The Terror of “The Past.”
In the aftermath of Michael Richards’ racist tirade, I’m thinking about the things he said and the reactions I’ve been reading in blogs. It has me wondering about people who do not hold claim to African American identity and history: how many of them have any idea of the effect these kinds of things have on us?
I wonder how many people consider the epoch of slavery, and the following years of socially sanctioned hatred and abuse against free blacks as a healed wound? For many, the very idea of slavery is hidden behind layers of ignorance. A short section in a few history classes, that no one was really asked to think about. Portrayals in movies, usually Alex Haley’s Roots, with little opportunity for engaging conversation on what such a history might mean to people today. Whatever exposure people have to this history, it is certainly not ongoing. It is compartmentalized, usually into Black History Month (I saw bell hooks give a lecture at Northwestern University and she called it ‘Negro Employment Month’ – I laughed so hard!).
So people are able to think about “The Past” (including, but not limited to slavery, lynchings, segregation, and the general systematic denial and/or obstruction of rights) as being over and done with. No longer an issue. I get the feeling that some people are thinking about these things as a single issue, and that the issue has been resolved. I’m wondering how many people are thinking along these lines. How many people do I walk by every day, how many people do I talk to, smile at, hold the elevator for – that really believe that lynching is something that happened in the past, and that there’s no connection to it now?
Some things will always be painful. What has happened in the history of this country that these wounds should be healed? The Emancipation Proclamation? No. Desegregation? Also no. Civil rights? Hardly. Every advance made by people of color in America has been through a hailstorm of hatred and contempt. Contempt is poisonous, and in this country, we get dosed with it every day. Like mercury in the water supply – we don’t even know that we’re drinking it, and that it’s making everybody crazy.
This is the metaphor I’ve come up with: Slavery was us being put in a meat grinder. That’s not happening anymore. But when we weren’t being put through the meat grinder anymore, we were still being shot at, trapped, vivisected and occasionally still “accidentally” getting knocked into the meat grinder. This went on for generations, then when the “Civil Rights Era” happened, it was clear that the meat grinder was no longer publicly sanctioned, and all other forms of hunting and trapping were strongly discouraged. But so many traps were set, that we still get caught in them. And the weapons have evolved, so a lot of people either don’t know they’re using them, or know full well that they’re using them, and that they won’t be held accountable.
In the meantime, we haven’t forgotten the meat grinder. Or any other stabbings, bludgeonings, shootings, etc. And we’re still bleeding and scared.
When people are cavalier about other people’s post-traumatic stress, they undo some of whatever healing may have happened. Then our minds and souls have to revisit our trauma and put energy into healing ourselves again, and this process is painful (this is why people should not make jokes about being raped, or use the word ‘rape’ lightly. You could really fuck up somebody’s day by ripping open the scars of their trauma).
So, when Michael Richards says (on stage, with a microphone) “Fifty years ago, you’d have been hanging from a tree with a fork up your ass!” He’s not just making a horrible, horrible, horrible faux pas. He is invoking something much bigger than he – a painful history of power, hatred, fear and terror. Yes, American terrorism. He’s unleashing that torrent on everyone who hears his words, and I believe that for the reasons that I’ve just explained, it will be particularly disturbing for any black Americans who experience it.
All this to say history is not just in the past. It is all around us, we experience it everyday because we carry it with us with every step, every action, every word. Take care with what you say and do, and don’t take “The Past” for granted. It can still hurt.