Tag Archives: racism


Kara Walker silhouette from " Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power"

Kara Walker silhouette from “Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power”


prism (ˈprizəm/) n. piece of glass or other transparent material cut with precise angles and plane faces. Prisms are useful for analyzing and refracting light (see refraction). A triangular prism can separate white light into its constituent colors by refracting each different wavelength of light by a different amount. The longer wavelengths (those at the red end of the spectrum) are bent the least, the shorter ones (those at the violet end) the most. The result is the spectrum of visible light, or the rainbow. Prisms are used in certain kinds of spectroscopy and in various optical systems.



Netflix is proposing I watch White Christmas. White Christmas is one of the many classics I watched with my grandma growing up. We would often screen films on American Movie Classics in the living room, after she popped popcorn on the stove. I got to know Rita Hayworth and Audrey Hepburn and Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire while curled up on that old brocade couch. I found the stylized nature of these films comforting, conjuring nostalgia for a time I never experienced first hand. The fancy dresses with foundation garments underneath, the finger-waved hair, the three-piece suits and wingtips and fedoras, the inexplicable breaking into song or dance at any moment. These glimpses gave me access to my young grandmother. The one with bright red hair and sweet collared dresses, who was a secretary after attending Washington University in her hometown of St. Louis.


White Christmas, released in 1954, features Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen and is mostly a remake, in Technicolor, of a film made less than a decade earlier: Holiday Inn. Filmed in black and white, Holiday Inn was the movie that first introduced the world to the now-standard holiday song “White Christmas.” In the middle of the film, a cardigan-sweatered Crosby croons “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” and pauses in playing the piano to reach over and ring the bells that are hung on the Christmas tree with a silver spoon.


The 1942 film revolves around two old buddies, Jim and Ted, played by Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire respectively, who used to have a musical act in New York City, who are intensely competitive, and who fall in love with the same woman, an aspiring performer Linda Mason, played by Marjorie Reynolds. Jim starts an inn in Connecticut—the Holiday Inn—that features monthly performances based on each month’s signature holiday. He hires his love interest Linda to perform alongside him. There is singing. There is dancing. There is a friendship strained by the friends’ mutual love of and competition for one woman. There is misogyny and stereotypical gender roles. And then there is the issue of blackness and whiteness.


I vaguely remembered the premise but mostly the feeling of sitting with my grandma in her living room when, a few years ago, I rented the DVD from a local video store. I remembered the costumes and the dancing, the coy smiles of this old school romance. I recalled the stunning solo number by Fred Astaire, who tap danced across the floor while throwing down firecrackers for the Holiday Inn’s celebration of the Fourth of July.


What I didn’t remember was the performance from Lincoln’s Birthday, which is astonishingly picked as the holiday for February instead of Valentine’s Day. Necessitated by the plot that requires Jim to disguise his beloved so as to ward off advances from his friend and competition, he makes a quick change and the number for Lincoln’s Birthday suddenly becomes a minstrel show. Bing as Jim emerges in blackface with a top hat, beard, and cane. Linda’s face is painted black as well and her hair spikes out into a myriad of ribboned blonde braids.


My jaw dropped. I had no memory of this scene at all. And I wondered: Was it because I was too young and had no context for what was happening? Did my grandma see the issues of the scene and choose not to tell me? Did she not see the scene as problematic enough? Did she avoid talking about it with me because of its problematic nature?


The song “Abraham” unfolds with Bing Crosby singing against a full orchestra also in blackface. The blackfaced banjo player sits in the far back on the ground. The waiters and waitresses are in blackface as well, the women adorned with kerchiefs and petticoated polka-dotted skirts.


The film also features a black housekeeper character named Mamie and her two young children, a girl and a boy, who also participate in the song. After Bing’s first verse, the camera cuts to Mamie. Holding her children on her lap, Mamie sings the question: “When black folks lived in slavery, who was it set the darkie free?” Her daughter sings a reply: “Abraham.”


