By Anna Nutter
In the past few days, race has dominated our discussions and presentations. It cannot help but to do so as we view images of segregated bus stations, “colored waiting room” written on a door alongside “white waiting room.” In the 1960s and in the decades and centuries before blacks and whites lived intimately amongst each other. Black “mammies” nursed white babies. White men kept black mistresses. And yet, for all their physical closeness, an immeasurable distance separated the two races. Deception, manipulation, and collectively held shams forever colored relations between white and black. Mary Chestnut, in her famous A Diary from Dixie, wrote that plantation mistresses, when faced with the picture of their children playing alongside their slave half siblings, closed their eyes. Children as well as adults participated in such blindness.
John Seigenthaler remembers in the film Freedom Riders that he could not see his black nannies. They were living breathing beings but, in his four years old eyes, they were not really people. My eyes perceive you… but I refuse to see you. In the few clips we have seen, African Americans of the time were deeply conscious of white blindness. The hyper blindness of one correlated with the hyper sight of the other. During the short clip we saw in the documentary about the death of Emmett Till, a woman declared that as an African American in the Jim Crow South, you always agreed with whites, never contradicted what they said, and were constantly on the look-out for what whites wanted to you say in response. DuBois called this fractured experience of African Americans in the first part of the 20th century, “double consciousness.” African Americans, he claimed, always viewed themselves through the eyes of others. Not doing so risked, at best, social condemnation and, at worst, becoming Billie Holiday’s “strange fruit” swinging heavily from trees.
How easily I examine and analyze race in the Jim Crow South. I tell myself that these people, many long dead, are not my people. Their time, their social structure, these are not mine either. Zora Neale Hurston told her readers in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on the Road, that, while her ancestors had lived through certain experiences, she was and is not her ancestors. Judge me in my time she pleads, not just according to my race. Like Hurston, I see myself in my time. I am child of Facebook, Obamacare, and the Arab spring. Yet, as I look around the upturned faces gazing at the screen showing the story of the Freedom Riders, I wonder. What is the role of race for us? Has DuBois’s double consciousness gone the way of segregated waiting rooms? Or does it lurk, insidious and quiet, sneaking up at the most vulnerable of times?