Black Lives and the Journeys to Racial Justice (Part II: Non-fiction & Art)
Updated: Jul 24, 2020
In this America,
Trumpeter, composer, jazz innovator,
While standing outside a jazz club in New York
where he was performing
Was beaten by a white cop
Until he bled.
Jailed for a night
At the height of his fame.
In this America.
In this America,
Lawyer and civil rights activist
Was pulled over in his Rolls Royce
By white cops
Who drew their guns
As his two young children
Sat in the car.
In this America.
In this America,
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
By a white cop
On his own doorstep
As he struggled with the key
Unlocking the door of his own house.
In this America.
In my Introduction to Black Lives and the Journeys to Racial Justice, Part I, I wrote of wanting to learn about how to be more involved in achieving racial justice, and of books recommended by several friends who are socially aware, ardent readers, some of whom are writers. I wanted to express my thoughts on my readings, and structured my writings on this topic in two parts. Part I was on works of fiction, and Part II here is on non-fiction, as well as works of art.
You can take my body
You can take my bones
You can take my blood
But not my soul
This is the refrain of a powerful Rhiannon Giddens song “At The Purchaser’s Option,” from her solo album “Freedom Highway.” It has been described as “a defiant tune that bears similarity to the work songs black slaves were known to sing.”
Some believe the soul is all that is left when life leaves the body, whether death or natural or violent, leaving broken, destroyed bodies. Some, like Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, used the concept of a soul to persuade America that slavery was a sin: black people too had a soul, she argued, and to enslave them was a sin.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, author and journalist, believes in the body. Not the soul. The body is all we have, he tells his son, in his book Between the World and Me. Protect it. Once they take it, there is nothing.
Between the World and Me is written in the form of a letter from Ta-Nehisi Coates to his teenaged son Samori. The letter starts with an account of an interview Coates had with a television anchor, about comments he had made regarding the black body. Despairing at even the question, he continues to address his son. His purpose is to tell the boy to protect his body, as the black body is so endangered in America. He states instances of killings at the hands of police, with impunity.
In contrast to his son's middle class upbringing, Coates grew up in the projects in Baltimore. He talks of how his experience influences his reactions to everything, of the deep fear that he has learned and feels at all times in America. With a full heart, he writes of his years at Howard University. Those were formative years, at the research center, as well as about campus. Conscious of the rich history of many who went before him, he names among others, Thurgood Marshall, Toni Morrison, Zora Neal Hurston.
He speaks of the people he met, the strong bonds the forged, the women he fell in love with, the last being his son’s mother. There, he also met Prince Jones, a highly accomplished, handsome young man whom he greatly admired. Some years later, Prince was shot and killed by a police officer, bringing an end to his promising young life. There are magical descriptions of his visit to Paris, first by himself, and then with his family. The atmosphere of a country that had not practiced slavery was novel to Coates, and led him to reflect about what America had done to his psyche and that of others. He went to meet Prince Jones’s mother, Dr. Jones, and learns of her life, her family history, and observes her calm stoic demeanor in the aftermath of utter tragedy. He reflects on her composure. “Have you ever taken a hard look at those pictures from the sit-ins in the '60s, a hard, serious look? Have you ever looked at the faces? The faces are neither angry, nor sad, nor joyous. They betray almost no emotion. They look out past their tormentors, past us, and focus on something we beyond anything known to me. I think they are fastened to their god, a god whom I cannot know and in whom I do not believe. But, God or not, the armor is all over them, and it is real. Or perhaps it is not armor at all. Perhaps it is life extension, a kind of loan allowing you to take the assaults heaped upon you now and pay down the debt later. Whatever it is, that same look I seen those pictures, noble and vacuous, was the look I saw in Mable Jones. It was in her sharp brown eyes, which welled but did not break. She held so much under her control, and I was sure the days since her Rocky was plundered, since her lineage was robbed, had demanded nothing less.” Acknowledging to his son that his experiences and hopes and reactions will be naturally different from his own, he exhorts him again to protect his body: it is all we have, he says. And there are those who dream the dream, referring to a white superiority view of life, for whom he will be a threat, and therefore his body will be at risk.
