Grace, as Marilyn knows, became 80 on December 14th. On October 28th, when Marilyn became 53 and I became 81, I wondered how we were going to celebrate Grace's entry to the 80’s. The decision: go to see SELMA on the day after Christmas in Harlem, where I worked and lived twice: from 1969-73 and from 1994-97. We went to the AMC Magic Johnson Theater on 24th St. and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. Here is my review of the film SELMA with our film "From Selma to Stonewall: Are we there yet?" in mind:
The phrase, "Are We There Yet?” which I believe Marilyn coined, became a helpful reminder as I viewed the film. Selma was about voter registration; about living out one's humanity amidst persons who demean, diminish and dilute their humanity; about white allies who dared to be in solidarity with blacks and our struggle, who were called by some "white niggers." And the film reminds us that in addition to the loss of black lives, Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, both of them white, lost theirs as well. The film was about police violence (where have we heard/seen that?). “Bloody Sunday”, with its corporate police violence, is in the minds of many of us each time we become aware of another police killing of an unarmed black man or boy. Blacks are not "there" yet, nor are those who are gay. (I have wondered how we could include Gertrude Stein's comments about Oakland, California, where she lived: "There is no there, there.")
Martin Luther King's last book was titled, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" Despite legislative gains, neither blacks nor gays are viewed by many as being worthy of becoming full participants in Community. And the Bible, for too many, justifies exclusivity, while the Constitution affirms inclusivity. