The sustained outpouring of #BlackLivesMatter and related pro-justice activism right across the United States has been pushing important– and in most cases, long-overdue– change at many levels. One level is that of “high-end corporate media”, where just in the past week I have read three very moving essays by Black-American writers who have seemingly felt empowered by the new activism to write deep reflections on their situations… reflections that probably, even six weeks ago, they might have felt hesitant to share publicly. (And/or, that their “White” editors might have felt hesitant to publish.)
The first of these was the essay “My Mother’s Dreams for her Son, and All Black Children”, published in The New Yorker by the magazine’s extremely talented (and Pulitzer Prize-winning) theater critic, Hilton Als. The others are “My brother was killed by police. Now I ask, who does George Floyd belong to?” published in the Washington Post by former columnist Donna Britt, and the column “Yes, Even George Washington” that New York Times” columnist Charles M. Blow has in today’s edition of the paper. All three are certainly worth a close read, though the pieces by Britt and Blow are much shorter (column-length), whereas Als’s runs several thousands of words.
In “My Mother’s Dreams”, Als, who in addition to being Black is gay, writes tenderly about the low-income household in the Brownsville area of Brooklyn, headed by his mother, in which he spent his early years:
Our new house had doors and a proper sitting room, which sometimes served as a makeshift bedroom for visiting Bajan relatives. (My mother’s family was from Barbados.) The sister I was closest to, a poetry-writing star who wore pencil skirts to play handball with the guys, composed her verse amid drifts and piles of clothes and kept her door closed. My brother and I shared a smaller room and a bed. My mother had her own room, where the door was always ajar; she didn’t so much sleep there as rest between walks up and down the hall to watch and listen for the safety of her children.
The Brownsville summer of 1967 was like every other Brooklyn summer I’d experienced: stultifying. Relief was sought at the nearby Betsy Head Pool, and at the fire hydrants that reckless boys opened with giant wrenches. The cold water made the black asphalt blacker in the black nights. Gossip floated down the street from our neighbors’ small front porches and from stoops flanked by big concrete planters full of dusty plastic flowers. Nursing a beer or a Pepsi, the grownups discussed far-off places like Vietnam. So-and-So’s son had come back from there all messed up, and now he was on the methadone. Then the conversation would shift to the kids. Every kid in our neighborhood was everyone else’s kid. Prying, caring eyes were everywhere…
He writes about how that semi-idyllic existence was broken up by race riots in which police violence played an outsize role, and then about his tortuous journey into adulthood. At one point, he asks:
Is this all one story? As a writer, I inhabit a world or worlds where the prevalent ethos is presumed to be liberal, but I can’t remember a time when the publishing industry, like other institutions devoted to the arts—museums, Broadway—didn’t come down on the side of fashion and power. At meetings and parties, one spends a great deal of time with people I call the collaborators—functionaries in service to power—who’ll step on your neck to get to the next fashionable Negro who can explain just what is happening and why.
Near the end, he segues to this:
Who will tell this story? Many of us and none of us. Because the “exceptional” black artists who are asked to sit around the fire and explain why riots, why death, or why a child has a mother and not a father, have a built-in expiration date: they function as translators of events and rarely as translators of their own stories, their own loneliness in a given place and time. As my friend sat with me earlier this month to help ease the terror I felt on hearing the helicopters, I thought about what certain other writers might have made of this place and time if life and our segregated society hadn’t exhausted them long ago: Richard Wright, dead at fifty-two. Nella Larsen, prematurely silenced. Zora Neale Hurston, broke and forgotten by the time she was sixty. Wallace Thurman, drunk and disgraced, dead at thirty-two, and, of course, James Baldwin, fatigued and lonesome, dead at sixty-three. Imagine all the things they didn’t say because they couldn’t say them. All those journeys abroad, all the shutting themselves off from the world.
Was it worth it, Ma? (You yourself died at sixty-two.) …
O.K., Ma, maybe forgiveness is the way, because I love you. But can I forgive myself for forgiving? For the temerity of wanting to be an artist and eating shit to support that impulse? An impulse, Ma, that you supported from the very beginning by writing your comments on the stories I shared with you (“Very good. Mommy”), just as you supported all those poems my sister wrote in her bedroom with the door closed in Brownsville. I’ve lived with forgiveness for so long—surely there is another language, a different weight on the soul?
