This past week, TV stations across the country showed us an amazing scene: Brandt Jean, the 18 year old brother of Both Jean who was shot and killed by a white female police person who went home to the wrong apartment after her night shift was over, asked the trial judge if he might hug the woman who killed his brother. When the judge understandably hesitated, young Brandt said “please” and was allowed to make about 40 seconds of physical contact with the woman. Was I watched this, I flashed to 2015 when the white man entered the A.M.E. Church in Charlottesville, S.C. and shot too many black congregants who were holding a prayer meeting. When I then listened to several family members of those just killed by the bigoted killer say they forgave him and were praying for him and his family, I thought “Wow, I profess to having some kind of faith but it’s not what these people have. Maybe in years after such a senseless murder, I might be able to forgive him but not less than 24 hours after the cruel and senseless event.” That’s how I felt watching Brandt hugging the white woman who was reduced to sobs.
There’s been push back about this recent example of forgiveness with some people asking if we could have imagined a situation where the roles were reversed, that a white family member whose beloved had just been killed by a black person who thought s/he was entering their own apartment when they were on an entirely different floor. Articles made reference to the 2015 moment in which people didn’t agree with what the black congregants were doing, convinced that the perpetrator of such racial violence did not deserve forgiveness. It seems to me these two extraordinary examples of human beings being able to practice a value system that surely turns on believing we are all better than our worst deed need thoughtful consideration. Just as no two people handle grief the same ways, no matter who devises typical phases for handling staggering losses, so something as mysterious as forgiveness will be handled differently by each of us.
When I listened to family members back in 2015, I felt sure they were speaking with total honesty and conviction, that somewhere in them was a well-spring from which it was possible for them to stand before cameras and lights and offer something other than an “eye for an eye” vengeance model to those of us trying to cope with the sheer barbarity of what the white man had done. And when I looked at and listened to Brandt Jean humbly ask and then almost plead for the right to touch the person he might well want to see dead at his feet for what she had done, I was similarly sure he was speaking from his soul and his heart, not his head.
Since I am working to find goodness around me even as I continue to reel from the latest atrocity being committed by the man in the White House, I salute someone like Brandt and thank him for challenging me to try harder to resist striking back or becoming as abusive in my own speech and thoughts as the people I find so despicable for their speech and, because they also wield power, their actions. Whatever happens to the white police woman during her time in prison, Brandt Jean and his immediate family know an inner calm that defies logic and invites reverence. They are showing me what grace looks like in 2019 and I thank them.
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.
In 2004, Richard Eyre directed the movie, “Stage Beauty,” written by Jeffrey Hatcher and starring Billy Cudrup and Claire Danes. Recently I watched this amazingly beautiful and haunting movie for the third time. A good friend who’d never seen it wanted to and I found myself getting increasingly excited as the day came for us to watch it. The movie is based on a true story about Edward Kynaston, one of the last beautiful young male actors to play major female parts on the English stage. We see him at the beginning as the dying Desdemona in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Othello. When her hand stops twitching as Othello holds the gorgeous pillow over her face, its fingers unfold ever so slowly, falling finally into a heart-breaking torpor. The huge London theater erupts into shouts and stomps and bravos, as the English upper classes rise to their feet to honor Kynaston’s flawless performance. What we’ve seen from on the sidelines is a very young woman, mouthing Desdemona’s lines until she is called to her job as dresser for Kynaston whom she adores both as an actor and as a man, never mind that he’s clearly gay so disinterested in her.
The plot thickens when we see the young woman quickly gather the magic pillow and a few other props before dashing from the regal theater to a run-down space probably on the East Side of London where lower class men and women act in plays and where she is Desdemona, speaking and moving just as her idol does for the royals. To make a long story short, it comes out that she is acting because Samuel Pepys has spoken about her and her ragtag group in his diary. When Kynaston realizes that his lowly dresser whom he barely even notices is pretending to “act,” he at first laughs it off. But Nell Gwynn, notorious mistress of King Charles II, gets the very campy king, who himself often cross-dresses, first to allow for women to portray female parts, along with the likes of Kynaston. Eventually, however, because Nell develops anger at Kynaston, she convinces Charles II to decree that ONLY women may portray female parts, thus bringing to an abrupt and catastrophic end the careers of many beautiful young men who’ve made their way as cross-dressing female characters.
