(Note: This was mostly written in early November 2018, after the White Privilege Symposium that took place in Denver November 2-3.)
“Words make worlds.” This from poet Dominique Christina, in a YouTube video that I’m watching because I’m hoping to find a piece she performed this weekend, one about the social coercion that the mere threat of violence has on a community. Her talk on Friday was not about words at all, but about the mute spectacle that is Emmett Till in an open coffin, Michael Brown uncovered on a Ferguson street, David Jones hung from a lamp post in a town square in 1872. Darren Wilson didn’t plan to kill Mike Brown that day, but leaving his body out on the street for his neighbors to see? What message was that? What do we hear from Emmett Till, who lives still, a ghostly reminder of What Could Happen To You? Broken black bodies follow Dominique and her son through the world. Another speaker this weekend, Theo Wilson, spoke of the anger and powerlessness that threatens to eat you when you realize how quickly a police officer having a bad day (or, let’s face it, having any kind of day) can ruin your life. He spoke of how many friends he’s had to bury.
If you’re a white person learning to talk about race, maybe you’ve noticed that it’s really hard to get white people to talk about race? But you can play Telephone. When black people talk to me about what it’s like to be black, in the background–especially if you’re listening to a black person talk about racism–there is a white person, talking about race to a black person. Those are the messages I listen for, because that is the behavior I’m trying to undo in myself. It’s easy to have compassion for Emmett Till’s mom. She’s central in the story that’s told about him. But I’m a white woman. I will always be on the other side of this interaction. Emmett Till was not my son. Emmett Till is not my phantom.
My phantom is Carolyn Bryant Donham, who looked at Emmett Till and said, “That boy put his hands on me.” Who shaped whole worlds with those words. She said those words (or something like them) in August 1955, said them again at a murder trial to get two white murderers acquitted, and then said nothing more for sixty years, when she admitted that it wasn’t true, that the boy hadn’t done what she said. In the meantime, Emmett’s mother had died. She never had another son.
My phantom is white women who call the police on black children for doing things like selling bottled water or mowing lawns or playing with a pellet gun in a park. On black adults for doing things like using a barbecue pit, or shopping in Target, or sitting in Starbucks.
A tweet went viral awhile back that goes something like, “I have a new game, especially for other white people. It’s the ‘don’t call the cops’ challenge, and basically you start by not calling the cops, and then continue to not call the cops for the rest of your life.” These days we don’t call up a lynch mob. The police have taken the place of the lynch mob. They pass immediate, deadly judgment every time they roll up on a call. We don’t have to call the local Citizens Council; we call the local police non-emergency number. Who called the police on Tamir Rice? Was he white or black? I have a guess.
It’s not that simple, but also it is. As a woman I have to be able to name threats to my safety. Carolyn Bryant Donham, who named Emmett Till a threat, was physically abused by her husband, who killed Emmett. But it was Emmett, not her husband, who she targeted with her words. It was Emmett, not her husband, who she had power over. It was Emmett, not her husband, that she could name as a threat, and have that statement be believed, and acted upon.
One of the oft-stated reasons for lynching was to protect white women from black men, but it generally wasn’t black men that we needed protecting from. And yet, the power of a white woman to call a white man (whether her local police officer or her local Citizens Council) and say, “This black person is bothering me,” and bring the oppressive machinations of society crashing down on that person’s head, has remained unchanged for the last hundred years.
Words can make worlds. Silence can send messages. But I want to, hope to, need to skip the 1955 words. Skip the sixty silent years. Start, in 2018, with truth that is not imbrued with fear, with words that will not destroy anyone else’s world.