded spaces in my creative subconscious.  I know now how to develop chapters and how to plot narrative, but I can't seem to figure out how to get going with this blog again.

A million years ago (okay six) I had an idea to create a blog space where people could come to get an education about race in America.  In 2007 I was just beginning to realize how little I knew about and how little I understood the real ramifications of black American history.  I'd spent years trying to understand why so many black males were in jail, why literacy rates among blacks were so much lower than their white peers, and what the heck was going on with the black American family.  In 2007 I decided to test Shakespeare's theory that what's past is prologue.  I decided to look into my own family's past to see if some what of what was ailing us could be traced back to treatment and circumstances common to all blacks before the tide started to turn.  

What did I find?  First I found Frederick Douglass' honest and simply account of slavery.  Of the many true stories he recounts of slaves what shocked me the most was the one about a woman whose owner hired a slave from another plantation to rape her everyday.  He wanted more slaves, but didn't want to spend the money.  He figured her offspring could work his land.

Raped every day.  Treated like cattle.  How did she care for that child that was born to her of violence?  For how many generations would that seed of disgust and shame travel down the family line?  I can't draw hard lines from mistreatment of slaves, and the humiliation that all black men faced in the last century, but I'm certain that some great amount of that pain stayed with them when they entered their homes each evening and attempted to parent their children.

Anyway, a few months after reading Douglass' work I was having some heated conversations with a few of my white friends – actually we’re not friends anymore, that’s how heated these talks became.  My friends seemed to believe that we were post race.  They believed that the only thing keeping the race debate alive was people like me.  I thought that maybe if they could understand the horror, humiliation, and fear that permeated black American life, at least in the South, just a few short decades ago then maybe they'd have less heat and less anger about politics today.  I wasn't hoping to change their views, just to lessen their volatility.  

During this time I also looked back into my own family's history I found a civil rights hero lurking in the deep, wet, green story of my own family.  

These stories are relevant.  Even if we hate it, even if we want to run from it, the past informs our today.  

All this to say, that I am tired of always using this blog to write about my feelings.  The film is premiering at Tribeca which is huge and I am working on a book, even more huge…but I still have a dream of something bigger than the book and bigger than the movie.  I have a dream (no, I’m not trying to make a funny MLK reference) I really do have a dream about a space on the Internet where people can come and talk about race and class, but where they can also get brief snippets of history that may inform and challenge the way they think.

I'm not trying to change the world on my own, but I do hope that by understanding the past we can have compassion and kindness about the issues of the present.

To that end, I will continue using this space to blog about my research, but I’d also like to start talking about current events.  Please bear with me.  I’ve known for a few months that I need to do this, but I keep getting tripped up.  I can’t seem to get going with the new vision for this blog.  Partly, because I don’t want to look like an idiot. 

I spent about 15 hours on a page and a half of my book a few weeks ago.  I never have and may never have that kind of time to devote to this blog.  So, sometimes I don’t write here at all because I don’t have the time to draw out the best of myself as a writer in this space.

But blogs are about content building.  They’re about writing, writing, and writing some more.  So, I am going to keep writing about the film, my research, and my grandfather.  But I will also start writing more posts that reflect current events.  If they completely stink or if I end up saying the wrong thing, like the blogger who said everyone hated her because she was beautiful, just remember that underneath it all, I’m just a little black girl with a dream.