Yesterday Richard and I took our 6 year old son to see the movie Selma. If you haven’t yet seen it, do. Sure, most Americans with a pulse know what happened in Selma, but the movie is a deep dive into the complex realities associated with the civil rights movement, the uphill battle to gain access to rights already given to Blacks by law, the political factions within the Black community, the strategic brilliance of Dr. King and his brethren, and the pure hatred oozing from the pores of some White folks who took sheer joy in brutalizing any and every Black person in sight. At the end of the movie, after sitting a full 127 minutes, not a soul stirred beyond offering a solemn applause. Not one person stood. All of us, united in darkness, struck dumb and stiff from the power of Dr. King’s words delivered during his address from the Alabama State Capital Building still ringing in our ears; tears still stinging our eyes.
Selma did something that very few movies can do, it explained racism in ways that could be understood by people who don’t live under it’s oppressive heel. Sure, voting rights had been signed into law, but Southern Blacks were asked to jump through hoops that no other citizen was faced with, in addition to physical intimidation and fear of loss of employment. Not only was this intimidation allowed to happen, no one stopped it. That’s racism. No one helping because they assume that the system is fair and that my lack of access to it is due to some limitation on my part, that’s racism.
The toughest part about this movie was, of course, having to explain it to our son. We couldn’t figure out whether to talk in past or current tense when we tried to help him understand why people were/are getting beaten and killed in the street just because of the color of their skin. We couldn’t figure out whether to use past/current tense when we talked about the role of law enforcement in the demonstrations and associated brutal attacks. We couldn’t figure out why, 50 years after the march in Selma, we have to explain that “The bad people in this movie aren’t alive anymore, but there are still people who think the same way about us and you for the same reason, because our skin is brown.”
What can we tell him, in a world where:
- #Blacklivesmatter is trending
- 2,000 are killed in Nigeria and 17 in Paris, and #jesuischarlie is trending
- Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy holding a toy gun in a park was shot within 2 seconds of police approaching him
- police in New York were acquitted for killing, Eric Garner, a Black man using an illegal choke hold, and the prosecutor is now running for Congress.
These are just the headlines from the past couple of weeks, and only represent issues related to the Black community. Think about all the less physically but nonetheless brutal slights like those currently being felt by comedian Margaret Cho who hasn’t been given a break since her appearance at the Golden Globes! What to do???
Well, I don’t know exactly what to do, but I’ve made it my life’s work to care and to surround myself by people who share the same commitment. Ours is a commitment of trying: trying to do what’s right without holding ourselves out as judge and jury; taking risks in the name of ending oppressive acts, starting with our own and those against us; and seeking solutions that impact people and communities in ways that break pre-existing cycles of oppression and create new, sustainable systems.
I write this blog post with a heavy heart, but one that has always been filled with hope. I have to hope, I’m a mother. Please hope with me, and let’s find ways to make impact. We can’t allow things to stay the same any longer. We just can’t.
Tune in Monday, January 19, 2 pm Pacific/5 pm Eastern to join our live discussion with leading historians and diversity and inclusion experts on the topic: Race in America and the World: Building a Sustainable Future.