Ma, can I forgive the white movie executive who thought it might be “fun” to tell our black host at a luncheon that he’d confused him with another black man? Can I forgive the white Dutch director who asked me to step in for a black actor—to play the character of an old family retainer—since I was, you know, black myself? Can I forgive the self-consciously “queer” white academic at a prestigious Eastern university who made disparaging remarks about my body in front of his class—I was his guest speaker—because he wanted to make a point about one of my “texts”? Can I forgive the white editors who ask me who the next James Baldwin might be, so that they can stay on top of the whole black thing? Can I forgive the white female patron of the arts who, after I’d given a lecture in Miami, at a dinner that was ostensibly in my honor, turned the party against me because I hadn’t paid more attention in my speech to an artist whose work she collected? Can I forgive the white former fashion-magazine editor who promised me a job but then discovered that his superiors would never hire a black man? Can I forgive the white magazine writer who, a day or two after I was hired by this magazine, yelled at me in front of friends—with whom I was celebrating the occasion—that I had been hired only because I was black? Can I forgive the white musician who “accidentally” faxed me a racist drawing that her child had made in school, which she thought was funny and his teacher saw no reason to criticize? Can I forgive the white couple who, at a memorial for a friend, made it a point to tell me they’d had no idea that I was so big and so black? Can I forgive the white book editor who said on a first date that his family had had some financial interest in Haiti, where they had owned people “just like you”? Can I forgive the white arts benefactress in Boston who, at another dinner after another lecture, told the table how much she’d loved spirituals as a child, and said, rhetorically, “Who doesn’t love Negro spirituals?” Can I forgive the white woman who sat next to me at a Chinese restaurant while I was enjoying a quiet dinner by myself and leaned over to ask if I was a cast member of “Porgy and Bess,” which was playing across the street? Can I forgive the white curator who shapes much of the city’s, if not the world’s, understanding of modern art, who, exhausted by the whole question of inclusion and apropos of an exhibition at her institution, said, “I’m just not into Chinese art”? Can I forgive the white editor who invited me to lunch and during the course of the meal defended his use of the word “nigger” in one of his predominantly white college classes with the Lenny Bruce argument that the only way to defuse the word is to take its power away by speaking it, and added that, besides, one heard it used all up and down Lenox Avenue, in Harlem, and what about that? The old model—Ma’s model—was not to give up too much of your power by letting your oppressor know how you felt. But, Ma, I was dying anyway, in all that silence.
This latter paragraph is a catalog of numerous instances of what we should probably call the “micro-aggressions” to which Als has been subjected in the course of what has undoubtedly turned out to be a very successful (and well-remunerated) career. Micro-aggressions that evidently hurt him at the time, and which he has remembered until today.
A number of things are notable about this catalog of micro-aggressions. One is that it almost certainly took a lot of courage for Als to write it.
Another is that he gives no evidence of having stood up for himself at the time that he experienced any of them, by saying something like “Wow, that was a very hurtful thing to say”– and no evidence, either, that anyone else present at any of those encounters intervened to stand up for him in any similar way. No, in his remembrance, these micro-aggressions were all delivered, received by him and any others present, and not challenged by anyone. For Als’s part, he continued to act in the “keep your head down” way that his mother had always urged. And thus he had somehow to absorb and deal with all the hurt and humiliation that the micro-aggressions inflicted.
That must have taken a heavy psychic toll. “But, Ma, I was dying anyway, in all that silence.”
Another notable thing about the catalog of micro-aggressions is that the always “White”-headed New Yorker agreed to publish it.
Another is that even though Als is a much-treasured and widely acclaimed writer and he seemingly feels empowered by the current situation to write this whole, extremely intimate essay, he chose not to name any of the authors of the listed micro-aggressions. I would imagine that many of these micro-aggressors can fairly easily recognize themselves– “the white curator who shapes much of the city’s, if not the world’s, understanding of modern art”, etc–and can fairly easily be identified by most other denizens of the rarefied, often very high-paid, world of the guardians of New York’s “high culture”. (Of whom, needless to say, I am not one.) I imagine that the moment this essay was published, Zoom meetings full of such people– or rather, the lightly socially distanced klatsches many of them doubtless hold at the elegant places in “the Hamptons” or wherever where they have summer homes– were all suddenly a-twitter with people commenting on it and guessing at the identities of the few micro-aggressors whom Also had called out who were not immediately identifiable by their descriptors in the text…
So what happened next? How many of these people contacted Mr. Als to apologize or to offer bumbling attempts at self-exculpation. (“I didn’t mean that our family had owned people ‘just like you’ in Haiti, just that they had employed a lot of Black Haitians… “)
I would love to know how all that goes down. Maybe Als will write about it in a follow-up piece?
