My neighbors live in fear. Not all of them, mind you, but there are enough who are vocal about it. I’m worried that their fears are spreading, multiplying, transforming the very fabric of the neighborhood where I have lived for nine years.
I am a proud resident of Park Circle, and my neighbors are beginning to frighten me, shame me, sadden me. All of that is hypocritical, I suppose, condemning one group for the very same feelings that I’m now feeling, but I feel as my community — a diverse, multiracial community of seniors, young families, professionals, bohemians, blue collar workers, trailer park denizens — is shattering. We are becoming a stratified little world divided between Us and the Undesirables.
Undesirables — that’s not my term.That’s a term that was being tossed around on one of the Facebook groups used to describe those who ride the buses, buses that have historically cut through our neighborhood, driven down our streets, passed our homes.
Recently, the routes changed. A new stop was created across the street from my house, and others were created elsewhere. This was the source of anguish for some who didn’t use the bus to get around. If they needed to get somewhere I suppose thy did so by driving a car or riding a bike. But these people who rode the bus, these undesirables, they had no business being on our streets, our sidewalks, in such close proximity to our homes.
Fortunately, many of my neighbors quickly corrected them, pointing out that these undesirables were just hard-working men and women trying to get to their jobs or go to the grocery store or the outlet mall area. Some even mentioned that they had been bus riders.
Us — I’m not sure who that really is. I don’t know who’s included in that group or the specific rules that grant you membership into that exclusive club, but some of my neighbors do, and I’ll go with what seems to be their definition. It’s not the two black men engaged in a lively conversation on the sidewalk. It’s not the black guy looking for some work. It’s not the black teen cutting through a “nice” neighborhood on his way to his home in a “bad” one.
What’s even more depressing is that some of these people I admire — or did. After all, how can you still admire someone when you learn they call poor blacks hood rats, that they refer to local housing complexes as the ghetto, and that they see every black teenage boy as a thug? That says nothing about Those of Us who openly mock black speech patterns or dismiss hip-hop for no other reason than, well, I’m not sure why they hate it. I just know they think it’s garbage, pure garbage.
Oddly enough, most of this fear is the result of one single thing: Some of Us refuse to lock our car doors. We say that we just forgot this one time, this one time — work’s too stressful, the kids were going crazy, why can’t it be like it was in the 1950s? Inevitably, on the one night they forgot to lock their car, a thief riffled through their vehicle. More often than not, the thief stole nothing — not even loose change. However, that hasn’t stopped some from calling for an armed neighborhood watch to patrol the streets. This is not a joke. And it’s certainly not funny.
Today, Many of Us see Undesirables everywhere and we hear gun shots throughout the night, some real, some imagined. We worry about the door-to-door salesmen, the folks who toss the weekly shoppers on our drive-way, the real estate agent who is taking a photograph of a house. Oh and those folks who ride the bus.
Pure Theatre’s latest, Citizen: An American Lyric, speaks to this fear, but instead of being from One of Us, it’s from the perspective of those who are most often on the receiving end of my neighbors’ fear — black people.
Largely a verbatim adaptation of poet Claudia Rankine’s work of the same name, the Piccolo Spoleto production of Citizen is a collection of vignettes. Some are first-person accounts, some are selections from other works, and some are brief essays of a kind. Together they all tell the same tale: the myriad ways that blacks are treated with indignity by whites on a daily basis. These slights can be both small and huge, and many times throughout the play the majority white audience gasps at the cluelessness, carelessness, and hatred that white people show toward black people. It’s a staggering and soul-crushing catalog of callous indignities and overt acts of racism. In the end, Citizen makes the compelling case that African-Americans as a whole spend their days suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Sadly, for many whites, even those on the liberal end of the political spectrum — no, especially those who call themselves liberals — Citizen places them for perhaps the first time in the shoes of black Americans. So often white society condemns black society for lashing out at a system that continues to view them as lesser beings, others who are three-fifths human perhaps. One passage in particular should be taken into account by white audiences. In it, Rankine’s borrows from Langston Hughes, warping his words to craft a truth that whites will find frightening: “And there is no (Black) who has not felt, briefly or for long periods, with anguish sharp or dull, in varying degrees and to varying effect, simple, naked, and unanswerable hatred: who has not wanted to smash any white face he may encounter in a day, to violate, out of motives of the cruelest vengeance … to break the bodies of all white people and bring them low, as low as the dust into which he himself has been and is being trampled….”
If you find that to be extreme, well, that’s expected. But after sitting through an hour-plus of the pain that black folks have to put up with on a daily basis, white audiences will surely come to the realization that if they faced such indignities they would not have shown as much restraint or even the smallest droplet of grace.
Grace — we’ve heard a lot about that work in the past year.
After Dylann Roof was arrested for entering Emanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015 and killing nine, the white community in Charleston was taken aback when the victims’ families stood before the shooter and told him they forgave him.
The white community was equally surprised when blacks in Charleston somehow suppressed the compulsion to use this tragedy as an excuse burn and loot. Instead, they called for peace and unity. After all, I heard so many white people say, “If that bastard had murdered a member of my family, I’d have killed him right there in the courtroom.”
This anger is to be expected. It’s human to respond this way, to feel this way, to say these things. This is normal. All of which is why the response of the Emanuel Nine families was all the more extraordinary, for their response wasn’t human. It was godly. And in their presence we all kneeled.
Photographer Carrie Mae Weems takes the grace shown by these men and women and uses it as the intellectual starting point of her Spoleto show Grace Notes: Reflections for Now. The multimedia performance is of a more mystical nature than Citizen; as such, it can be a bit of a hard pill to swallow for those looking for clear paths. But regardless of its challenges, Grace Notes is filled with passages that will long stick with you. I know that I won’t soon forget the sight of a black man in a black hoodie running continuously on a treadmill — a representation of all the unarmed black men who have been shot by law enforcement. I also won’t forget a segment in which two silhouettes tell an increasingly nasty series of racist jokes, the punchlines of which made many in the audience laugh, a laughter that for some was out of discomfort but for others it offered a particular bigoted truth.
And as Grace Notes and Citizen argue, we must confront the uncomfortable truths about American society, the relationship between blacks and whites, and the inequalities and prejudices that the African-American community still faces today. Sadly, there is little reason to hope that we will. The families of the Emanuel Nine have apparently changed their minds. Today, some support the prosecutor’s decision to seek the death penalty for Dylann Roof. For some that grace has apparently been revoked.
Meanwhile, on Memorial Day, a white man was shot and killed outside of his hotel in North Charleston. He and his wife were visiting from Ohio. The police have no suspects, and there is apparently no motive, just a random shooting from a car that sped away.
I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t help but picture two young black men in that car. I wish I didn’t think this way. I wish I didn’t believe that we all have a reason to be afraid. I wish I didn’t believe the fear, but I do. And it doesn’t give a damn about the color of your skin.