Holiday Inn Bing Holiday Inn Marjorie Holiday Inn Bing and Marjorie


Research reveals that some broadcasts began to show an edited version of the film in the 1980s. (How that worked I’m not exactly sure since this section of the movie also reveals crucial plot points. For example, that touching moment when Jim proposes marriage to Linda while painting her face black for the minstrel show.) Turner Movie Classics didn’t edit the film because they believe in broadcasting films as originally cut. And until more recently, American Movie Classics also ran the film in its original form.


This all makes me think I saw the original uncut version.


As offensive as this scene is, as horrible as it is to think that someone deemed it acceptable to create this musical performance and then use it as a lynchpin in the film, someone made that choice. Many someones. And to revise a cultural artifact that reveals its time, who was in power and what they thought, is dangerous. Revising texts in this way is to pretend that popular culture was not feeding into racist attitudes and actions.


But even more dangerous, I think, is the outrage so many white Americans often experience about the past that can nullify or desensitize us to the reality of the present. And our present involves a system that privileges and protects white people over and over again solely because of the color of our skin. Our present praises and makes permissible a system that results in the demoralization, degradation, dejection, and death of black and brown people.


Like so many Americans, I have felt devastated and angry this last week about the lack of an indictment of Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. When I returned home the night of the verdict, my desire to hit something was so strong that I ended up punching my mattress for a while. I felt a sickening feeling in my stomach, a combination of fury and grief, a few days later when watching the video that shows a Cleveland cop shooting and killing 12-year-old black child Tamir Rice a mere second after the officer got out of his car. There is no sound in the video so all you see is a small body standing upright and then crumpling to the ground. Devastating. Not to mention the local news story that led by attacking the character of the victim’s father instead of the confounding fact of an officer killing a child holding a toy gun. These deaths are tragedy accumulated because Michael Brown and Tamir Rice (and Trayvon Martin and and and) are not exceptions but part of a long line of African-American people killed in this country because of the color of their skin and because our country refuses to look at the reality and pervasiveness of the racism that we are founded in and on.


We would like to think we are so much farther along than Holiday Inn. But that’s just not true.


Only two weeks ago, Jacqueline Woodson was presented with the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for her book Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir about growing up in South Carolina in the 60s and 70s, dealing with Jim Crow and the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement. And at this pinnacle moment of her career and artistic work, Dan Handler, the author of the popular Lemony Snicket series, made the joke that he “only just found out she was allergic to watermelon.” I can’t imagine what it would feel like, on one of the most important nights of your life, to have your accomplishments smeared with insults and reminders of the very injustices your work strives to illuminate.


Woodson responded in a New York Times editorial entitled “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke.” She traces her repulsion for the fruit as blossoming out of understanding its history. The fruit went from being tied to summer traditions, the lightness of family and childhood, to the rotting mess of racism. She writes, “…by the time I was 11 years old, even the smell of watermelon was enough to send me running to the bathroom with my most recent meal returning to my throat. It seemed I had grown violently allergic to the fruit. I was a brown girl growing up in the United States. By that point in my life, I had seen the racist representations associated with African-Americans and watermelons, heard the terrifying stories of black men being lynched with watermelons hanging around them…In a book I found at the library, a camp song about a watermelon vine was illustrated with caricatures of sleepy-looking black people sitting by trees, grinning and eating watermelon. Slowly, the hideousness of the stereotype began to sink in. In the eyes of those who told and repeated the jokes, we were shuffling, googly-eyed and lesser than. Perhaps my allergy was actually a deep physical revulsion that came from the psychological impression and weight of the association. Whatever it was, I could no longer eat watermelon.”


Woodson writes in the piece about how she realized her childhood dream of becoming a writer and about how she and Handler have been friends for years. She mentions that when he served watermelon soup at his Cape Cod home last summer, she told him she was allergic. Of his comments at her award ceremony, she writes: “In a few short words, the audience and I were asked to take a step back from everything I’ve ever written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from. By making light of that deep and troubled history, he showed that he believed we were at a point where we could laugh about it all. His historical context, unlike my own, came from a place of ignorance.”


Ignorance of history and also denial of the significance of the small things in defining the large ones. A watermelon joke is not just a joke in the face of the history of that stereotype.


