Photo credit: James Eades
In September 2012 I had the opportunity to see Spike Lee speak in the historic Paramount Theater in downtown Austin. At the time, I was living in Texas and working for the internet industry. During the question and answer session, I got to ask the last question of the evening to this living legend.
The seed for my question was planted in 2003 in Vermont, when my first assignment as a high school teacher-in-training was to teach the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I took great responsibility in teaching what felt like a racist book. …A book I hated in my own high school years!
Before I get to that evening, let me make my main point now: If you identify as white and consciously do anti-racist work and consciously be (live as) an anti-racist person, please know the practical roadmap is at times flimsy. There is no guidebook that will fall out of the sky. I recommend being diligent about respect and awareness, both inner and outer, and having a willingness to listen and reflect. We should aim to avoid “mistakes” – but they will occur or feel that way. If you are a self-admonishing person, you must be okay with the mistakes and the learning curve.
I hope you still do the work and be that person.
The system(s) of racism built and passed along by white people must be deconstructed by white people as the dominant group, the one with power. Those of us doing the work are going to fumble. The point is to self-reflect, self-correct, make amends, make repairs, and keep going.
I’m sharing this small story for what it’s worth. I was in tears on the bus ride home from the theater . (And you may roll your eyes: “boo hoo, poor white lady”—but it’s the truth—crying is my bodily response to many things).
I felt like an ass: Someone who was initially excited, only to feel humbled, and not necessarily in relation to Spike Lee. The tears were due to my confusion and self-reprimand. There is a paradox between the moral feeling of “doing the right thing” and the disappointment (or even grief) of personal disconnection, plus the grief of the reasons the anti-racist work is needed in the first place.
I never expect pats on the back or aim to be a savior, but basic human disconnection will crush me every time.
In short: The same kind person in the theater who encouraged me to change seats — so that Spike Lee would see my flailing hand and call on me during the question session –was the same person who looked disappointingly at me and cast her eyes down after I asked my question. That’s it. Something that seemingly small is enough to spiral me into answer-seeking introspection and self-criticism.
Spike Lee was not impressed with my question, but my grief was regarding my neighbor in the theater.
I encourage all white folks to explore Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s work on white fragility. I’m still exploring it, and I think her use of the word “fragility” refers to a white person’s capacity or inability to hold conversation about race—particularly the white race—and the capacity or refusal to listen. I sincerely don’t know if she is referring to something private and emotional like my tears—but for argument’s sake— let’s say for now I was being white and fragile. (I was not projecting my tears at anyone to absolve or comfort.)
I learned that the pain of disconnection is part of the paradoxical territory of anti-racist work. I learned I can’t expect People of Color (POC) to share my enthusiasm. To take this further, speaking as a white person: Comradeship, approval or acceptance by individual people can’t be assumed by me as a white person. How someone aligns with me is the choice of each individual. Hence, the term “white ally” is well-intended, yet makes assumptions in my view, and it is one I don’t use any longer.
During my teaching years, I created and promoted anti-racist education in schools both as a teacher and with the West African arts non-profit Jeh Kulu. I did this because 1. It’s simply necessary work if I’m conscious and schooled about it and 2. I care about people—hence a desire to connect. I’m now better prepared though to expect that grief of disconnect. *AND* process it and move on—so that I can keep doing the work. (Big shout out to my colleague and friend Jamilah.)
Back to seeing Spike Lee in 2012: After much research in 2003, I came to my own conclusion that Twain was decidedly, actively anti-racist. This conclusion was based on many directions of research, but a game-changer was a film of Huck Finn thatSpike Lee began working on. (The more comprehensive conversation about Twain and the Huck Finn research is outside of the scope of this blog post, and I will write more on the topic.)
Spike Lee adapted a manuscript written by Ralph Wiley– it provides the visuals of the story that are outside Huck’ awareness and therefore undescribed. The novel is narrated in the first-person perspective of 12-year-old (white) Huck. Spike Lee’s and Ralph Wiley’s version carefully shares the perspective of the other main character Jim, who is an adult Black man—it shows a movie viewer what can be missed a book reader.
Although there are many film versions of the novel, this new version accomplishes something crucial: Jim’s perspective. My burning question in 2012 simply was: Are you going to complete the film version of Huck Finn? (.. with high compliments..)
Mr. Lee appeared bored by the question or my brief commentary.
But the answer was *yes*. Huck Finn is on his list of projects to complete.
Possibly, in the minds of some, this is merely another white book by a white author, another stereotypical question asked by another white fan of Spike Lee.
Does a Black community really care about Spike Lee’s version of a dead white author’s (seemingly racist) book? Probably not so much, with few exceptions.
It is a long, overly-descriptive, tangential, fragmented, book, yet hailed as the first great American novel.
I also felt short-sighted for taking up public time during what may have been better used by a Person of Color to ask a question more meaningful to the Black community and all POC.
If you are white, I encourage you to go swimming in your white identity, and hopefully come out a wiser person. You can begin with Dr. DiAngelo’s book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race.
In 2012 I was following my passion and my truth. I finally don’t regret asking Mr. Lee the question. I learned, and hopefully became a more conscious dismantler of racism. I later worked with teachers on dismantling racism in their curricula and classrooms, and I have a strong example to draw from, including the white fragile part.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please email or comment.