-You’re never gonna forget what you saw out there, do you understand? You’re never gonna forget what you saw out there. Hanging’s the easiest part of it sometimes. Sometimes they cut the little fingers off, your toes, your nose, your ears. Sometimes they cut your privates off. Sometimes they skin you alive. You’ll never be able to forget.
-What do you think he did?
–He didn’t have to do nothing, James! He didn’t have to do nothing! In Texas, they lynch Negroes! Do you understand? So it doesn’t matter how good we are, does it?
The Great Debaters (2007)
In the midst of my Spring Break, movie marathons become the prime mechanism to pass the time (that, and LOTS of homework!), so I dropped by the front office to my apartment, checked out a few DVDs, and popped them in while zooming around my kitchen on a freezing Minnesota afternoon–welcome to Spring. Movie #3 was The Great Debaters (2007).
As I journeyed along with the Wiley College Debate Team through their historical season, one scene stayed clenched to my mind long after the credits ceased rolling. One night, while driving through rural Texas, the debate team was nearly ambushed by a lynch mob who hung and burned an African-American just moments before the team emerged. When the team arrived at a roadside motel, Henry Lowe (Nate Parker), one of the team members, stormed off into the night, only to return drunk and tonguing down a local girl. When his teammate James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) intercepts him and carries them into their room, the two get into an altercation, and it is here where the words that begin this post are delivered. While Henry is more seasoned in his years and has seen the horror of lynchings before, James, just 14 years old at the time, is experiencing this for the first time, and comes from a family that has relatively tried to shelter him immensely from the harrowing realities of racism in the Deep South.
Both of them are brilliant–James goes on to help assemble the Congress of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.), and Henry goes on to study theology and become a minister. Not to mention they are fabulous debaters, as their team defeated the Harvard Crimson team that year. Yet even Henry knew in his youth that “it doesn’t matter how good we are.” Racism still rears its ugly head on the most privileged and intellectual Negroes as it does the rural sharecroppers. But for James, this was an internal realization that we witness through the arc of the film, one that culminates in his closing remarks of the Harvard debate competition. We see this young man go from being seemingly oblivious to racism, to understanding that no person of color is far enough removed from its sting. He becomes conscious, awakened. He can now situate his actions to combat it appropriately with this new understanding.
This exchange between the young men was one that resonated with me deeply. At 20 years old, coming from a “comfortable-enough” background, and attending racially-mixed, achieving schools, I have always been exposed to racism, but not often exposed to racism, not until high school. My school, situated right outside downtown Chicago, is a selective-enrollment school, meaning that it is a college-prep school that anyone from the city can apply to, based on an application that takes 7th grade ISAT scores, school grades, an entrance exam taken in 8th grade, and attendance (which has now been removed from the application). The higher the score, the better the chance. Basically, it’s hard as hell to get in. It’s no surprise that my school is in the top 5 in the state.
Yet, academic success does not mean people are not racist. That was new for me. My freshman year was tumultuous, at least the first half. Tensions arose between the Black girls and the White guys in my class, with many altercations arising because the guys often called the girls “n*ggers” and “b*tches.” For many of us, this was the first time we interacted with people from different sides of the city. North Siders and South Siders and West Siders clashed. Experiences clashed. Lifestyles clashed. Stereotypes clashed. It was a huge learning experience for us all, and many of us were able to learn from one another and grow into more conscious human beings. Some didn’t (let’s be real). Yet, even in the midst of all of this, I had the shred of hope that when I graduated high school, moved away from Chicago, and attended college in another state, that I could escape all of this idiotic mess called “racism.” I was sorely mistaken.
After having a blast and forming new friendships at the Multicultural Kickoff (MKO) at my current school, which connected me with students of “underrepresented backgrounds” as we like to call it at the U, I went on to the mandatory Welcome Week. It was here that I encountered 5,000+ new, wide-eyed freshmen, who were full of excitement, as I was. The only thing was that I stuck out like a sore-thumb, while at MKO, I blended in with the sea of colors. My Welcome Week group had a total of two people of color: my Nigerian-American roommate and I, and I never felt so many eyes on me ever in my entire life. With the personality I have, I played it off, being overly outgoing in hopes to ease the potential fears of my peers, but inside, I was ridiculously uncomfortable, and if I hadn’t met the best friends I have now, I do not know if I would have stayed at the U. As expected, the year went eerily similar to my freshman year four years ago. Tensions were present, but with “Minnesota Nice” a.k.a. “Minnesota Passive-Aggressive” at work, no burning altercations arose, but the glares, rushed paces, and even a “n*gger” in black ink emerging on my friend’s door rose to the fold. My anger swirled around, and yet, I still did not understand.
