“I feel like I owe you an apology,” said the 70-something white woman who sat next to me in the theater for two-and-a-half hours. We'd chatted a little about the expense of metered parking in Southwest Washington. Now the show was over.
“Apologize? Why?” I asked. She hesitated.
Sensing her angst, I thought, Oh, no.
Sweetly and with visible embarrassment, she said: “I want to apologize for being white.”
It was playwright Cheryl L. West's “Pullman Porter Blues,” playing its final weekend at Arena Stage, that prompted this conversation. Through three generations of Sykes men — grandfather, father and son — audiences come to know what life might have been like for the African-American railroad stewards working on the Pullman sleeping cars in the 1930s.
The meticulously uniformed and ever-solicitous porters served first-class passengers round the clock. “While the work was grueling, the salary meager, and the hours nearly endless, most porters valued the job and many passed it down to sons and grandsons,” Seattle dramaturge Christine Sumption noted in the program book. “Pullman” premiered in Seattle, where West, an African American, launched her theater career and lives.
Washington Post critic Peter Marks called West’s script “heavy-handed” and the narrative “mean-spirited.” In his Dec. 5 review, he said the characters did not need to keep driving home the point of “how ungrateful the unseen white passengers are.”
I agree that the story could have been more nuanced. We are not surprised by the elder Sykes’ change in posture and over-the-top cheerfulness every time the white conductor approaches. Nor are we surprised when Sister Juba, the voluptuous, bluesy female lead becomes a protective mother figure for the young white female stowaway, even after the girl has hurled “Nigger wench!” at her. These depictions definitely could make you think “This again?” Yet, in a time when people have irrationally bought into the notion of a post-racial society, a nuanced depiction of America’s hard history might fly over the heads of the post-racial believers.
In a post-racial America, the murder of Trayvon Martin would not have compelled President Obama, who will soon be inaugurated for a second term, to make so sorrowful, sympathetic and personal a public statement as he did last March: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Obama could not dismiss the possibility of race as a motive in that deadly confrontation. We don’t live in that America.
If we did, there would not have been a rash of 2012 election-related posts on Facebook loaded with racist comments, including one widely publicized Obama death wish.
Perhaps a playwright’s heavy hand is necessary to bring our race history into focus with directness and clarity, lest we leap ahead recklessly, leaving the lessons behind.
Marks acknowledges that “sidestepping the clichés … is no easy task."
Neither is sitting among a racially mixed audience taking in a play such as this. We see Sylvester, a union organizer, display sheer mental fatigue when having to respond in the middle of the night to repeated pages from a neglected rich brat. We see the porters having to wipe the floor clean of tobacco spit that white passengers had not bothered directing toward a proper receptacle.
Now, with the house lights on, the seat bottoms up and the exit doors open, I am caught off guard by this woman’s guilty purging: “I want to apologize for being white.”
“Oh, stop that,” I said to her, now a little embarrassed myself.
My parents were born during the Great Depression. They had attended the show with me and were moving toward the exit. I looked at them and then directly at this woman, and said with sincerity, “That's sensitive of you.”
She seemed grateful for my having said so but still kind of sad and bothered. Of course, she was no more sorry to be white than I am to be black. What was really bothering her, agitating her sense of humanity, were the inhumanity and injustices she had seen dramatized. It was all the race stuff.
Just when America thinks it has miraculously passed through some post-racial portal, here comes the often-told and never-before-told stories being acted out for audiences with possible denial tendencies. Last February, the Pew Research Center released a study that showed 83 percent of Americans now say it’s “all right for blacks and whites to date each other,” a kind of social progress. My sister recalls a white co-worker expressing exasperated relief that Obama’s 2008 election would let us “finally stop talking about all this race stuff.” In some way, though, she did not know it, this woman was apologizing for the graduate school classmate who told me that emotion was out of place in an academic discourse on U.S. slavery and its grimy residue. Social progress and race fatigue feed denial and revisionism.
Legislation will address discrimination, but only humanity will enable people to face themselves and the past honestly, even those histories that are far removed from them but at the same time directly linked to them. This woman had already shown she was pleasant and easy to talk with, and now it was clear that she had been affected. An uncomfortable “I'm sorry” seemed a decent and humane thing to say.
Avis Matthews Davis is a writer, teacher, and student of history in Prince George’s County. She was special projects editor at the former Journal Newspapers.
More from The Root DC