So, presha an’ all dese tings tun WAY up over here since last fall. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, take a quick crash course by reading this, this, and this for information about the student protest movements that successfully forced the resignation of the University of Missouri’s system president. See this for how Mizzou’s football team got involved as protest closers. And finally this for an idea of how the powers that be have responded to a member of The Establishment getting the heave ho because of black students and their campus-wide allies, who clearly don’t know their place in this world. Are you caught up? Good. Welcome back. Now that you have a bit of context, and for those who may have missed the event, I wrote and read the following for a teach-in this past week that attempted to counter the negative and racist narrative of the events at the University of Missouri’s Columbia campus since last semester.
As an English professor I study how events or phenomena in the real world are translated into representations, and what these representations and our reactions to them reveal or conceal about the lived realities of our past, present, and future. Since moving to Missouri in 2008 I’ve had lots of opportunities to apply this habit of mind to things other than novels, and to consider how we process and represent events involving race and community in our everyday lives.
Let’s start with the mundane. A couple of years ago, I accompanied a friend to Freeburg, a little town about an hour and a half south of here. We went to a talk at the Holy Family Catholic church, given by a visiting priest who also happens to be black. That priest and I were the only two people of color in attendance. After the talk an elderly member of the church approached my friend and I and began, without invitation, as if compelled by the presence of two black bodies, to tell my friend (who is white) about the first black couple who moved to Freeburg, back in the 1960s. According to his story, they moved there from Chicago, but soon afterwards were forced to leave. He told my friend how the community encouraged the priest at the time to tell the couple they weren’t welcome, either in Freeburg as residents, or at Holy Family as parishioners, because of their race. The priest told them their unwanted presence might stir up racial unrest and even potential violence against them and their property. He concluded that in the community’s collective mind, it was better for them to leave. Thus, the community’s refusal to accommodate the couple’s diversity became the couple’s problem, and not the community’s problem. Rather than relinquish the segregated comforts of its own racism, Freeburg preferred to hold on to segregation for a little bit longer, ultimately laying the responsibility for their communal discrimination at the feet of the black couple.
I don’t know if the story he told is true; for my proposes here that doesn’t really matter. What I want to focus on instead is the fact that this elderly man decided to tell this particular story, on this occasion, and how he went about telling it. You see, as he spontaneously relayed this story to my friend, he neither looked at nor addressed me. I noticed this as he spoke to her and even tested to make sure I wasn’t imagining it by dropping a “really” or “is that so” and even “where’d they move to?” into the conversation. Though his eyes registered that he heard me, they did not move in my direction to register my presence, nor did he answer my questions. I didn’t protest this by confronting him; I didn’t see the point. He looked to be almost a hundred years old; I figured he wasn’t just set in his ways, he was pretty much calcified in them, like a fossil. Moreover, being from Jamaica, I had never had my presence erased in quite that way before and I was mildly fascinated by what was happening.
You might be surprised to learn that the man’s refusal to see me wasn’t the most discomfiting thing about this experience. It was, rather, that the person I was with did not notice I was being ignored. Or, to put it another way, she did not notice that the person she was talking to was refusing to see me. It only occurred to her when I explained it afterwards, and to her credit, once I asked what she noticed about his interaction with me, she began to register the exclusion. The thing is, while I expect racist discrimination and even erasure in some places, at the time, I was only just beginning to understand how this discrimination is simply invisible to some of us – even when it is happening in our presence.
From that mundane personal example of the failure or refusal to see, we can move to a more spectacular opportunity to think about how what we see and don’t see about race can tell us about ourselves and our community. Let’s talk about Beyoncé at the Super Bowl. When Beyoncé performed “Formation” in the Bay Area last month, flanked by dancers with afro-adorned heads bedecked with black berets, there was a collective clutching of pearls at what some saw as the outrageous and divisive audacity of this Black Panther imagery. How dare Beyoncé bring race onto the most hallowed of football extravaganzas? How dare she use that significant time and place – the fiftieth Super Bowl – to pay tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of establishment of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, in a city not that far away from the one where the game was being played. Never mind that Beyoncé and many of the football players inhabit raced bodies and as such, race is always already present. Never mind either that in order to make things hospitable for the big game and its fans, undesirable elements, like a large predominantly minority homeless population, needed to be removed from sight. By evoking the Black Panthers, Beyoncé also evoked, among other things, the absent presence of the city’s destitute displaced by game day gentrification. The backlash came primarily from those who did not want to be forced to see racial and class politics at the Super Bowl. One Fox News anchor said the overtly black performance alienated “little white girls” who are Beyoncé fans. A police union in Miami urged other police unions to boycott her concerts for what it perceived to be anti-police sentiment in the video for “Formation” and the game day performance.
Whatever your opinion is of the song or the performance, like a present day Trojan horse, in the age of the Black Lives Matter movement, Beyoncé smuggled into one of America’s most unequivocally nationalist and always already racially loaded spectacles, the iconic, resistant, and subversive visuals of the Black Panther Party. As fashion magazines from the 1960s and 70s attest, the Black Panthers’ afros, black berets, leather jackets, and even
guns were as much about self defense and communal preservation as they were about a militant coolness, the celebratory, unapologetic, and now iconic racial pride of a violently oppressed and marginalized portion of American society. This is a portion of society that some of us continue to resist seeing or hearing, when we find ourselves in its presence. These days, that ignored and/or excluded presence is in no way as silent or polite as I was that night in Freeburg. Indeed, Beyoncé’s performance forced us to think about the relationship between sports, racial politics, and capital together, at the same time – much as our own football team did last November.
I can’t say Beyoncé’s display of blackness at the Super Bowl, a display that I see as related to our own student demonstrations, should not evoke emotions of anger or alienation or both. I think that is part of the point of the demonstrations.
What I would like us to do is to pause to consider why particular visual spectacles of blackness – a black couple moving into an all white community, Black Panther-like dancers at the Super Bowl, or black students marching through a student union loudly demanding full equity on campus – are each represented through the lens of outrage that demands censorship, silencing, expulsion, and erasure, rather than an honest confrontation of what it is about us and our community that resists seeing, seeking instead to dismiss the fullness of what is being represented. What is it about how we perceive blackness that simultaneously registers as invisible and hyper-visible when it moves outside its quote-unquote proper place?