Perhaps because of all the attention to gender fluidity and a rejection of conventional binary explanations of who we all are, I saw in this third viewing something I’d never noted before. A royal ruling that opened up huge possibilities for women contributed to a stiffening of gender roles prescribed both for men and women in western culture. And it its that precise stiffening that is being currently resisted and rejected by increasing numbers of human beings from all walks of life and cultures. So Hatcher and Eyre were ahead of the curve when they produced this movie early in the 21st century. What lingers for me now is the complicated reality that a change in the rules can be received entirely differently by various segments of a society, setting up a paradox or at least a webbed conundrum.
And it’s certainly true that their movie shows Kynaston agreeing to teach his dresser-turned-stage star (now known as Mrs. Huges who is in demand to act all sorts of roles) how to be Desdemona as he plays Othello. But along the way, she upbraids him in a long and powerful speech in which she points out that no woman would die without fighting as Othello puts that gorgeous pillow over her face in order to kill her. She says he is expert at gestures and postures that appeal to the audience with their already set ideas of how females are supposed to comport ourselves. But he can’t tell us anything about how it feels on the inside of any of the female characters he portrays. So he is “playing” at being a woman, where she IS a woman. What she has to drop, then, is mimicking her idol and, ironically it is the pretend woman who coaxes that self inside the biological woman onto the stage.
The two of them explore each other’s bodies in a couple of amazing scenes of intimacy. The dialogue is fascinating to me because she keeps asking him if she’s the “woman” or is he, and also when is she or he the “man.” The first time they are intimate in this way, he is very sure, answering her immediately to both their delights because it’s an intimate game like that played by Antony and Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s play on the night when Cleopatra wears Anthony’s armor and sword while he wears her silken gowns. But the second time Kynaston and Mrs. are together, after they’ve performed am amazing scene of Desdemona’s heroic attempts to escape Othello’s mad desire to kill her, and after they kiss longer than the first time she asks him if he’s the woman or the man. He pauses before saying lines that are so moving to me: “I don’t know.” On that note, the movie ends and I find myself haunted by all sorts of ambiguities about self-presentation and personhood.
I suspect I’ll decide to watch “Stage Beauty” again in a couple of years to see what it can teach me or how it can challenge me to enlarge my own ideas about how to be in the world.
In the August 14th New York Times, there’s an article by Karen Crouse, a sports reporter for the paper, entitled “Tiger and Serena Confront Twilight and Aching Backs.” Crouse clearly admires both stellar athletes, even saying they achieved unique status in their respective sports of golf and tennis, winning trophies by the handsful and avid fans by the tens of thousands. She goes on to point to the reality of their ages and to the fact that both have had to withdraw from recent tournaments due to back problems that aren’t getting better.
I’m delighted to have learned from Crouse that Serena and Tiger have become good friends in recent years, living quite close to each other in Florida, and following each other’s amazing stamina in the face of being “older” in terms of each sport’s definition of who might rise to stardom. This pleases me because it tells me they understand something key about each other: Not only is each perhaps one of the finest players ever to grace a tennis court or a golf course, but they do that as black players in two sports still heavily dominated by white athletes. Yet Crouse, a white reporter who began her work as a sports writer for the Savannah News-Press, never mentions this germinal fact. This seems to me a serious omission of something that has surely shadowed both of these amazing players from early stages of their development, adding stress elements absent for people like Ernie Els or Steffi Graff.
As I finished the article, grateful to Ms. Crouse for highlighting Williams and. Woods as the giants they so clearly are, I heard in the back of my mind voices currently arguing about just how engrained racism continues to be in our culture. Regardless of their slant on this vexing and vexed subject, most such thinkers insist on a cardinal truth they voice this way: “If you don’t see race, you don’t see me.” So let’s keep their awards lists in full context of who they are and what that has meant as they have fought to achieve and maintain their positions at the very apex of their sports.
And, let’s not be too quick to place them in any “twilight” zone, please, even if they do now perform certain PT exercises in their “new normal” routines.