Our Work Is Everywhere We Look

I have extended family who engage in rich conversations about a variety of social and political topics per e-mail. I feel so grateful for these exchanges even if I may not add my voice to the mix very often. I love the fact that at least 3 generations are involved in these dialogues in the most loving and generous atmosphere. Recently, one family member offered the video commissioned by Starbucks on the history of African-Americans in public spaces as a point of discussion.

The written conversation that followed was insightful, nuanced and wide-ranging. While watching the video, all kinds of emotions came up for me. I identified with a number of statements, particularly those of black women. But one impression that has stuck with me since viewing the video almost 2 weeks ago: It’s the white male talking about how he leaves his house, without a care, without a worry about how he will be seen or judged. As he says: “I can just do my thing.” It stuck because that sounds like my life in progress. That’s mostly what I feel like when I leave my apartment in the leafy green neighborhood of this Central European capital which claims to be the city with the highest quality of life in the world.

I have lived here for almost 30 years. Vienna is home. I speak German, my 2 sons have dual citizenship, I work in an international environment that is both financially secure and socially elevated. I have more layers of privilege and comfort than can be named in a single blog post. I am healthy, able-bodied, straight, and married. My immigration status is secure. So the white guy in the video talking about being able to do his thing  most clearly mirrors my own experience far away from the country I grew up in.

And it feels daring to write that. Like I’m not supposed to say that I’m doing alright. I am a Black woman, after all. But that’s just how internalized stereotyping works. Even if I am living the dream in many ways, a second hidden script in my head, reinforced by plenty of mainstream media, suggests that I’ve been falsely cast, I don’t deserve to be here, this scenario is not replicable. The existence of this second script should not surprise anyone. While I can usually usher these idea right back out of my head once they arrive, their steady recurrence indicates a connection to the much greater influence of anti-black and sexist bias in North American society at large. The phenomenon of internalized inferiority extends far beyond my individual experience and I need to understand that.

Meanwhile, on another front, my friend Valeria Brown raised a question on Twitter to White people that stopped many in their tracks.

My first response to the questions was “Uh oh, I wonder how this is gonna go…”  It was the kind of question that made me instinctively hold my breath. Maybe because I know that there is no good answer. One respondent called it “jarring mental exercise.” When pressed for a number, responses ranged from $0 (assumption of futility of being heard in demanding compensation) to tens of millions of dollars. Go through and read the various responses which trickled in over time. It is a sobering experience to say the least.  And Val reposted the question a few times.

I’m sure for many giving an answer felt like stepping into a trap. It could not end well. One respondent commented: “This question. It’s gonna break people.” And Val talks about that when she listed her take-aways a day later. Among them she noted:

and

The whole of this experiment is still working in me so I can hardly imagine the impact it had and must be having on Val. One more observation she makes is that based on several responses, one would have the impression that to be Black must necessarily entail poverty, poor health and education outcomes, extreme violence and so on. It was hard to hear and take in and process and I say that as someone speaking from a remarkable distance in a number of ways.

So on the one hand, I get to be here in Europe living my best life (Hallelujah!) and still be deeply enmeshed in the effects of US specific anti-black racism coupled with rampant sexism. I work in a very White and international environment, where awareness of racism among students can vary greatly. As a topic of formal adult discussion, racism hardly surfaces and if so, mainly in response to a specific incident.  At graduation last night where no less than 5 black or black-presenting students in a class of about 70 received their diplomas, 4 of them mentioned their involvement in the Diversity Club (launched this year to address some racist incidents) as points of pride. (While gathering their diploma, a brief descriptive statement was read about each graduate.) Hearing that was such a necessary reminder that my work, our work, is everywhere we look.

Graduation Day 1983 with Mom

When I graduated high school, I knew all about how to conduct myself in ways that would make White people feel comfortable around me. As one young woman in the documentary video described:

“It’s not like I can mute my actual physical blackness, right? So I just assume that people can see a particular thing when they see the color of my skin, so everything else has to be, like, perfect and clean and as blended-in as possible. It’s really just an arsenal of different masks, you know?”

I know that issue of presentation as a young Black person in a predominantly White setting. Back in the early 80’s, I don’t remember putting much thought into it. I simply followed the necessary rules and codes to stay socially afloat, to be able to run with the friends I valued and it worked. My understanding of those codes and rules have afforded me all kinds of conveniences which stretch into the present. I fit in because I choose to. At every turn I display (and have displayed) those behaviors which indicate to my conspicuously White environment, “hey, I get you and it is highly unlikely that I will put your comfort on the line by talking about race and confronting you with your deeply held biases of which you may or may not be aware.” That’s a rule.

Val’s question fundamentally challenges that rule. Folks are immediately uncomfortable because the truth is so much harsher than tossing around the phrases about ‘doing the work’ on social media. Val put a big stone in our path and our job is to do more than admire it for its magnitude and rough surface. We have to move the stone. Upend it. Or chip away at it, feverishly.  But none of us will move ahead if we can’t answer Val’s question AND bring more folks in to the drive to move this stone out of our path. One way or another.