I am reminded of Sam Hamill’s essay “The Necessity to Speak” in which he talks about witnessing violence in the form of war, domestic violence, the criminal justice system, and abuse. When discussing domestic violence, he references popular culture’s complicity in and condoning of it. He writes, “When James Cagney shoves half a grapefruit in a woman’s face, we all laugh and applaud. Nobody likes an uppity woman. And a man who is a man, when all else fails, asserts his ‘masculinity.’” All forms of oppression are different but all oppressed groups are ultimately linked. And they are linked by the times in which someone said or did something oppressive and demeaning that an onlooker decided was no big deal. Oppressions are linked by slurs and taunts and side-glances and critics that say: “aren’t you taking this a little too seriously?” and “can’t you take a joke?”


Back in August immediately following Mike Brown’s shooting, Jon Stewart closed a segment of The Daily Show called “Race/Off” by saying: “Race is there and it is a constant. If you’re tired of hearing about it, imagine how exhausting it is living it.”


The media reporting of protests surrounding the lack of indictment in Ferguson have focused largely on the “mobs” of people, on the intensity of people’s anger, and not on the reason for their fury. There have been some wonderful articles comparing the difference between why white people riot (winning or losing sporting events) and why black people riot (verdicts like “not guilty” for Zimmerman or “no indictment” for “Wilson,” i.e. no justice for innocent black people being killed). I am reminded too of the two almost identical photos published just after Katrina: one of two black people and the other of two white people wading through water with food from a flooded grocery store. The captions revealed that the black people were “looting” and white people were “finding food.”


Last weekend, before the grand jury released its ruling, I read Claudia Rankine’s new book Citizen: An American Lyric. Through lyrical prose about her personal experiences, politics, and pop culture, Rankine explores the perpetual presence of racism in the lives of African-Americans and the extent of the damage it does. On the front cover is a white backdrop with a black hoodie torn from its torso.


Except for the last page, written in first person, the book is in second person: firmly placing the reader in the slot of “you.” She writes in one section about Hennessy Youngman, aka Jayson Musson, who, in youtube videos, “advises black artists to cultivate ‘an angry nigger exterior’ by watching, among other things, the Rodney King video while working.”


She continues: “Youngman’s suggestions are meant to expose expectations for blackness as well as to underscore the difficulty inherent in any attempt by black artists to metabolize real rage. The commodified anger his video advocates rests lightly on the surface for spectacle’s sake. It can be engaged or played like the race card and is tied solely to the performance of blackness and not to the emotional state of particular individuals in particular situations.”


“On the bridge between this sellable anger and ‘the artist’ resides, at times, an actual anger. Youngman in his video doesn’t address this kind of anger: the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color. This other kind of anger in time can prevent, rather than sponsor, the production of anything except loneliness.”


“You begin to think, maybe erroneously, that this other kind of anger is really a type of knowledge, the type that both clarifies and disappoints. It responds to insult and attempted erasure simply by asserting presence and the energy required to present, to react, to assert is accompanied by visceral disappointment: a disappointment in the sense that no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.”


I want to repeat her words again: “anger is really a type of knowledge, the type that both clarifies and disappoints….a disappointment in the sense that no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.”


I read an article recounting an event in St. Louis following Mike Brown’s shooting where ten black mothers sat and talked to an audience full of mothers—of different ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds—about the experiences they had in talking to their children about race and racism. Director of Racial Justice at the YWCA in St. Louis Amy Hunter told a story about a time when her son was 12 and noticed a police officer following him as he walked. He was only five blocks from home. When he arrived and told her what happened, he asked, “I just want to know, how long will this last?” She cried as she relayed to the audience what she told him, what she had to tell him: “For the rest of your life.”


Can we just think about that for a second? That for his whole life, this child, this mother’s son, this boy then young adult then man, this human being will have to walk the “right” way, say the “right” thing in order to attempt to preserve his life. And even if he does everything “right,” he is still at risk of being harmed or killed solely because of the color of his skin. How many more lives lost? How much more will it take for us to change a system that is harming and killing so many citizens of our country?