This is an emotional, poetic book. While reading it, I had a palpable sense of the fear that Coates described.
The body, and assaults on it.
I lived in Los Angeles from 1988 to 1994. During that period, in 1992, there was an uprising in LA in protest against the acquittal of four police officers in a jury trial conducted in the mostly white suburb of Simi Valley. The police officers had been captured on video mercilessly beating Rodney King, who was black. Many prominent black men have been subjected to assault and indignities over the years. What then, of poor Rodney King, an unknown man, before the incident? What of countless other young men? And many women?
The shock at this: that police brutality could go on with impunity against people of color, even when the violence had been captured on video and seen by the world, led LA to erupt in anger. I, like many others in Los Angeles, watched in pain and horror as the city burned.
The massive anger and heartbreak at the unjust verdict had far-reaching consequences, and some ascribe to it the 1995 acquittal of OJ Simpson for the 1994 murders of his wife Nicole Simpson and her friend Daniel Goldman, by a majority black jury in downtown Los Angeles.
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a piece in The Atlantic of his own reaction to Simpson’s acquittal, when he was a 19-year old student at Howard University, and how his perspective has changed with time.
He quotes Danny Bakewell, civil rights activist:
““If you can railroad O. J. Simpson with his millions of dollars and his dream team of legal experts,” the activist Danny Bakewell told an assembled crowd in L.A. after the Fuhrman tapes were made public, “we know what you can do to the average African American and other decent citizens in this country.””
How did this start and why is it this still happening?
There are detailed accounts of assaults on the black body in recent years in Jeff Chang’s book, We Gon’ be AlRight (Notes on Race and Resegregation).
The book is scholarly, replete with footnotes and references. Chang packs an impressive amount of information and analysis into a relatively short (192 page) and very readable book. It is analytical, carefully laying out the timelines of exactly what happened, for example, in the 2014 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. He describes the aftermath. The killers going scot-free. The anguish of the family left behind. The anguish and outrage of the entire black community. A story that repeats far too often, seemingly with no consequences for the perpetrators.
Chang traces significant events and decisions, by the government and by the Supreme Court, from the early 20th century to the present. The chapter “Vanilla Cities and their Chocolate Suburbs” in particular is powerful, loaded with events, dates and decisions that led to increasing resegregation in our society today. And with it “the troubling declines in opportunity, particularly for children living in the poorest neighborhoods.”
Anna Deavere Smith is a writer, playwright, actor and professor. Her extraordinary one-woman play, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, about the Rodney King uprisings, was performed in the style called documentary theatre or verbatim theatre. The play is based on interviews she had conducted with numerous residents, commentators as well as people directly involved in the various incidents that occurred in 1992.
Several years ago, I watched Anna Deavere Smith perform Twilight. Smith was the sole performer of multiple and diverse characters, from Rodney King himself, to Daryl Gates, the Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, whose tactics and mismanagement were faulted for the violence and unrest. I had never seen anything like it before. Her ability to inhabit every character she played was astounding, and the wide range of perspectives enlightening. I felt anger, outrage and compassion, and came away with a better understanding of most who were involved.
In early March 2020, I saw an art exhibit called Soul of a Nation at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco.
This was the blurb:
Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963–1983
This internationally acclaimed exhibition, organized by Tate Modern, celebrates art made by Black artists during two pivotal decades when issues of race and identity dominated and defined both public and private discourse. The de Young’s presentation includes a focus on Bay Area artists whose work promoted personal and cultural pride, collective solidarity and empowerment, and political and social activism.
The audio tour was narrated by actor Danny Glover and journalist Belva Davis.
