Tuesday, June 23, 2015

How Did Writers, Directors, and the Media Help Create the Charleston Massacre at Mother Emanuel?

I've been trying to move past anger, thinking and thinking and trying to come at this whole situation of the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston from a place of love and understanding and a sense of optimism I've had to struggle mightily to maintain. This what I've come up with.

I’d like to focus on the nine people whose lives were cut short in Mother Emanuel AME Church on June 17th. I’ve linked to an article about them here.

I didn’t know any of these people personally. I live half a continent away from them. But I feel as if I do know them when I read about them—their hard work, their devotion to family, their community leadership, and especially their devout Christianity—because they sound just like my neighbors and friends. I’ve owned a a home and lived in a predominantly African American neighborhood in one of America’s most racially segregated cities for over 40 years (and yes, it was already almost entirely black when I moved in). These are the African American people I know, the ones I never see in books or on television or in the movies, the ones who sometimes work several jobs so they can send their kids to a good private school since our urban public schools have become a disaster, the ones who are teachers and librarians and nurses and bankers and managers and supervisors, the ones who go to work during the week and to church on Sunday (and often Wednesday night prayer group or university night classes) without fail, day after day, week after week.

I have seen the long double rows of black men standing up before a packed congregation to pledge themselves to mentor and help all the young boys of the area, not just their own. These are the men who coached my kids’ Little League teams and helped dig out our car when it slid into a snow-filled ditch. These are the men I pass mowing their lawns and trimming their bushes and, sometimes, playing their musical instruments on their lawns, always giving me a polite, friendly greeting and wave. These are the men I never see on the media with its focus on the idea of the African American man as scary, violent criminal.

These are the women I’ve had coffee with and traded recipes with and joked with about our men and worried with about our kids. These are the women who bring casseroles and pies when someone’s sick or someone’s died. These are the women who work in the church food pantry, serving white and black families alike. These are the women who are professionals out in a world that constantly disrespects them as African Americans and disrespects them as women, and these women still carry themselves with dignity and pride through all of it.

I’ve been to AME churches and other black churches quite a bit in my life, and I’ve always been made welcome in the warmest, most loving, and truly Christian way. My heart breaks every time I read that the murderer said he almost couldn’t go through with it because the people he killed were so nice to him. I know those people. I’ve lived with those people for over 40 years.

And what I want to say is not to the white supremacists and vicious racists out there—because they’re mostly not going to change—but to the news media and the writers and filmmakers and television show producers and directors. Why aren’t you showing us these people? Why can’t I ever see wonderful people like these nine beautiful human beings and my neighbors in any of your productions?  Why do you persist in showing only a negative minority of the African American population over and over, so that all the white people who live in all-white suburbs and work in all-white workplaces think your stereotypes are what African American people are and all they are?

And to my white friends I say, don’t let them do this any longer. Demand to see the reality of African American life, which is full of humor and music and parties and laughter and love, as well as all the other stuff of all lives. They do this to Natives. They do this to Latinos. They do this to everyone “different.” So that those white people (an unfortunately ever-larger number) who live carefully segregated, all-white lives only know these negative stereotypes about people from other cultures than their own. Don’t let them do this any longer. More than anything else, more even than the disgusting hate speech, this eternal lopsided presentation is what feeds the ugly racism that underlies America. Demand that it stop.

REPLIES TO COMMENTS (because Blogger won't let me comment on my own blog):

Reine, I am not surprised--that a black church accepted you or that you did so well for them. I've complained for a long time to family and friends about the representation of African American people, Native people, Latino people, etc., in books and movies and on television. So many white people now live such racially isolated lives that all they ever know about any other culture is what they read or see in the media. And they are fed a non-stop stream of racist, threatening bugaboos. They never see real people like the ones in your church or my neighborhood.

Tom, you are absolutely right. Stories matter, and they may actually be the only thing that matters. I think one of the reasons that people refuse to believe statistics and facts about things is that they've been told powerful stories that are false or misleading, and they won't believe what contradicts that. We who write or create have a choice always whether we'll be lazy and fan the hate or go for a truer picture.

Thank you for reading, Jan.

Lil, I think it's very tough for people who grew up isolated in all-white areas and who are now faced with working with/for and living near people very different from themselves. For so long, the narrative in this country--in books, magazines, film, theater, television, and the news (paper and electronic)--has been white-centered with people of different ethnicities used only as "exotic color" in bit portrayals of criminals and always-sexually-available women. The news reporting in this country goes out of its way to underline and emphasize every criminal of color while ignoring most of the white ones. In real life, whites are still the largest number of convicted criminals, but one would never know that from the news coverage. It's no wonder these people are frightened--and fear so often turns to hate, especially with the powerful voices throwing gasoline on that fire (as Tom said above).