It was not until events of this year, 2013, that I came to the consciousness that Henry Lowe possessed and James Farmer, Jr. discovered. The first occurred on February 15, 2013. It was five days after my 20th birthday. I decided to run to the mall after filming a video where I spoke about my major, African-American & African Studies. I wanted to find a shirt for a concert the next day. I decided not to go home and drop off my bookbag because it would deter me from getting the shirt so I just zoomed past into St. Paul and then to Rosedale Mall in Roseville, MN. I stepped into Ragstock first because they sell clothes of a more vintage style, and I knew I would find a shirt there that I wanted. As I browsed through the store, I picked up shirts that I liked, and then proceeded to go to the back where the fitting room was located. They have a sign saying that you need to check with an employee before entering the fitting room. This was the second time I visited this location, and the first time, when I needed to try on clothes, the employee told me I did not need to check in with him, so I just went inside. With this still in mind, plus the day ending quickly, I just zoomed into the fitting room, tried on the shirts, decided on the shirt I wanted, and left the fitting room. I put the shirts back, looked at some jewelry, and stepped in line to pay.
This is when an employee, a White girl about my age, asked me, “Did you have any go-backs?” I replied, “Yes, but I put them back on the rack.” She replied, “Where?” “Over there, in that area,” while pointing to some wall. “Well, that’s why we have people check in with us.” I ignored her, and she proceeded to go to the fitting room. I paid for my shirt and left to go across to Forever 21. I went straight to the escalator to go upstairs and look at jewelry when a security guard, an older White man, approached me courteously and asked me to step outside with him. Immediately I asked why, and it was then that he gestured at the same employee that was interrogating me in the store and said that she wanted to speak with me. She told me she found a tag in the fitting room and that she thought I shoplifted. I told her it must have fell off and that I did not shoplift, but for cooperation’s sake, I began to empty my bookbag while simultaneously telling her off in the most intelligent, passionate way I knew how. At one point she told me I didn’t need to fully empty my bag, but I said no because I wanted to prove her assumptions were idiotic. I told her and the guard that I was a student, that I was coming from school, etc. They saw my laptop (covered with stickers such as “No Racism”, the “People’s Instinctive” album from ATCQ, and Stevie Wonder, for example), flyers from events the Black Student Union (of which I am a board member) held, and my Afro Lit book, Norton’s Anthology (which I have deemed “The Bible of Black Lit” ‘cuz that thing is so huge). By the end she looked bewildered, gave me a measly apology, and scurried off. While packing up my bag, the security guard thanked me for my cooperation and wished me well. I liked him.
I went home MAD AS HELL. Never in my life have I experienced something like that before. I spat all my frustrations out on Twitter (red-headed emojis and all). I called Ragstock the next day and expressed my anger. And I sat there, on my bed, and began to understand. Hours upon hours studying sociological concepts, Black history, and current events will never compare to your own experience. When it came, it did not matter that I am a college student, who just two short weeks later was admitted to the University Honors Program. It did not matter that I was wearing Ugg boots or a Michael Kors jacket. It did not matter how high-pitched my voice gets when talking to authority figures and White folks (yes…it does). All that mattered was that I am Black. “It doesn’t matter how good we are.”
What is crazy is THAT SAME DAY, Forest Whitaker was frisked in a New York deli. Whitaker stars in The Great Debaters as James’ father, and his desire to save his family from the pains of racism is great. I feel it when he endorses his check of a month’s salary to white, gun-cocked sharecroppers after accidentally killing their hog. I feel it when he lashes out in anger at James for coming home from the Homecoming dance at 1 AM. I feel it when he interrogates Melvin Tolson (Denzel Washington), the debate coach and active Communist, on whether or not his son was with Melvin at a sharecroppers’ union meeting (he was, just not with Melvin). But neither his shelter nor his academia privilege could not save James Jr. from the sting of racism. And Whitaker’s privilege from being a successful actor could not save him from being unjustly frisked at a New York deli. “It doesn’t matter how good we are.”