There were beautiful, chilling as well as inspiring works of art of display. Mixed media pieces constructed from historical artifacts used in the times of slavery or during uprisings...burnt metal, broken musical instruments, welded together into searing pieces so that we may never forget.
Blackboard by Cliff Joseph, showed the alphabet with words of particular significance to the black community. B for Black Power. J for Justice. Q for Quality education.
Black Unity (in mahogany) by Elizabeth Catlett, is a large powerful piece.
A picture of a little boy sitting on his stoop with a target on his chest drove home how much harder we have to work for justice (Manchild in the Promised Land, painted by Phillip Lindsay Mason, 1968).
And a gorgeous elegant, piece by Barkley Hendricks (What’s Going On) is coupled in the audio tour with the entire song “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye.
Picket lines and picket signs Don't punish me with brutality C'mon talk to me So you can see What's going on Yeah, what's going on Tell me what's going on I'll tell you what's going on, ooh ooh ooh ooh
I have written earlier about a wonderful concert by the Marcus Shelby quartet on February 1, 2020 in Berkeley, where he spoke of the essential role of music in the Civil Rights movement. In his companionable, conversational manner, he enabled a greater understanding of Black History and the continuing struggle for racial justice.
At another wonderful event I attended on February 6, 2020, singer, composer and banjo player Rhiannon Giddens (whose song I quoted early in this piece) gave the 15th Annual Anne and Loren Kieve Distinguished Lecture at Stanford University, with percussionist Francesco Turrisi. It was entitled "there is no Other: Musical Routes to Racial Justice."
Tracing the history of the banjo, she explained that so much had been erased about the history of black music and "what's recorded is what's remembered." Through her work, she seeks to re-record what has been lost.
Writer and poet Jacqueline Woodson has a beautiful book of poems, Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir. In it, she talks of many things that have touched her life. Calling two places home: Greenville SC and Brooklyn NY. How she found her best friend Maria, and how they shared each other’s dinners. How she struggled with dyslexia, and living under the shadow of her brilliant sister Odella. Visiting her Uncle Robert in prison in update New York: Donnemara. The history of Bushwick street and the dark history of Wall Street. And how inspired she and her Best Friend Forever Maria were by Angela Davis, how they walked about thrusting their fists in the air.
I heard Woodson speak at Stanford on May 23 ,2017, as part of the Cubberley Lecture Series.
She read from Brown Girl Dreaming and spoke, among many things about artistic choice. How does Woody Allen clear the streets of New York, she asked? I had not been aware of this before she mentioned it. And sure enough, on thinking back, I could not remember a single black person in the Woody Allen films that I have seen. When we choose to exclude people from art, we erase them from society’s view.
Quoting Dr. Rudine S Bishop, Woodson spoke of Windows and Mirrors as an analogy for representation in art: books as windows into other people’s lives and mirrors into our own: “We need diverse books because we need books in which children can see reflections of themselves – but also look through and see other worlds.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
My local independent bookstore, Kepler’s of Menlo Park, held a book event which drew so much interest that they shifted the venue to an auditorium at Palo Alto Gunn High School, with far greater capacity. Even so, it was a sold-out event. On October 14, 2019, Ijeoma Oluo spoke with comedian W. Kamau Bell about Oluo’s bestselling book So You Want To Talk About Race. Oluo wrote it to give readers "the fundamentals of how race worked, ...in a way they could take to their office or their Thanksgiving tables....to deconstruct White Supremacy, and begin to heal the great harm it has brought upon us all."
This was the blurb for the event:
From the introduction:
These are very scary times for a lot of people who are just now realizing that America is not, and has never been, the melting-pot utopia that their parents and teachers have told them it was. These are very scary times for those who are just now realizing how justifiably hurt, angry, and terrified so many people of color have been all along. These are very stressful times for people of color and who have been fighting and yelling and trying to protect themselves from a world that doesn’t care, to suddenly be asked by those who have ignored them for so long, ‘What has been happening your entire life? Can you educate me?’ Now that we’re all in the room, how do we start that discussion?”
