“We clung to the belief…that our white skin made us ‘better’ than all other people. And this belief comforted us, for we felt worthless and weak when confronted by Authorities who had cheapened nearly all that we hold dear, except our skin color… We fought hard against understanding, we tried to live in a fog, we could not bear to see what was becoming clearer each day; that race relations are part of the total human experience, not something history has set off in one corner of time.”-Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream, 1949.
Trevor Noah grew up in South Africa in the Apartheid era. He was, as he says in his stand up “born a crime” as it was illegal for his white father and black mother to fraternize.
He can look at America with an outsider’s eyes. And in the clip above, he talks about our assumptions about race, assumptions that are so deep and fundamental that we rarely notice them, much less examine them. (Invisible famines, if you will.)
The most striking part of his commentary was when he reacted to a statement by a lawyer for a police officer involved in the shooting of Terence Crutcher, “In an American city, there’s an all-black high school, and that’s normal instead of weird — living in a society where racial divisions are so deeply baked into every part of society that we don’t even notice it anymore? An all-black high school? That’s a phrase, by the way, that is never followed by, ‘Oh, you’re talking about the one in the nice part of town?’ Racial divisions are so normalized in society that people possess a bias that they don’t even realize they have.”
On one of our ballet tours a number of years ago, my partner and I were in a school in a state in the “deep South.” As my partner was changing after class, I talked to the owner of the school. Glancing out the window, I noticed that there was another dance school across the street. When I asked about it, the owner said, “Oh yeah, that is the black school.” It took me aback, because we tend not to say things like that where I am from, which is not to say that we do not have things like that. We just don’t say it. Metro Detroit, where I live, is, I’m told, one of the most segregated cities in the country.
Back when I worked in radio, I had the unpleasant experience of being called a racist. I wasn’t just called a racist, I received a formal complaint and was told I had “offended the black community.” What happened is that I was new to the small radio station and had just moved to the community in Virginia. I was doing the morning show, getting up at 3:30 in the morning, and was also the program director, so I was often at the station until the early afternoon. I never adapted to the early rising, and trying to get to bed at 8. I had no social life. As a result of all of this, I had never learned the geography of my new town.
Virginia has a unique holiday. Where the rest of America celebrates Martin Luther King Day, Virginia celebrates Lee-Jackson-King Day. The combination celebration of a civil rights leader and confederate generals was born of a ridiculous political compromise that cannot have satisfied anyone. So perhaps this meant that the Martin Luther King celebration had a little more subtext than it might elsewhere, I don’t know. In any case, I was assigned to broadcast live from the Martin Luther King Day march dressed in the station-issued, radio logo sweatshirt that we wore for all remote broadcasts. I headed down a street whose name I did not know with the assembled crowd.I actually found the event inspiring, and I packaged some very nice interviews with people that were run on the news the next day.
The way I was dressed was one of the issues the “black community” had with me. The sweatshirt and the fact that I wore no makeup was taken as a sign of disrespect. That never would have been an issue, I’m sure, if I had not made a complete hash of the broadcast. “We’re coming to the corner of… the road… and approaching… is that the courthouse?” So, yeah, it was not my finest moment. But that does not make me racist.
What makes me racist is that somewhere in the back of my mind, without ever having been taught it overtly, I learned to associate large black men like Terence Crutcher with danger. I don’t like to say this out loud. I am ashamed of it, because it doesn’t represent my conscious, willful thought. A white man has to be overtly scary to put me on alert. It takes much less if the man is black. I grew up in a diverse neighborhood when I was in my formative years. I came of age in a progressive community. No one ever taught me this, but I learned it even so. All I can do, knowing it is there, is to do my best to guard against it. I’m pretty sure these unconscious biases can’t be gotten rid of by pretending they are not there.
There is a film trope that is referred to as “the magical Negro.” This is when there is a mystic or borderline mystic black character who appears to act as a shaman or wise man for the white protagonist. If you google the expression you will see an image of John Coffey from The Green Mile. That character is taken to be the most famous example of the genre.
I’m not sure this is entirely fair because John Coffey (J.C.) is a not at all subtle Christ figure. He is a healer who is condemned to death because the powers that be fear him but those who believe that Coffey has the power to heal (Tom Hanks’ character and the mouse) are given eternal life.
One of the important aspects about the story of Christ is that he is the divine incarnate. God could have chosen to come to earth as a powerful emperor or general, but he chose to incarnate as a homeless child from a marginalized ethnic group that lived in the shadow of a powerful, dominant culture. It is important that Jesus was from a subculture who were seen as uncultured, unclean and possibly criminal. Thus, it matters in the Green Mile that John Coffey is a large black man. The divine is incarnate in the person we are most taught to fear.
I do have a few qualms with the character of John Coffey, he is a compassionate healer like Jesus, but he lacks Jesus’s wit, power and agency. I would like to have seen a Coffey who was not framed for a crime he didn’t commit, but who was perceived to be a threat and who the white guards would first despise and then be changed. Coffey’s execution is nothing more, really, than a case of mistaken identity.
Even with those flaws in the fiction, John Coffey brings with him a moral that I assume was the writer’s intent. It is that we can only be saved as a culture when we learn to have faith, faith in the people were are taught to fear.