I understand that, as a white person, my perspective is limited and that I cannot fully understand the grief and anger of black individuals and black communities in seeing this same injustice and violence perpetuated over and over again. I felt myself paralyzed this past week with what to say in relationship to this, wondering when and if I should write anything at all.


I grew up in New Orleans, a city segregated by color lines. And without anyone ever needing to really explain the idea of separate and unequal, I saw it everywhere. And what I mostly saw was good-hearted white people pretending that nothing was happening. This is happening. People of color are being killed and oppressed solely because of the color of their skin. This is happening. The criminal justice system is rigged against minorities and people of lower socio-economic status. This is happening. Black kids are being killed while white kids are being given the benefit of the doubt. This is happening. People of color are not “playing the race card,” people of color are being played, by a system rigged to oppress them.


I believe that many Americans will look back at this time and be as appalled as we are now by lynchings, by blackface, by Interstates built through African-American communities. That’s not good enough, to hope that one day we will look back and be appalled. Let’s be appalled now. Let’s do something to change this.


Before Isaac Newton, people believed that pure light was colorless and that light was “altered into color” from interaction with matter. Experimenting with prisms using refraction, Newton revealed the opposite, that light included within it the whole spectrum of color. That a prism didn’t create color but rather separated it, showing what was already present.


In ophthalmology, prisms are used to diagnose and treat deficiencies and diseases of the eye. Ophthalmologists use light reflected and refracted by prisms to examine the eye for vision problems so they can be treated. It is only in altering angles, in finding mirrors, in looking in different ways that problems can be identified, that vision can become clear.




Here are some pieces I found insightful/helpful/encouraging/profound in reference to Ferguson:

On Ferguson Protests, the Destruction of Things, and What Violence Really Is (And Isn’t) by Mia McKenzie

Telling My Son About Ferguson by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow

It’s Incredibly Rare For A Grand Jury to Do What Ferguson’s Just Did by Ben Casselman

Twelve Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson by Janee Woods

This Is What Darren Wilson Told the Grand Jury About Shooting Michael Brown by Jaeah Lee and AJ Vicens

“Not An Elegy For Mike Brown”: Two Poems for Ferguson by Danez Smith

Ferguson isn’t about black rage against cops. It’s white rage against progress. by Carol Anderson

Interview with Mike Brown’s parents


Claudia Rankine’s amazing book Citizen.







Filed under other words


Dove release ritural at Freedom Riders Reception in New Orleans. All photos for this post by Lisa O'Neill

free·dom \ˈfrē-dəm\  1: the quality or state of being free: as a : the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action b : liberation from slavery or restraint or from the power of another : independence c : the quality or state of being exempt or released usually from something onerous <freedom from care> d : ease, facility <spoke the language with freedom> e : the quality of being frank, open, or outspoken <answered with freedom> f : improper familiarity g : boldness of conception or execution h : unrestricted use <gave him the freedom of their home> 2 a : a political right b : franchise, privilege

(from http://www.merriam-webster.com)


Monday night, I had the honor and privilege to bear witness to some of the original Freedom Riders as they “finished the ride” they began in May of 1961. These riders were joined by forty student riders, college students who were selected from over a thousand applicants to be part of this historic reenactment of the 1961 Freedom Rides.

In 1961, a group of riders–a mix of young men and women, black and white–gathered in Washington D.C. to undergo training for the ride they would take together on Trailways and Greyhound public buses through the Deep South. The training was so they would be able to remain nonviolent even when met with violence. They expected the ride to take two weeks and to arrive in New Orleans on May 16, 1961. Met with brutal violence in Alabama, the riders found themselves beaten and stranded in Montgomery, with no drivers willing to continue. The group was at an impasse and forced to abandon their journey. But unbeknownst to them, other groups had already begun to follow their lead. These groups got as far as Jackson, Mississippi before they were met with arrests and jailtime. No group ever made it the full way to New Orleans. But it was these riders, their insistence on traveling together and integrating public buses that led to the ICC ruling that segregation on interstate buses and facilities was illegal.