I am eager to see what happens to his career from here on, too.
It may well be time for the mag’s long-time “White” editor David Remnick to step down and hand over the reins to Mr. Als.
So… the next of these recent testimonies is Donna Britt’s “My brother was killed by police.” A confession from me here. I’ve read the WaPo off-and-on, fairly closely, since I came to Washington DC in summer of 1982; and Britt’s name has definitely been familiar to me over the years. She hasn’t been a fixture of the paper for quite some years now, and I hadn’t really thought about her much– or remembered much of her earlier work.
This piece is much harder-hitting than anything I ever recall her writing before. It starts like this:
Four short weeks after his killing, I’m still wondering:
Who does George Floyd belong to?
My journey to that question began a week after Floyd’s killing, when I heard my son Skye weighing the different ways that hurt, angry Americans were responding to it. Listening, I was surprised to feel my eyes moisten. Certainly, Floyd’s killing in police custody was worthy of an ocean of tears. But I was crying for my brother. More than 40 years after Darrell, 26, died at the hands of police, I no longer cry much about the loss or allow myself to dive too deeply into the agony of examining his absence. But hearing the measured way Skye discussed yet another unarmed black man’s slaying by police inspired an obvious, yet stunning, realization:
Skye doesn’t know his Uncle Darrell.
She then writes more about how the videotaped killing of George Floyd reawakened in her deep wellsprings of grief over her brother’s killing by cops in Detroit– back more than 40 years ago. (I have heard several Black Americans speak and write about how the endless replaying of the Floyd death videos have been increasingly retraumatizing for them, acting for them as some kind of an obscene “snuff video”.)
Britt then considers the surprisingly broad effects that the news of Floyd’s killing and of other well-publicized instances of anti-Black racism has engendered:
The coalition of outraged humanity that has galvanized to listen, learn and support victims and their communities represent every shade of humanity and nations where I barely knew black lives existed, let alone mattered.
Add to all of this the surrealness of a global pandemic and the whole world seems to be tilting. No wonder several friends — black, white and Asian — told me they can’t stop crying, either.
Almost every black person I know has had white friends reaching out, asking, “Are you okay?” and reassuring them of their empathy. Among mine: a policeman, one of my son’s best high school friends, who expressed his “disgust” at the “nightmare” of having Chauvin “represent the profession I could very well give my life for.” He gave me his word that he will keep rejecting the racism he’s hated since childhood, and continue to “watch over and protect … every beautiful person out there.”
For someone like me, witnessing this tsunami of multinational empathy has been like watching water thicken into wine — a full-blown miracle. My eyes keep trying to adjust. Have millions really decided that Floyd and others like him belong to them? Gingerly, I’ve savored every word of affinity, every supportive sign in shop windows, each corporate statement of solidarity… I was gobsmacked when Roger Goodell — representing the same National Football League that cynically allowed Colin Kaepernick to be vilified as anti-American for peacefully protesting police killings — stated that his league was wrong for not listening to its players pleas for understanding and for not encouraging them to speak out and peacefully protest. I mean, did he actually say the words Black Lives Matter?
Goodell’s statement came on the heels of a viral video of a dozen top black NFL players, including biracial league MVP Patrick Mahomes, reciting the names of 13 well-known victims of police brutality. “What will it take?” the players asked. “For one of us to be murdered by police brutality? What if I was George Floyd?”
Watching the player video, I burst into tears — again. Celebrity athletes — who know they’re widely valued — could ask that.
Then, she ends on a different, much more pained note:
I’ve silently screamed different questions:
What if it happened to someone who belonged to you? What if whatever accident of skin color or Zip code or financial security that protects you evaporated — and it was YOUR son crying for his mama as his life leaked out beneath a stranger’s knee? Your father chased down and shot just for jogging? Your sister, awakened and shot by police officers who smashed in her door? Your smart, handsome, caring brother, who loved you unconditionally, killed in a ditch and no one noticed?
Charles Blow’s column about George Washington in The New York Times today is written in a different, far less personal, register. And one that is even more directly infused with raw anger.