The layers of privilege which I enjoy right now are not guaranteed for generations, although I will do my best to insure that my children and grandchildren benefit from these as much as possible. Yet the more significant legacy would be for me, my children and grandchildren to go through life recognizing our own privilege and using it to deliberately open doors for others to move up, ahead and forward in their lives.

I’ve reached a stage in my life where I think about the future in terms of what I will leave behind besides environmental destruction, political instability, social unrest and mounting inequality. Realistically, words and ideas will be most of what is left. Words that nudge the stone, ideas that call people to join the struggle. That’s a legacy I dream of.

Me and #BlackPanther

Some topics feel too big, too complex, too unwieldy, just too dang difficult to write about. You may laugh but that’s how I feel when it comes to taking on Black Panther – not even as a movie or particular narrative but as a social phenomenon. More than ‘a thing‘,  Black Panther currently informs my jokes, several social interactions both online and off, my wild imagination and continues to impact my spending choices. (Yes, Disney, take my money!)

The evidence: Here’s what comes up on Twitter in a search for “@edifiedlistener + #BlackPanther”:

https://twitter.com/search?q=%40edifiedlistener%20%2B%20%23BlackPanther&src=typd

I’m writing this based on the assumption that you already know what I’m talking about when I say Black Panther. If that assumption is false, feel free to fix that.

 

I have seen the movie three times so far and I’m ready for the 4th, 5th and 6th times. I am smitten, charmed, enchanted, and awash in this peculiar pop cultural wave. I feel celebratory and buoyed, animated and emotional. Here’s some of what I think is going on:

The whole production is a giant shout-out to Black folks all over the world.

I not only feel addressed, I feel welcomed and embraced to claim that shared identity in a way I have never experienced previously. Before the film I don’t think this was on my radar as a distinct need or desire. My emotional involvement since tells me a different story.

The women in the film are phenomenal and I’m thinking maybe I could be that, too.

Identifying with characters is one of the reasons we can enjoy and participate in fiction at all. The women of Black Panther are exceptional because as one fan so aptly put it:

“I want to take a second to thank the Black women, too, because they were so strong on their own terms and answered to no one but themselves. They weren’t strong because they were angry, they weren’t strong because they were hurt, they were strong because they were strong. And that meant the world to me. Thank you.” (at 4:50 in video)

I could not describe it any better. I have watched this video a couple of times and hearing Black folks like me talk about what the movie has meant for them, I feel both understanding and also understood.

The other piece of relating to these strong women characters is seeing myself as also strong on my own terms. After opening night I was on my way home and had to stop for a moment and shed a few tears. I was shook. I had so much going on inside. It was heavy. We say, “representation matters,” but when it is still so rare and rarely so nuanced and complex, we just don’t realize what a difference it can and does make to individuals, to groups.

Watch this. It may help you see what I’m talking about:

For once, I am part of the in-group.

I’m not much of a movie goer so my range of popular character references tends to be limited. I am also celebrity-recognition challenged. I don’t retain the names of recent or past stars very well either. I did however follow the pre-release hype on Twitter and once I saw the movie I joined the club. I understood the jokes, I could echo the praise, gobble up all the extras.

Black Twitter has always been central to my social media involvement and diving into the #BlackPanther #WakandaForever stream, feels like a new rite of passage. I’m swimming in the stream and the water is just fine. I’m living my blackness a little differently and relating to blackness wherever I find it a little differently. Fiction can grow us if we let it.

I typically hate fight scenes. Seeing powerful women warriors in this movie changed my tune.

It’s not that I’ve become a new fan of cinematic violence. But after over 40 years of watching men fist fight, hold shootouts and the like, I understand why suddenly I could watch some of the battle scenes in Black Panther with protracted interest. It was those women warriors entering the fray with incredible finesse and savvy that caught my interest and held it. That and recognizing how this in no way diminished their femininity. And my favorite character has turned out to be Okoye, T’Challa’s general (it took me 3 viewings to decide). She is fierce, principled and of a distinct physical grace to which I can only aspire.

My 10 y-o and I have a whole new source of shared jokes, plus a wealth of conversation topics to explore.

I was not entirely prepared for the host of thoughts and questions seeing Black Panther with my 10 year old son would spark. But wow! it has been a revelation. We’ve been twice so far and his take-aways are so interesting. On our way home we debated the merits of identifying with Killmonger (his favorite character “Hey, Auntie”). He has also stepped up his humor game:

OK, there I’ve said it. I loved Black Panther and I’m excited to be living in this moment. Many thanks to so many friends and family members I’ve been able to share this ride with. Who knew?

I’m so glad I joined when I did.

#WakandaForever