I arrived when the bus had already pulled up and the Freedom Riders were recounting stories from their time riding. After, doves were released in honor of the riders and in memory of those who had passed on. The number of stitches required after beatings were recalled (in one case, 57). As were the words spoken by those who rode. The names of cities infamous for tear gas, for burning buses, for beatings delivered with iron pipes, baseball bats, crowbars. Anniston. Birmingham. Montgomery.

Before heading off, these young people, in their teens and twenties, had written goodbye letters to their parents, had signed their last will and testaments. They understood that to get on those buses together was to put their lives on the line, and they did it anyway. They did it because the stakes were that high; the riders knew the stakes were that high because injustices were being done, over and over again. Black people being told they weren’t allowed. They weren’t good enough. These young people knew that lunch counters and bus rides were just individual, smaller deaths: a slow, lifelong version of hanging from a rope in an oak tree.

Their strength, their tenacity, the grace and integrity with which they conducted themselves and their action reminds me of the young students in Tucson, Arizona today who are fighting relentlessly to save their ethnic studies classes, classes that study the history of where they come from and that flesh out a holistic picture of the people who make up this country of ours. These students are insistent. They refuse to be ignored. But they too are committed to nonviolent resistance. They use the power of their words and their bodies but they do so in ways that do not harm others. Their actions are underwritten with the same mindset as the Freedom Riders: we understand the harm that has already been inflicted over and over again. We will fight for our rights, but we will not continue the violence, will not continue to be part of this cycle of harm.

Brass Band plays at the 2011 Student Freedom Ride

The doves were released and a brass band made of young New Orleanians played as the Freedom Riders, old and new, crossed arms, joined hands, and made their way inside the Ashe Cultural Arts Center. Inside, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said a few words. Then, folks from WYES, where the documentary will air, spoke. Then, the director of Ashe. One of the riders from New Orleans Doratha “Dodie” Smith-Simmons spoke and as she did, she called out to the young people present, those who rode and those others present in the room, to work, to put themselves in positions that would be uncomfortable, to be willing to do so to work for change. “Find something to get pissed about,” she said. “And then do something about it. Because the struggle is not over.”

Student Freedom Riders Sing "A Change Is Gonna Come"

After a blessing, the room scattered to eat from the buffet: gumbo and red beans, salad, fried chicken. A singer came to the podium and the keyboardist began to play. Immediately I recognized the bars I knew from the beginning my favorite Sam Cooke song. “I was born by the river, in a little tent.” And when she got to the end, and she got to the last “long time comin’,” she held the ‘long’. She held it for what felt like forever. The room held its breath. Then it cheered. Because she held that note a long time, because she made us feel what a long time comin’ felt like. That moment times a thousand, times a million. A long time feels like forever when oppression is involved, when you are under the thumb and the thumb weighs down like iron. A long time feels like forever when you are the oppressor and have to work so hard to forget you are human to be able to oppress.

She kept singing: This Little Light of Mine, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free. During Woke Up This Mornin’ (With My Mind Set on Freedom), some of the Freedom Riders joined the singer on stage and sang. I was particularly impressed by Ernest “Rip” Patton, Jr. who solidly held down the bass line. Then, Smith-Simmons talked about We Will Overcome as the soundtrack of the movement.

Freedom Riders Lead the Crowd in We Shall Overcome. May 16, 2011

And the riders on stage crossed their arms across their bodies and joined hands. There was such an ease about this joining, a sort of familiarity with each other and with that gesture, their bodies slipping into muscle memory. I could imagine the eighteen-year-old versions of themselves doing the same gesture, over and over again. I joined hands with a middle-aged African-American woman to my left and a middle-aged African-American man to my right. During different points in the song, we squeezed each other’s hands. I let myself sing and really listen to the words. I let myself feel the passion in the voices of those around me. This wasn’t a Hallmark moment. This was a moment born from grit and determination and struggle. This was a moment in which everyone in the room was aware of the struggle, the struggle that is not finished, and yet was able to celebrate and able to say: despite the racism that still exists, the injustice that still abides within our communities, the prejudice we harbor in our own minds and hearts, we shall, we shall, we will overcome someday.