This text is Blow’s contribution to the currently sharp debate about how to memorialize (both in public statuary, and in other ways) various figures from “White” American history. Its sub-title is: “Slavery was a cruel institution that can’t be excused by its era.”
He lays right into the argument, at the top:
On the issue of American slavery, I am an absolutist: enslavers were amoral monsters.
The very idea that one group of people believed that they had the right to own another human being is abhorrent and depraved. The fact that their control was enforced by violence was barbaric.
People often try to explain this away by saying that the people who enslaved Africans in this country were simply men and women of their age, abiding by the mores of the time.
But, that explanation falters. There were also men and women of the time who found slavery morally reprehensible. The enslavers ignored all this and used anti-black dehumanization to justify the holding of slaves and the profiting from slave labor.
People say that some slave owners were kinder than others.
That explanation too is problematic. The withholding of another person’s freedom is itself violent. And the enslaved people who were shipped to America via the Middle Passage had already endured unspeakably horrific treatment.
He then proceeds to describe the conditions aboard a slave ship that had been intercepted by a British naval anti-slave-trade patrol in 1829, as reported at the time by the Rev. Robert Walsh, who was aboard the patrol ship. (Interestingly, the NYT does not link directly to that version of the Walsh text, but to a portal that has a clunkier like to a downloadable PDF.)
The details, as relayed by Blow, are indeed, beyond disgusting:
The ship had been at sea for 17 days. There were over 500 kidnapped Africans onboard. Fifty-five had already been thrown overboard.
The Africans were crowded below the main deck. Each deck was only 3 feet 3 inches high. They were packed so tight that they were sitting up between one another’s legs, everyone completely nude. As Walsh recounted, “there was no possibility of their lying down or at all changing their position by night or day.”
Each had been branded, “burnt with the red-hot iron,” on their breast or arm. Many were children, little girls and little boys.
Not only could light not reach down into the bowels of those ships, neither could fresh air. As Walsh recounted, “The heat of these horrid places was so great and the odor so offensive that it was quite impossible to enter them, even had there been room.”
This voyage was so horrific that I can only surmise that the men, women and children who survived it were superhuman, the toughest and the most resilient our species has to offer.
But of the people who showed up to greet these reeking vessels of human torture, to bid on its cargo, or to in any way benefit from the trade and industry that provided the demand for such a supply, I have absolute contempt.
Some people who are opposed to taking down monuments ask, “If we start, where will we stop?” It might begin with Confederate generals, but all slave owners could easily become targets. Even George Washington himself.
To that I say, “abso-fricking-lutely!”
George Washington enslaved more than 100 human beings, and he signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, authorizing slavers to stalk runaways even in free states and criminalizing the helping of escaped slaves. When one of the African people he himself had enslaved escaped, a woman named Ona Maria Judge, he pursued her relentlessly, sometimes illegally.
Washington would free his slaves in his will, when he no longer had use for them.
Let me be clear: Those black people enslaved by George Washington and others, including other founders, were just as much human as I am today. They love, laugh, cry and hurt just like I do.
When I hear people excuse their enslavement and torture as an artifact of the times, I’m forced to consider that if slavery were the prevailing normalcy of this time, my own enslavement would also be a shrug of the shoulders.
I say that we need to reconsider public monuments in public spaces. No person’s honorifics can erase the horror he or she has inflicted on others.
Slave owners should not be honored with monuments in public spaces. We have museums for that, which also provide better context. This is not an erasure of history, but rather a better appreciation of the horrible truth of it.
I completely agree with Charles Blow. And it is not only “monuments in public spaces” that need to be reorganized, here in the United States. It is also the whole understanding of this country’s history. Which, in brief, has long been portrayed as some kind of a march by glorious pioneers of “liberty” and “democracy” toward ever greater fulfillment of their ideals… But which can and should be told instead in terms of the (Ian Smith-style) “Unilateral Declaration of Independence” pursued in 1776 by expansionist beneficiaries of a large-scale, land-stealing settler-colonial project here on this landmass, against their project’s metropolitan power in London.
Expansionism, land-stealing, and the very special system of American slavery itself were not minor, unfortunate, “bugs” of that project. They were central features of it.
This is certainly worth reflecting on more as the Fourth of July approaches…
Hats off to Charles Blow, Donna Britt, and Hilton Als, for these amazing pieces of writing.