Yesterday, as part of MLK Day events at Yale, there was a free Sweet Honey in the Rock concert. It was amazing. Everything about it was fantastic. I just finished reading a biography of Afeni Shakur (a really rad Black Panther, b/k/a Tupac’s mom) by Jasmine Guy, and the end of the book is the two of them at a Sweet Honey concert together and how magical it was.
One thing that was really great was that in between songs, the women would talk about how each song was developed, its history, what it was a response to, etc. Mini history lessons. Before one of the songs, the woman speaking said something referencing “those four little girls.” Then she choked up and paused for a long time, and there was this blunt, powerful silence for a long time in this fancy old concert hall with at least 1,000 people in it—everyone was silent and I felt really present and really distant at the same time. Then she went on when she was ready to go on, and didn’t say anything more specific about the girls.
Ten or so minutes later, an older white woman sitting near me asked (presumably) her partner, “What four little girls?” He said he didn’t know, and they both shrugged and that was that. I was really distracted for a good chunk of the concert after that.
I don’t want to condemn anyone’s ignorance (and people use the word “ignorance” out of its definition but I mean very purely just not knowing something), because that really doesn’t interest me. Instead, what I was distracted by was imagining living a life in which that had never been a threat. The people next to me were old enough that they were alive when the Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed; I wasn’t. And yet, I always knew it as a threat, even though I wasn’t born for another two decades and didn’t live in the South.
Before I go on, some background:
On a quiet Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, four little black girls prepared their Sunday School lessons in the basement of the church. In the same basement sat a bomb placed by segregationists, designed to kill and maim in protest of the forced integration of Birmingham’s public schools. Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins were killed in the explosion. Angry blacks rioted and the civil authorities responded with great violence. During the rest of the day, other black youths were murdered by police and civilians alike, compounding the desperation.
Moderate whites condemned the bombing and the FBI took over the investigation from local authorities that had shown no real concern for solving the crime, though they held strong evidence pointing to the bombers. Because of this local interference, the FBI took over the investigation. With foot dragging of their own, they failed to convict anyone for the crime by 1968. It was not until 1977 that the state convicted but one of the bombers.
The tragedy came as a result of a month of tension following the desegregation of Birmingham’s schools. Black leaders and moderate whites alike had tried to prepare their communities for the inevitable mixing of the races in an effort to forestall any event like the riots that had taken place in the previous Spring, where police and firemen used dogs and fire hoses on demonstrating blacks.
The neighborhood I grew up in in Chicago is incredibly segregated. My family lives on the “bad” side of 95th Street and the “bad” side of the train tracks, meaning the black sides of each. The grade school I went to is in the next neighborhood over, which is even more overtly unwelcoming (Confederate flags in Chicago don’t even make sense historically). The school building and doors had racial slurs, “White power”, and swastikas carved all over them. What was loaded about my school is that it was a gifted school that students were bused in for, and it was almost all black & latino kids. The jealousy of white students and their parents that we would show them up academically turned into threats of racial violence.
I think I’ve still never walked past the cemetery near the school because of all the stories my mom told me when I was young about drunk white kids beating up any black kid who walked by.
My grandfather’s family was chased out of Mississippi when he was a kid by the KKK. They never went south again. They came to Chicago thinking there was no Jim Crow, but it really just wasn’t on paper.
These were the stories I had when I was a little kid. I heard about my granddad leaving Mississippi in the middle of the night over and over, then went to school and saw the same messages carved everywhere (and once, drawn out 50 feet wide in woodchips on the blacktop). These were reminders of what I was up against, from birth, and a heads up. I can’t imagine growing up without those reminders and threats.
So being at a Sweet Honey in the Rock concert, sitting next to a couple who had taken the time out of their day to spend in this theater and who lived through the 60s but didn’t, apparently, receive those threats, was all really jarring and baffling to me. I couldn’t stop thinking, “What are they teaching white people?” Not just in schools, but at home, the media, anywhere. What are they teaching you about, if not that that could be you getting bombed tomorrow? Again, my point isn’t to condemn anyone’s ignorance but the systems that create and perpetuate that ignorance.
I know I have used threats of violence before as part of defining a system of oppression. But I think often when we talk about privilege vs. oppression, we get caught up in more digestible manifestations. Yes, white privilege means you can easily find makeup to match your skin color or see a lot of actors that look like you—but it goes so much deeper than that.
This is part of why I have been moving away from talking about privilege; there’s too much space to just go easy. Oppression of black women is way deeper than just makeup and actors and band-aid colors and other fluffier (though still insidious, but it doesn’t end there) things that generally show up in privilege discourse. I want to talk about oppression meaning that your very existence, let alone your success, is so abhorrent that you deserve threats of violence and death, that you don’t deserve proper health and happiness and education.
I want to talk about oppression meaning that little girls are killed for existing, but it isn’t part of history and 49 years later on a holiday to commemorate people who fought and died in that very movement for justice, white people still don’t know what happened or why all the black people in the room have fallen silent. The word for that isn’t privilege, because it needs to go so much deeper, and in the face of that, I am not patient and do not let people off the hook easily.
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