I grew up in a city that was sixty percent black, but the city I grew up in always appeared to be white. The textbooks I read told me the history of white people in Louisiana. The people in my neighborhood were all white. Most of the children at my school were white. Despite being surrounded in my hometown by black people, by black culture, I knew almost nothing about the history of black people in my state, and in the South period. I remember the time in high school spent memorizing the names of dead presidents more than I remember learning about the Civil Rights Movement.

It wasn’t until I lived other places that I was able to fully understand the reality of segregation in New Orleans. I always had this feeling in the pit of my stomach that something was not right, the black neighborhoods and the white neighborhoods, the way some of my friends’ parents discussed certain streets or blocks in hushed tones, the locking of car doors when a dark-skinned man was standing at a stoplight. But I had to go outside of my city to realize the way in which its people are divided and to realize the role I myself play in that division.

When I worked at a community center serving a largely African-American community in the Lower Garden District in my twenties, I remember having a conversation with one of the patrons who came in. He asked me where I was from. I told him I was from here, I grew up Uptown. And he laughed and replied, Oh, you’re not from New Orleans. He was right. My New Orleans wasn’t his. His New Orleans wasn’t mine. Since my early twenties, I have worked hard to try to really see my city and all its people, to fill in the gaps and better understand my hometown as it truly wholly is.

And I will admit that night, even as I was surrounded by the New Orleans community, I felt alone, out of place. I had gone by myself after not finding someone to come with me. I haven’t lived in New Orleans for seven years now so don’t have the same network I used to. But the real discomfort, the real feeling of being alone, came from the fact that I was back in my divided hometown and I was among a few white people there, maybe twenty to thirty of the hundreds. My discomfort came from feeling that although this historic event held significance for all Americans, all Southerners, all New Orleanians, it belonged less to me, and I needed to be respectful and conscious of this. I found it hard to navigate my place in this room. I still struggle, whenever I am home, to navigate my place in the city, now that I know its history better.

I had expected this sort of low  turnout from white New Orleanians. Just as I was not surprised, even if disturbed when, years ago, my white 70-year-old neighbor in New Orleans said that his office would not be having the day off for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday because “we don’t have that many black people in the office.” While there could be other reasons for low turnout by white New Orleanians, its hard to not come away feeling that many did not recognize the significance of the Freedom Rides on their own lives and on their own liberation. I am reminded of the Mayan Greeting that students in Tucson Ethnic Studies classes recite at the beginning of each class: “You are my other me. If I do harm to you, I do harm to myself. If I love and respect you, I love and respect myself.”

The discomfort and dissonance I felt is a necessary part of the process. That’s what I constantly ask of my students, to feel the cognitive dissonance with the texts we read, the films we watch, the conversations we have, and to engage anyway. The only way we will learn to understand each other as individuals is to stay through the anxiety and discomfort. To stand respectfully, with an intent to listen and engage, and to stay.

Original Riders Sing "Woke Up This Mornin'"at 2011 Freedom Ride.

I am embarrassed at how little I knew about the Freedom Riders before I watched the documentary (which is amazing and artfully done. You can watch it here: Freedom Riders). I knew there were buses. I knew there were people, both black and white, on them. I knew they came through the South and were confronted with terrible violence. But the details of the movement, of the ride, I knew nothing of these.

The documentary Freedom Riders  recounts history and retells the stories of the Freedom Riders a half a century later. The film contextualizes the rides within the movement and spends time documenting each day of the trip, each group of riders, each mob that attacked them. Along with footage of the ride and the riots, the film spends the majority of time telling the stories of the riders, officials, and local residents, people who were personally affected by the rides. What I was struck by in watching the documentary even more than the violence endured by the riders was their undeniable spirit, their belief that they would overcome and that they needed to be a part of this process of overcoming.

