Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Interrelated Structure of Reality

We must learn to live together as brothers sisters or perish together as fools. 
~ MLK (with a small adjustment)

Some movies are worth seeing a second time. Some issues are worth addressing until we get them right.

"Selma" is one of those films and racial justice definitely one of those issues, so when I saw that Hands On Greater Richmond was showing it at the Byrd this afternoon in honor of tomorrow's MLK holiday, I not only decided to attend, but made plans with others to go.

Waiting for the film to start, I watched as a diverse crowd - ages and ethnicities -filed into the Byrd. When I asked the woman next to me what had brought her out, she said it was her sister, who'd read about the screening online. Her sister soon arrived with a large popcorn and joined the conversation about King.

And then she did something extraordinary: she extended her popcorn tub and offered me some. As many times as I've been to the movies, no stranger has ever offered to share. Mind blown.

The film was every bit as difficult and uplifting as it had been the first time and the scenes of troopers beating peaceful protesters were no easier to watch the second time. Once again, I was dumbstruck at how perfectly David Oyelowo captured King's cadence, look and mannerisms.

After the film, there was a panel (including Oliver Hill, Jr.) to lead a discussion about race in Richmond and while about a third of the audience bolted after the movie ended, I stayed, as did my seat mates.

One of the panelists talked about how some people who participated in the marches later came down with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Another spoke of how although Virginia tried to be more genteel about race relations back then, there was the same threat of violence for blacks (Hill recalled a cross being burnt on his family's lawn in Battery Park). We were reminded of the key role of the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee, in tandem with King's efforts and the legal battle to get states to comply with integration.

If you weren't alive or haven't studied the Civil Rights movement, this film is a good platform to learn about it, we were told. "What is the person in your seat going to do?" one of the panelists challenged.

In other words, it was an interesting start to the discussion, but one of us needed to use the bathroom, so I crept out, intending to come back. Except then I wound up having a far more significant discussion in the ladies' room of the Byrd Theater and never went back.

When I came out of the stall, a black woman was washing her hands and I asked how she'd liked the movie. "I cried so many times," she said, which was also true for me, I told her, and it was my second time seeing it. Hers, too.

Very naturally and quickly, Wilma and I discovered we were four years apart in age and had a lot of memories of that era in common. "Remember how we all listened to the same music?" she recollected. "Black, white, nobody paid attention to what color they were, we listened to it all. Now they listen to the music that matches their skin. We didn't make that distinction."

I did know.

Standing in the ladies' room, we talked about racial attitudes then and now. She shared how a new co-worker in her office had expressed surprise to find she was black because she didn't think her name "sounded black." Wait, it gets worse. The woman said to her, "I bet you cook some good fried chicken."

It's the 21st century and a woman working at VCU said this to her. Brilliantly, Wilma told her that no, she didn't like the popping oil, so she always bought chicken when she wanted it. She should have smacked her upside the head.

As recently as Friday, one of the doctors she works with made a comment that she'd probably be going to a rally Monday (for the MLK holiday). This was an educated man who said this.

I was struck by her comments about Africans and American blacks when she mentioned how little knowledge she and others have about life in Africa, so they wouldn't fit in there, either. It made my heart hurt when she said, "We don't belong anywhere."

She remembered the houses torn down in Jackson Ward for the highway and the creation of housing projects. When she began to explain where Gilpin Court was, I told her I lived in J-Ward and knew what she was talking about.

"Where in Jackson Ward?" she asked, clearly surprised and we exchanged addresses. Turns out she lives three blocks from me, so we've probably seen each other plenty of times. I don't know which of us was more tickled or incredulous.

When she brought up how generations used to live together, I told her that my grandmother had moved in with us when she was in her '50s and how her wisdom had added to the household. I heard how her parents had kept most of the ugly racial goings-on of the time from her and her siblings.

Since she never had to sit at the back of the bus, the Civil Rights movement was more of a history lesson to her than a reality, while I was actually bussed to a black high school, so I have memories of the changes happening.

Eventually, we chatted so long, bonding almost, that the real discussion ended, people began exiting the auditorium and women began coming into the bathroom.

We walked out together not long after the sun set and strolled down Cary Street still talking about the difference in how people react to injustice now as opposed to then. "Young people today are too involved with their devices. No one cares beyond their own interests and needs," she lamented.

Passing a man who was asking for change, she got upset. "Grown men asking for money! Men didn't use to beg on the streets like that, they went out and looked for work. What's happened to the world?"

Too much to cover before we reached our cars. Besides, we're just a couple of Jackson Ward sisters saying goodnight and hoping we'd see each other around the neighborhood.

Yes, I missed a lot of the official discussion post-film and that's a shame. But the person in my seat is convinced connecting with a stranger and the resulting conversation is what really matters today.

Shouldn't we all have a dream?

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