So earlier this week one Supreme Court justice slammed a prosecutor for using racial slurs, another called the right vote a “racial entitlement” and it is extremely likely that one of the most important attempts to right racial wrongs, the Voting Rights Act, will probably be repealed. The week started with an awful slur about a 9-year-old African-American girl—Quvenzhane Wallis of the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild—that was supposed to be a “joke”. I don’t do a lot with Facebook but this is what I wrote on my wall after I saw the movie last summer:
Saw Beasts of the Southern Wild last night and it is still rattling through my brain . . . I wanted to see it because it sounded different, and it starred an African-American Girl. About half-way through the movie I started to cry and never really stopped, which was a little irritating because I had NO paper products with me, so I was constantly wiping my nose with my hands and then rubbing my hands over parts of my body—I didn’t want to stain the dress I was wearing. Plus the movie has a lot of just silence in it, and so I couldn’t just out bawl—I was very self-aware of my sniffles. It’s odd, because the movie is not really sad, the people in the movie are so proud and strong and the movie ends on a real note of defiance and hope—but it is the sense that nobody should have to go through what they do, and yet so many do. And it is a cruel irony that it is (in the conventional sense) the lowest of society that intimately understand the environmental crisis we are in and are most punished, but the people at the highest level of society—with all their privileges—cannot, will not, and will not have to suffer for it. Anyway people should see it.
BSW is not specifically about race—I saw it as more about class and the people both black and white that we choose to leave behind—but it seems more about race to me now as I have just finished reading “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson. It is honestly not a book I would have picked up on my own but the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates went on a twitter rant about it and I felt morally obligated to get it. So now I have finished it and I feel just like I did after BSW, I am crying and feeling so much has been sucked out of me that cannot be returned. “Warmth” is about the great migration of southern blacks to the north, and focuses on three particular people and their families, one whom came to Chicago. It was suggested as something uplifting, and of course it can certainly be seen that way. Millions of people with little but hope left everything they knew for parts unknown, most did ok if not they did not exactly prosper. Many important African-American personalities would be probably be unknown to us in the absence of the migration, and the people Wilkerson profiles had no regrets about leaving. But the sacrifices they made, the suffering they endured just to survive, is hard to comprehend and to digest. It is a harsh reminder of why there is a Voting Rights Act. Justice Roberts states that the Voting Act can go the way of the Marshall plan—it’s not needed any more. Because you can’t see any systemic racism out there, I guess higher arrest rates and incarcerations for African-American males, voter ID laws and Florida voter lines are something else
“Warmth” brings to the forefront the issue of family wealth, how historically African-Americans could never accumulate it, as sharecroppers who always “owed” the owner, as laborers who always got paid the lowest when they got to work at all, and as renters who paid at time double—compared to whites—for the barest of space in a very circumscribed area. Unlike the other migrants, the Europeans, African-Americans could never escape their blackness, it would affect everything they do and what they could get. The book brings us up to almost the present, although Wilkerson doesn’t make any comments on the current state of city. But the violence in ‘Chicago and the school closings are pretty closely confined to the south and west sides of the city, where the southern black migrants were forced, forced to settle and learn to live and make do with the least of what the city would offer them. The current conditions of the south and west side did not just happen, and just as in BSW we ignore these neighborhoods and their struggles at our own peril. This city cannot function indefinitely siphoning what it can from the poor and middle class to give to the rich. The city as a whole is not going to work with such large areas neglected and abused. If really want them to change it’s going to take more then words and “family values” but a concerted effort to invest in these areas and give the residents what they have always deserved but never gotten.