Photo from Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Freedom Riders, who were all part of the New Orleans's Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) group and were arrested were arrested in Jackson, Miss., in their efforts to desegregate bus terminals. From clockwise top left: Julia Aaron, Dave Dennis, Jean Thompson and Jerome Smith all

One of my favorite moments in the documentary comes when the first group of many Freedom Riders have been sent to prison in Parchment, Mississippi. Rather than pay fines for their crime of “Disturbing the Peace,” the riders chose to go to jail. They decided that if that’s what officials wanted to do, jail the riders, then the movement would just fill up the jail. They would keep sending buses, keep sending riders to Jackson. A group of eight riders were staying in a cell built for two. One of the riders is discussing how they made up a song and sung it to the jailers: “The buses are coming, oh yes. The buses are coming, oh yes. The buses are coming. The buses are coming. The buses are coming, oh yes.”

That transformed into: “You better get ready, oh yes. You better get ready, oh yes,” and when the jailers, fed up, told them to stop, they thought amongst themselves, What are they going to do, put us in jail?

The riders kept singing.

When the guards threatened to take away their mattress if they didn’t stop, the song became: “You can have our mattress, oh yes. You can have our mattress, oh yes…” Then it was the toothbrush, and after some deliberation, they kept on singing: “You can have our toothbrush, oh yes.” One rider joked that they learned to sing with their mouths closed to protect each other from their foul breath.

I was inspired by their levity, by their sense of humor even in the midst of such a dour situation, being imprisoned merely for trying to take public transportation, being denied basic rights because of the color of their skin. And in the face of all of this, continuing to defy authorities who were wrong and doing so with humor.

I was inspired by the Freedom Riders, many of them the first of their families to go to college, who left Fisk University at the end of the semester, dropping out because this ride was more important. I was inspired at the way the riders talked about Parchment Jail becoming a sort of university of nonviolence, where they engaged with each other in discourse about the movement, about how to make change nonviolently.

It was powerful to watch this documentary amongst my fellow New Orleanians, to engage in this part of history together.

I am humbled by the bravery of these young men and women who, despite the danger, despite criticism even initially from many within the movement itself, put their bodies and their lives on the line for justice, for freedom. I cannot even imagine what they must have been feeling as they sat on buses and watched mobs of people outside, who cursed them. People who were holding weapons and were set on killing them. The feeling of being left with no protection, abandoned by their own country. This is a reminder to me to never forget those who have made sacrifices in the name of justice. It reminds me to aspire to be more like them, to harness their example as a way to inspire bravery and action in myself to continue the ongoing work for justice in my communities and my world. It reminds me that this is work I need to pay attention to, that I need to engage in every day of my life.

One of the student riders in the Freedom Rider renactment of 2011.


Filed under other words


Film Poster for Gentleman's Agreement, 1947

man·ner [man er] n. [<L manus, a hand] 1. a way of doing something; mode of procedure 2. a way, esp. a usual way, of acting 3. [pl.] a) ways of social behavior / bad manners b) polite ways of social behavior / to learn manners/ 4. Kind; sort.

The first thing that pops into my head when I think of the word “manner” is the concept of “minding your manners,” attending to the guidelines we are given as a child. Usually this involves gentility, how we treat other people and how we present ourselves. It is about character, about respect for self and others. These ways of doing something were created to provide structure in our society and our communities. But oftentimes, manners are used synonymously with the idea of good moral behavior and this is not always the case. I think of it being good manners for the host family to sit at one table while the servants ate in the kitchen. I think of outdated rules like not wearing white after Labor Day or women wearing girdles and pantyhose, which once implied—and in some places still do—good manners and an acceptable way of dressing.

The second thing that I think of when I think of “manner” is those people who have a distinctive way of being. I think of old Hollywood celebrities who were recognizable not only for their appearance, but for the characteristics of their demeanor. Celebrities like Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, and Gregory Peck.

I have been thinking about Gregory Peck often lately. I saw Roman Holiday when I was younger, but I don’t think I saw To Kill a Mockingbird until I was in my mid-twenties. Unlike many people, I wasn’t assigned the book in high school. I read it when I was twenty-one or twenty-two and I was struck by the book’s poignancy and universality. Although I had not grown up in the same time as Scout, I had grown up in the South very aware of class and racial differences around me. I had grown up with a very keen desire to understand injustice, which I saw seemingly everywhere around me. I identified with Scout and revered her father Atticus Finch as an upstanding citizen and moral voice amidst a community ruled by lunacy and fear.