Oluo insists, based on firsthand experience: we can bridge the gap in conversations about racial oppression. Beginning in the book and then drawing from personal experience, two celebrated journalists bring the conversation home to Kepler’s. This Columbus Day, let’s find the time to talk about race.
Speaking of the fear black people have with the police, she commented on her own reluctance to call the cops. “I have children in my house. They are not protecting me. I never feel safe when a cop walks in the room. So I am weighing how dire does the threat have to be to introduce this other threat.”
Ijeoma Oluo’s book So You Want to Talk About Race is an impressive work on race and racism and how they infect almost every aspect of American life. Her thesis is powerful. In her first chapter she says:
Race was not only created to justify a racially exploitative economic system, it was invented to lock people of color into the bottom of it. Racism in America exists to exclude people of color from opportunity and progress so that there is more profit for others deemed superior. This profit itself is the greater promise for non-racialized people – you will get more because they exist to get less. That promise is durable, and unless attacked directly, it will outlive any attempts to address class as a whole.
This promise – you will get more because they exist to get less – is woven throughout our entire society. Our politics, our education system, our infrastructure – anywhere there is a finite amount of power, influence, visibility, wealth, or opportunity. Anywhere in which someone might miss out. Anywhere there might not be enough. They are the lower of that promise sustains racism.
White supremacy is this nation’s oldest pyramid scheme. Even those who had lost everything to the scheme are still hanging in there waiting for their turn to cash out.
Even the election of our first black president did not lessen the lure of this promise to draw people to their support of racism. If anything, the election strengthened it. His election was a clear, undeniable sign that some black people could get more, and then what about everyone else’s share? Those who had been always blatantly or subconsciously depended on that promise, that they would get more because others would get less, were threatened in ways that they could not put words to. But suddenly, this didn’t feel like “their country” anymore. Suddenly, they didn’t feel like “their needs” were being met.
The promise of racism has still held true: in just about every demographic of social-political-economic well-being, black and brown people are consistently getting less.
The title of each chapter of Oluo’s book is a question, typically posed to a black person by a person of a different race. They range from some whose answers are likely obvious to many such as “Why can’t I say the “N” word?” to less obvious ones such as “What is intersectionality and why do I need it?” There are essential topics such as “What is the school-to-prison pipeline?” and “Is police brutality really about race?” She talks about a moving conversation about race and identity with her white mother in “What if I am talking about race wrong?”
In the chapter “But what if I hate Al Sharpton?”, Oluo discusses Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and how they are perceived as opposites. Not so, she says. During his time, MLK was not the MLK of legend. He was “public enemy number one.” She writes, “…what MLK Jr and Malcom X fought for was the same: freedom from oppression. At times they used different words and different tactics, but it was their goal that was the threat.”
Which brings me to The Autobiography of Malcolm X which I read many years ago. Written with Alex Haley (author of Roots), it was a very important book in my early understanding of America and the struggle for racial justice. I deeply admired the Malcolm I read of. He was eloquent and had courage of conviction. The clarity of his vision and his undeterred quest for justice resonated with my own moral vision. I admired his temperament: he demanded justice and was not willing to settle.
And so, I was deeply moved by the stunning image by Wadsworth Jarrell of Malcolm X (Black Prince) shown at the Soul of a Nation exhibit. The curation points out that the piece incorporates Malcolm X's own empowering words: "I believe in anything necessary to correct unjust conditions - political, economic, social, physical - anything necessary as long as it gets results." Next to it was one of Angela Davis (Revolutionary), both activists who live in the hearts of many. Davis "embodies a new generation of politically empowered women; words from her speeches encircle her body like a halo."
We continue on this journey, through literature, through non-fiction, through poems, through art, through performance pieces. Let there be light.