Kasi Lemmons is the director of “Harriet,” “Talk to Me” and “Eve’s Bayou.”
Imagine them choking the life from you, checking your pulse to make sure you don’t have one, then choking you three more minutes for good measure, then waiting three more minutes before calling an ambulance.
Imagine being a 17-year-old bystander on the street, watching this unfold. Imagine you’re a witness to murder.
As a filmmaker, I help people imagine what’s it’s like to be someone else, to experience things from a character’s point of view — things they never will experience outside the theater. But when it comes to black life in America, there’s only one conclusion I can reach about some white people: You don’t care to put yourself in our shoes. The consequences of this lack of imagination for black Americans are deadly.
It’s no secret that you like our music, our style, our swagger. You admire our athleticism, our beauty. Things you can sample without diving too deep, without knowing too much. Without fear of being scarred. You would rather be a tourist; you prefer to dip your toes in our culture without really understanding it.
That, or you’re addicted to the pornography of our pain. When I made my first movie, “Eve’s Bayou,” I got questions about why I didn’t include incidents of white racism in a movie about a Creole family. The answer: The movie isn’t about white people, or racism. It’s about a black family, which could be any family. Twenty-two years later, some critics said that the racist violence in “Harriet,” my film about Harriet Tubman, wasn’t vicious enough. Apparently, they couldn’t understand that I wanted to tell a story about a black woman’s triumph, rather than make a movie that reveled in pain and degradation. I wondered why they craved seeing black bodies get beaten.
If you see us only when we’re a source of diversion, or only when we are victims who satisfy your taste for violence or death, then you don’t see us as fully human. If you don’t have much interest in how we live and love, you’ll never understand what we’re fighting to preserve. If you ignore the cost of our survival and achievements — paid in the stinking bowels of slave ships and on plantations where we were beaten, raped and separated from our children, in the prison-industrial complex and in neighborhoods abandoned by politicians and ravaged by police — you’ll never understand the true measure of what we’ve accomplished.
White people have never needed to exercise that kind of curiosity. You’ve never had to. You can live your whole lives without really considering how we live ours.
We, on the other hand, know you very well. We’ve had to. We had no choice. We worked in your houses, did your dirty laundry, nursed your children, read about you in books and watched you on TV. We had to know you to survive you. The knowledge we gleaned from this watchfulness made us stronger, made us devise ingenious ways of communicating, made us bilingual, nimble, resilient.
Can you imagine what it has taken for us to come so far? To survive a historical journey this arduous, and to not merely be standing, but to turn the pain of that voyage into a culture that defines style, music and art around the world? To have used our ingenuity to invent, or contribute to the invention of everything from the cotton gin to the cellphone?
Can you feel not just our pain but also our pride?
Now imagine that even now, after everything we’ve survived and accomplished, after we’ve built this country with our sweat and blood, our backs and brains, after we’ve sacrificed our lives in every war that has ever been fought for America, this country is still not safe for us. It’s still not safe to go jogging while black; to listen to loud music while black; to drive while black; to birdwatch while black; to shop at Barneys while black; to be a 13-year-old boy while black.
It’s not safe to lie on the ground, not resisting arrest, while black.
Maybe that explains this lack of white imagination: The price of truly understanding black life in America is just too high. That understanding demands too much. If you felt this rage yourself, you would have to acknowledge what caused it, and what it makes you want to do.
But while rage can lead to tragedy, it is also a terrible thing to waste. Rage can be useful, necessary even. It fuels our pride and lubricates our resilience. With discipline and unity, rage can change the world. So be enraged with us and for us. If you’re unwilling to do that, know this: You can look away all you want. But we see you.
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