I didn’t see the movie until years later. I was living in San Francisco at the time and had visited my local independent video store. I picked up To Kill a Mockbird then. I was again moved by the story, now told through film, and by the way each character works through their own relationship to the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman in a rural Southern community. I was particularly moved by Peck’s performance as Atticus. I watched the special features, which included a documentary about Peck’s life.

Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) and Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) in court

Here, I thought, was a man with a unique manner. It was he who had pushed for the production of To Kill a Mockingbird after having read the book. He devoted himself to films whose stories also held a greater social importance. I remember watching the documentary and feeling a real affection for him. This feeling was renewed when, that same year, I saw the film again on the big screen of San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. The screening included a question and answer period with Mary Badham, the actress who had played Scout as a child. She described Peck as having been very much a father figure to her. He was so similar in real life to the character he played in the film, she said.

To Kill a Mockingbird Poster, 1962

Recently, I watched the film The Gentlemen’s Agreement, which stars Peck. Dennis Hopper had just died and I decided I wanted to watch Rebel without a Cause, his first film in which he played a minor role. While browsing the Classics Section at Casa Video, I picked up The Gentlemen’s Agreement, read the back, and decided to rent it. The film is about a newspaper reporter Phillip Skylar Green who is asked to write a feature on anti-Semitism. He is searching for an angle for his story and arrives at pretending he himself is Jewish for a given period of time. No one is to know except his boss, his mother, and his fiancé, who he has just recently met. As the story unfolds, his interpersonal relationships are challenged by this choice to pretend to be Jewish. His fiancé doesn’t understand why he needs it to be a secret amongst her family. His son is threatened at school. His Jewish friend Dave even advises him against it. He is used to discrimination because he has been Jewish his whole live, but he fears that Skylar will not be able to handle it in one concentrated time period.

The film asks large questions of the viewer and challenges the viewer by the subtlety with which the characters come to realizations. The effect of prejudices like anti-Semitism, is revealed through interpersonal relationships, where the impact is felt in real life, and there are no true villains only complicated people. The film also makes a strong statement about people who are good-hearted and thoughtful but who remain silent or apathetic.

Another thing that makes this film so remarkable is its context. The film was released in 1947, just after World War II, just after anti-Semitism so strong it resulted in the genocide of over six million Jews in Europe. When Elia Kazan (who himself is a complicated character as he testified in 1952 in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and named eight Hollywood associates who were former members of the Communist Party) decided to make the film, several Jewish studio heads told him not to make it. One said it would be “like stirring up a hornets’ nest.” That conversation ended up being worked in as a scene with the newspaper’s editorial board and its dissenting voice against the “anti-Semitism” story.

Skylar Green is a character who has manners but who is unwilling to abide by social constructs without critical thinking. He embodies a persecuted group in order to challenge certain social norms and to understand better where anti-Semitism is rooted and what impact it has on individuals. And yet, it is not Skylar who ends up being the hero, but his friend Dave, who in a strong speech talks about the eventual impact of being silent while others are mischaracterized, mistreated, and oppressed.

The actor who played Dave, John Garfield, was an actor who was a headlining leading man at the time, and he took a supporting role in the film because he so believed so strongly in the worth of the project.

The film’s title itself refers to a unspoken agreement that allows and endorses discrimination. At one point, Skylar Green goes to a hotel that he has reserved for his honeymoon and asks point-blank if they allow people who practice Judaism to stay there. The manager comes out and asks in a nuanced way if that is a hypothetical question or not. Eventually, he is asked to leave.

I think of today’s celebrities who get more attention for their outrageous, scandalous and often disgraceful behavior instead of getting revered for who they are. They become caricatures of how not to behave instead of models of how to be. And oftentimes, their loud lives are more recognizable than their body of work. I am grateful to actors like Peck who were more concerned with the impact they made with their work than with being famous and who picked their roles carefully, choosing the stories that were worthy, that asked questions and that ultimately modeled a way of being and asked viewers to question the way they themselves moved in the world.

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