I cannot speak with any amount of authority on race, even though I am myself “raced” as Toni Morrison puts it. I can’t speak on it because the color of my skin was never something that set me apart, making me a member of the “other” by society. Being made an “other” by society because I’m gay I can speak on, yet not like someone who lived through the AIDS Crisis of the 80’s and 90’s or of the Stonewall Riots in ’69.
White Privilege has kept my life from being, directly, affected by racism. T hough I do not consider myself a racist, this lack of personal experience with racism left me in a place of racial ignorance, especially where the history of this country is concerned.
It’s through my artistic expression that I can hope to bridge as least some of the gap between my ignorance and a sect of human experience otherwise foreign to me. But, if I am going to claim my right to artistic expression in telling the stories that I want, need, have to tell, then the question of my responsibility is answered in education.
If I’m going to explore stories about race as a white person, then I need to attempt to understand this country’s history: that the birth of our country’s industry was born on the backs of slaves; that in first drafting of what would become our Constitution, the northern delegates traded away ending slavery in the late 1700’s for the ability to tax southern exports (Kevin R.C. Gutzman, James Madison and the Making of America); that South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, did so on the basis that the Northern States were not honoring the Fugitive Slave Act of 1855; that The Chicago Times denounced the Gettysburg address for suggesting Negros were created equal to whites; what the Reconstruction was; why Rayford W. Logan in The Betrayal of the Negro calls 1890-1940 the “nadir of American race relations” where after the Civil War African Americans were legislated to second class status; how some northern towns became known as “sundown towns” because African Americans were threatened with death if they remained overnight; how lynchings occurred as far north as Duluth; how the Civil Rights Movement resulted from the connecting thread running through all of this history. (James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong)
I needed to try to understand, as Hamden Rice put it in his Daily Kos blog, Most of You have No Idea what Martin Luther King Actually Did:
“My father told me with a sort of cold fury, “Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south.’”
“Lunch counters and buses were crucial symbolic planes of struggle that the civil rights movement used to dramatize the issue, but the main suffering in the south did not come from our inability to drink from the same fountain, ride in the front of the bus or eat lunch at Woolworth’s.
“It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them. You all know about lynching. But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.”
This isn’t the tip of the iceberg. It’s not even a grainy grayscale Polaroid of the tip of the iceberg. But even this “tip” I honestly didn’t know about until a few years ago when I finally found within myself a want to learn. Chalk it up to our education system removing the sins of our fathers from the text books and teaching plans. Chalk it up to the disinterest and apathy of my “unaffected” younger self. Both played their part.
Whatever the cause of my education deficit, if I am going to claim my right to artistic expression, then I have a responsibility to understand what a character like Jeremiah means to those who have personally experienced racism in their life, whose family history or even personal memories include lynchings and/or events just as inhuman.
I cannot speak with any authority about race.
But I can tell stories. I can play a part. I can explore situations different and extremely alien from my own through my acting. I can move, provoke, offend, and entertain, and hopefully come out with a deeper understanding of a person’s life experience other than my own.
Now, in the end, though I can say I did the work and put everything I had into the role, I can’t say my performance was good. I’d like to think it was, but that’s truly not for me to say.
It’s also not for me to say whether “The Lynching Song” worked or not.
Though the honest and passionate reaction and point of view of those offended by “The Lynching Song” should absolutely be considered, it is also not for them to say.
It’s only up to Caleb and Alison. They are the ones who can say whether the song does what they intended it to do or whether it’s taking the audience out of the play more than it’s compelling them to watch.
They are the ones who much ask whether the song is a necessary structural element of the story telling, without which the entire story falls flat, or whether it is one of those elements that moved writer William Faulkner to say, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”
We find both the story we want to tell and how to tell it by taking risks, taking chances, going out on a limb, trying new things, often failing, but occasionally succeeding. This is what we do.
Sometimes we will offend. Often we’ll get it wrong before we get it right. Perhaps we’ll provoke and enlighten. Hopefully we’ll entertain.
It is through the art of storytelling that artists can gain something that goes beyond an academic knowledge of a thing. Something approaching experience. It’s like crossing a room only going half way each time. Mathematically you’ll never reach the opposite side of the room, but you will get closer and closer with each half distance.
It is our business as artists to conjure up the angels and demons of our past with the tools available to us, looking through the prism of our own lives and struggles, so that we can begin to understand and connect with those who have gone before, so that we can attempt to understand their pain, appreciate their triumph, and honor their stories by never forgetting them.
This is our business.
|Deep in villainous concentration...thank you John!|