There aren’t many in this country, but I’ve been deciding to enter as many as I can. A couple of years ago I accepted an invitation from a good friend to travel to Washington D.C. to visit the Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of Native Culture. As were standing in front of MAAHC, I realized we were in a numerical minority and that felt absolutely appropriate. Then we entered the doors, took the large elevator down to Level 1 which is three levels below ground level, and began a very slow journey through that amazing place. Somewhere into the journey I thought to myself “This isn’t white space, so how does it feel to be in it as a white woman?” The question faded because what we in front of us was just too powerful not to claim my full attention. We spoke about the question in the days following our time there, and I have come to understand in a visceral way just how few “black spaces” there are in my daily life. My grocery store employs blacks but only as cashiers and baggers. There are no black butchers or managers, though black customers certainly seem to be treated respectfully. But that space is white, just as my church is white even though the numbers of black and brown people in the pews has tripled just in the last five years and are genuinely welcomed. There they assist at the altar or carry the beautiful brass candle sticks and flags and incense pots. They hand out wafers and tip chalices for those drinking the wine. Still the space is white.
So where else am I in black space? When I saw a production in New York City of “White Noise,” a powerful play by Suzan-Lori Parks, that was black space even though there were virtually no black people in the audience. It was black space because of what the playwright was asking us whites to experience. There’s no positive or kind or respectful or regenerative place for me to stand, because the two white characters behave so miserably and in such blatantly racist ways. The plot line is severe–Leo, the lead black man, is pulled over and roughed up by police for the first time in his life. He’s so upset by this that he decides he must take drastic steps to get the “white noise” that is the whole white system out of his head so he can sleep again. With frightening ease, he convinces his best friend, a white man, to “buy” him as a slave for 40 days. Parks forces me to take in just how thin the veneer of liberal association can be before we turn another person into The Other. At one point, midway through the 40 days, the white man bounds onto the stage wielding a real iron collar (obviously on loan from a museum in New York) that Leo is forced to put around his neck. I thought of walking out since I couldn’t breathe and I wasn’t wearing an inhumane torture device. But I flashed that Parks needed me to stay in her thoroughly black space and go with Leo toward whatever resolution he might find by the end of the play.
A few months ago, my good friend and I made a pilgrimage to Montgomery, Alabama, to experience both the indoor museum filled with ten years of in-depth research into all the lynchings in this country and the outdoor installation of hundreds of dark brown rectangles, each of which stands for another black person hanged by us whites. Most of the people at the museum were black men and women in town for a conference on how they as people of faith (many were pastors) could translate belief into social justice action. In that hugely black space, I felt both deep shame for what my ancestors have done and an unexplainable but welcome sense of support coming from the group.
Finally, and so importantly, I can inhabit black space simply by reading books by and about black life today and into historic times when we white colonizers bought and sold black women and men and children as if they were cattle. While this might seem a “safe” way to experience black reality, the writers I’m thinking of are so unblinking and such ardent wordsmiths that what often is a passive activity conducted in an easy chair turns into a harrowing reminder of centuries of inhumane treatment or an equally moving affirmation of the incredible resilience of black people. My current reading sometimes forces me to put down the book and go outside for a walk because I can’t stay in the black space created by a Toni Morrison or Ta Na-Hisi Coates or Claudia Rankine or James Baldwin or James McBride or Jesmyn Ward or Casey Gerard or Terrance Hayes or Tracy Smith or Lynn Nottage–and I could just keep typing.