But it does not stop there.
On March 3, my Black Student Union family and I were driving back to Minnesota from Kansas State University. We attended the Big XII Conference on Black Student Government, the title being “The Talented Tenth: Redefining Black Student Government.” Throughout the conference, keynote speakers wrestled with this notion of The Talented Tenth and how us as Black youth should embody that notion W.E.B. DuBois introduced years ago. Jonathan Sprinkles, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, Dr. Steve Perry, Dr. Myra Gordon, Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, and Kevin Powell left us all with core essentials to this lifestyle that is “The Talented Tenth”, the intellectual leaders of the Black community, the change-makers, the pioneers, the servants. I left that conference feeling like Superwoman, like I could take on the world, like I was invincible. Then on that long drive back home, somewhere in podunk Missouri, one of our vans was pulled over by a state trooper. And not just pulled over. One of our vans was cut off. The van was in the far-left lane, so it was taking a minute to merge over to the shoulder. I guess he was getting impatient because almost as soon as the van got close enough to the shoulder, he cut them off, and the right wheels ran into the grass a little bit. The van that I was in watched closely as the trooper conversed with the driver. After driving away, that police officer followed us until we stopped at a nearby gas station. It was all just idiotic to me. They were not speeding. They were not driving recklessly. They were angels. But they were also a van full of young, Black college students, and something had to be wrong, right? Wrong. “It doesn’t matter how good we are.”
In Texas, they lynch Negroes.
In Roseville, they accuse them of shoplifting.
In New York, they frisk them in delis.
In Missouri, they pull them over for no reason.
In Philly, they slam them against cars and threaten them with jail time.
So what do we do then? As a 20 year-old young woman, immersed in Black studies, I have a pretty strong understanding of this from an academic perspective. I know how its been approached using activism. I draw great pride and strength from the radical actions of my ancestors. But now it’s 2013, and sometimes I just feel stuck. I make enough noise on social media and in my classes and at discussions on campus and in this blog and on the phone with my parents to go hoarse. I infiltrate the system brick-by-brick whenever I tutor a young Black child or connect my peers with resources and thus strengthen each other. I study my ass off, now having the opportunity to graduate with Latin Honors. I do all of this, I live this, just to encounter situations like those listed above which just push me into a seat, force me to go back to Square One, and devise another master plan. I could be militant, tapping into my inner Huey New. I could work outside of the system, being forceful and upfront. I could also be more covert, working within the system by working my way up and unleashing my influence that way. I could just give up, build my fort in the wilderness and get my Thoreau on.
While I have yet to discover my path to eradicating racism, along with any other -ism that exists in our society, I do know that there is no one right path for us as a whole. We needed the Black Panthers just as much as we needed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We needed the Nation of Islam just as much as we needed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. We need the CEOs just as much as we need the grassroots organizers working in our communities. While there are Black people in this world that have proven to be more harmful than helpful for our liberation, the necessity for leaders at all levels is something I will always believe and cherish.
And even though these incidents may discourage, sadden, or downright anger me, I never lose hope. There will come a day, in this life or the next, where I will see freedom in its most precious state. And the possibility of that day is what keeps me motivated to work tirelessly to make sure others see that day as well.
To end, I leave you with the closing remarks of the Wiley-Harvard debate in The Great Debaters, delivered by James Farmer, Jr. While they were arguing for civil disobedience over violence, the message speaks to us all.
In Texas they lynch Negroes. My teammates and I saw a man strung up by his neck and set on fire. We drove through a lynch mob, pressed our faces against the floorboard. I looked at my teammates. I saw the fear in their eyes and, worse, the shame. What was this Negro’s crime that he should be hung without trial in a dark forest filled with fog? Was he a thief? Was he a killer? Or just a Negro? Was he a sharecropper? A preacher? Were his children waiting up for him? And who are we to just lie there and do nothing. No matter what he did, the mob was the criminal. But the law did nothing. Just left us wondering, “Why?” My opponent says nothing that erodes the rule of law can be moral. But there is no rule of law in the Jim Crow South. Not when Negroes are denied housing. Turned away from schools, hospitals. And not when we are lynched. St Augustine said, “An unjust law is no law at all.’ Which means I have a right, even a duty to resist. With violence or civil disobedience. You should pray I choose the latter.