Racism and Anna Deavere Smith

Anna Deavere Smith (1 of 1)An examination of traffic stops and arrests in Greensboro, N.C., uncovered wide racial differences in measure after measure of police conduct. Sharon LaFraniere, Andrew W. Lehren, and Susan Beachy in The New York Times 10/25/2015

Last Wednesday, we saw Anna Deavere Smith at the Stanford Chapel. I would probably only know her as the National Security Advisor on West Wing, if it hadn’t been for a fortuitous blind ticket buy about twenty years ago. We were in L A for my former partner’s widow’s 85th birthday and we decided to see if we could see a play – L A being a hotbed for great, small, local, theater companies – and we ended up in small theater watching  Anna Deavere Smith put on a performance about the Rodney King Riots, called Twilight: Los Angeles 1992,  in which she played all the parts.

To back up, what Anna Deavere Smith did was to interview various people that were involved in the riots, from young black men who broke windows and stole TVs, to a Korean shop owner who was robbed, to LAPD chief Daryl Gates and Congresswoman Maxine Waters. She then tells each part of the story, using the interviewees’ own words and attitude. We were blown away.

Now Smith is an Artist in Residence at Stanford and, last Wednesday, she put on a show that was billed as Letter from Birmingham City Jail. Of course, the center of the show was her reading of Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail but what I found most moving was the first reading, Glass All Over My Clothes, which came from an interview with Charlayne Hunter Gault who was one of the first two African-American students to enroll in the University of Georgia. Gault told about how carefully she had packed, wanting her clothes to be just perfect – she had gone to Wayne State, in Detroit, for a year and a half and she thought her clothes looked very look cool and hip – and how a riot of white kids threw bricks through her dorm window, the only window with a light on because every other girl in the dorm had quietly been told to turn their lights off. Anna Deavere Smith embodied the nineteen year old Charlayne Hunter Gault’s feelings of isolation and fear just perfectly.

That feeling of isolation and fear, of not being an equal American – projected large by Anna Deavere Smith and Ta-Nehisi Coates in his writings and the drumbeat of cops killing young black men- are the reality of how we treat our fellow citizens. I might have never thrown a rock through a young girl’s dorm window, but in a Letter from Birmingham City Jail, Martin Luther King reminds me that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice. I have never thrown a rock through a young girl’s dorm window nor did I even know it was happening in 1957 but, I didn’t know and didn’t care only because I was looking the other way.

As an aside: a couple of days ago, I read a book review of KL: A History of The Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann. The KL are not the Nazi Death Camps that we know through the holocaust, but slave labor camps and Wachsmann writes that even though they were not death camps, the mortality rate was about 50% annually. He goes on to say that the only comparable mortality rate was in prisons in the Southern United States after the Civil War in which about 50% of the black prisoners died annually (after about 1880, the death rate dropped to only about 15% annually).  I did not know that appalling fact. The only place that compares with Nazi slave labor camps is the United States, sixty years earlier. End aside.

As much as I want to exonerate the US or only blame people south of the Mason-Dixon Line for the way we have treated black people and, of course, by extension, exonerate myself, with Social Media that exoneration is now impossible. It’s not just slavery or Jim Crow in the South but redlining in the north, it’s California with a 6.6% black population having a black prison population of 29%. In reality, we have been disenfranchising, disempowering, marginalizing, and demonizing, black people since our country was formed. Formed on that grand principle that that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, by men who put the three fifths clause in the Constitution, by men who were more devoted to order than to justice.

The subtitle of  the Letter from Birmingham City Jail is The Negro Is Your Brother and the last performance of Anna Deavere Smith was a story told by John Lewis. Lewis was on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, on Bloody Sunday and he was beaten by a what? civilian volunteer beater? bully? idiot? asshole? take your pick. Lewis goes on to say that the guy approached him about ten years ago, hat in hand. He apologized and asked for forgiveness and, of course, John Lewis forgave him. Lewis went on to say that they have met four times since and now they call each other Brother.

In Twilight: Los Angeles, Anna Deavere Smith quotes Cornel West on Optimism versus Hope, Optimism Is when you look out the window and think things are going well and Hope is when you look out the window and you go, “It doesn’t look good at all, but I’m going to go beyond what I see to give people visions of what could be.”  Looking at how we treat people of color, especially Americans of African heritage, Hope is as good as it is going to get.  Anna Deavere Smith (1 of 1)

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