There's a very interesting play premiering October 15-November 9 at the Dallas Theater Center, entitled, 'The Good Negro'. It is a dramatized account of the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama Civil Rights demonstration, which ultimately served as a catalyst for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Acts.
Don't be turned off by the play's title. 'The Good Negro' reveals in a very compelling manner the complex interpersonal dynamics of civil rights leaders, ordinary black citizens suddenly thrust into the limelight by their experiences with segregation and the movement's attempt to walk the tightrope between using those experiences to dramatize the evils of segregation without exploiting those same citizens.
The play is not a documentary. Written by Tracy Scott Williams and based on the book 'Carry Me Home', by Pulitzer Prize winner Diane McWhorter, the play uses composite characters and dramatizes the personality conflicts and internal struggles of well known civil rights heroes. It is a reminder that the Civil Rights Movement was not a linear effort to remove "white only" and "colored only" signs. It was a transformative moment in our nation's history that provoked all Americans with the challenge of what it meant for our Constitution's promise to become a living reality for all of us.
There are aspects of the play that were somewhat uncomfortable. But they are aspects that reveal human frailty and flaws. There's the portrayal of the F.B.I. agents, wire tapping the phones of civil rights leaders, knowing that they were wrong, but forced to follow the orders of J.Edgar Hoover (or 'the old man' as he was called), and in the process violating something of their own conscious in the process. There is Pelzie, whose courage is muted by the horrors of injustice to which he was exposed as a child. There is the painful realization that he must tell his little girl about the realities of race. A talk that black people had to have with their children the way nearly all parents talk with their children about the 'birds and the bees'. He doesn't like preachers, yet at a critical moment when the so much of the literal meaning of the life of his family and their sacrifice hangs in the balance, demands that the preachers 'gots ta stay'.
The issue of race is America's original inconvenient truth, for black and white people. We would love to water down our progress to a nice procession of headlines and timelines that are accessible and contribute to a palatable myth that doesn't interfere with what we have each told ourselves about our lives. So we engage in a historical reductionism:
"At one time, blacks had to sit at the back of the bus; they had to use separate restrooms, and eat in different restaurants. They couldn't go to school with whites and they couldn't drink from the same water fountains. And then one day, the Civil Rights Movement came and changed those nasty laws and now none of that is true anymore. It was a great period in our nation's history. Hooray!"
But the truth is far more inconvenient than that. Lives were lost. The people were humiliated. The hopes and dreams of many, young and old, black and white, were buried in their souls and in the earth because of bigotry and fear. There are undiscovered remains of broken bodies in muddy rivers and along desolate highways that are all a part of that horror of our history. And there are those who are still alive and remember it - not as grainy newsreel footage, but as a part of their very existence. They remember the terrorists who road past their homes in hoods and sheets, and the black bodies that hung from trees like 'strange fruit'. And there are whites who remember what it cost them to stand in solidarity with African-Americans in search of the recognition and respect of their personhood and citizenship.
It is only as we remember it in that way, that we can, as those for whom this truth is so inconvenient say, 'get over it'.
'The Good Negro' reminds us, that we need to acknowledge how raw this period of our history is and how right it is to remember that we are all beneficiaries of some very brave people who have made our comfort possible.