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 actually planted in 2003 in Vermont, when my first assignment as a high school student teacher 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 high school!
Before I get to that evening, let me make my main point clear 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. Clearly 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 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 (As you may roll your eyes: “boo hoo, poor white lady”—but it’s the truth—crying is my bodily response to many forms of stimuli). I felt like an ass: Someone who was initially excited, only to be humbled. The tears were due to my confusion and self-reprimand. There is a paradox between the good feeling of “doing the right thing” for (what I hope is) human good and the humbling disappointment (or even grief) of personal disconnection, plus the ongoing grief of the reasons the anti-racist work is needed.
I never expect pats on the back or aim to be the savior, but basic human disconnection will crush me.
In short: The same kind person who encouraged me to change seats in the theater — so that Spike Lee would see my flailing hand and call on me during a 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 self-criticism.
Spike Lee was also unimpressed with my question, but my grief was regarding my connection with my neighbor in the theater.
I encourage all white folks to explore Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s now-popular and very accessible 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 to share my enthusiasm. To take this further, speaking as a white person: Comradeship, approval or acceptance by individual People of Color cannot 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, and it is one I use sparingly.
During my teaching years, I created and promoted anti-racist education in schools with the West African arts non-profit Jeh Kulu 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 several 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, to be continued.)
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 by 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 not excited (bored?) by the question and 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 explore 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 (or, white supremaceism) 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.