Monday, November 7, 2011

The Challenges of Having Conversations About Race

Conversations about race struggle to transcend the pain of history and seek the more noble aspirations of humanity for hope and brotherhood. We, more often than not, there is this notion - bound to frustrate - that we can actually move to hope and brotherhood without revisiting the pain of history. We like to think that we are above the anger feelings, hatreds and humiliations that were a part of our yesterdays - and make no mistake about it they are OUR yesterdays. We like to try and distance ourselves from those days by saying, its 'ancient' history, or there's no need to open up old wounds. There are even some who say, we should all 'just get over it'.  Interestingly enough, we don't say that about our engagement in and emotional attachment to the World Wars, the Great Depression, space travel or the Revolutionary War. But when it comes to America's racial history, we are content to suppress and deny.

David Margolick's book 'Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock' shows takes the lives of two women forever linked by an iconic photo and tells the story of race, the Civil Rights Movement and the legacy of which must be both embraced and overcome embodied in the very lives of these two women.

I watched the review of this book and realized that this was the world into which I was born. The photo was taken September 4, 1957. For days after this picture was taken, my brother was born. It was, interestingly enough one of a myriad of events that would be the springboard to the freedoms and opportunities that he and I would experience. Yet, there was nothing in the world in which he and I was born that would have seen to harbinger the prospect that we, or even our children, would live the lives we've had the opportunity to live.

In the clip (which you can see here), we learn that Hazel Bryan, the 15 year old girl whose face is contorted with such intimidating hatred, rage and meanness, experiences a significant change in her attitude and life when she recognizes that this picture will not go away. Reprinted in school text books, in books which recounted the story of school desegregation, the struggle of the Civil Rights Movement against racial injustice and terrorism, Hazel comes to know that she was becoming the 'face' of segregation, not just in Little Rock, Arkansas, but in the United States. She calls to apologize to Elizabeth Eckford, the young black girl in the photo, stoically enduring the hatred showering down upon over her.

There is a period of reconciliation. There is the 'road show' in which they tell the story of that day, that period of time and the relationship which was trying to make peace with those days and forge a new tomorrow. And then there is the story of Elizabeth and, what some might call the post traumatic experience which brings to surface suspicion, resentment and a need to distance herself from a woman with whom she has now come to know and achieve some affinity.

It is amazing to me that there are people totally sympathetic to trauma victims of abuse, assault, wrongful imprisonment, POW's experience, yet when it comes to an entire people whose experience of state sponsored and culturally condoned terrorism there appears to be a need to cast it as a willful attempt to remain victims. It also is interesting that there is the belief that for the deeply embedded attitudes which breathed life to an atmosphere of hatred, vitriol and daily life threatening danger to become covertly institutionalized should, in some way, be less traumatic to the descendants of those who experienced more covert terror. It's as if some people believe that parents would never pass any of their fear, or resentment or humiliation on to their children. Or, in some way, passed on to their grandchildren.

Hazel's own resentments of being frozen in time, even though she is no longer who she was at 15 and to have none of the acceptance which should rightfully come from trying to make amends for that one moment of her young life. Hazel was not totally embraced by black people and was vilified by some white people for whom she was an embarrassing diacritical mark in their own histories. The sad fact that Hazel, in spite of the fact that she has tried to overcome September 4, 1957 she is apparently tethered to that awful snapshot. Interestingly, enough Hazel was never identified in the photo. She was according to one member of the press at that time, 'an anonymous white girl'.

Elizabeth and Hazel's relationship is interesting. They are both 70 now (Elizabeth can be seen in the clip). For them, reconciliation has not been a totally linear path. It apparently has had mountain peaks and valley moments, littered with the stones and deep depressions of race. Much more important have been the ways in which they have each tried to transcend that September morning more than half a century ago, when they were both victims of what adults had done to them.

Maybe they can't move on because we haven't moved on. Maybe they can't get over it, because we can't get over it. And maybe we can't move on and get over it because we haven't done what they have tried to do - they really worked at reconciliation, as difficult as it is.

I plan on reading this book. And I think this is the type of challenge we all have to accept. Whatever happens to their relationship, maybe theirs will get better as we take the risk at getting better.

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