Today during my faculty meeting I had an epiphany as I listened to colleagues talking. That epiphany is the subject of this post.
It's no secret to historians that African Americans have long used visual evidence to convey the everyday horrors they've experienced in America. From almost the time photography was invented to the present you've probably seen the pictures and videos: the back of a man known to us only as Peter with the scars of a whipping criss-crossing his flesh; the battered body of Emmet Till, 12 year old Joe Bass lying in the streets of Newark, and now George Floyd. As these images and videos circulated, white folks paid attention. Each of these, and there are others, has played a key part in bringing the reality of suffering to a white audience. Each has helped turn the tide of white public opinion.
But why were these images necessary? Black folks had been describing the horrors of slavery from Olaudah Equiano to Frederick Douglass. Black folks wrote (and spoke) about their experiences but far too few whites heard them or believed them. The conditions of Jim Crow in the 1950s were made real by Emmett Till's photograph, even though many, many Black writers from Ida B. Wells on had described the violence and terror. While African Americans complained about police violence in Northern and Western cities, they were largely blamed for the long hot summers of the 1960s. And now here we are again, the complaints and documentation were there, but white folks didn't listen. We white folks didn't listen when it was Abner Louima, and blamed his rape and beating on one bad cop. We didn't listen when it was Tamir Rice, we didn't listen when it was Eric Garner, we didn't listen when Aiyana Jones died in her Detroit home sleeping on the couch. There were always excuses, he shouldn't have been playing with the gun, he was overweight, her grandmother grabbed the gun. We never listened to the context, to the parallel stories, to the corroborating evidence. "It's not that bad," we white folks told ourselves. But then came the video evidence, and many of us changed our minds, confronted by the repeated reality of police with itchy trigger fingers and violent tendencies. We shared these images on twitter and facebook and the nightly news, each time demanding the African Americans on our friend lists and in our feeds and in our neighborhoods relive their own traumas, reignite their own fears for themselves and for their children. We mad them suffer so that we would believe.
The thing is, we didn't have to share the images. All we had to do was listen to black people. African Americans shouldn't have to be subjected to watching black bodies suffer and die just to prove their credibility to white folks.
Today, I was asked what I could do to move social justice work forward at my school. I have struggled with this for the twenty years I have worked there.
I know the answer now. I plan to listen.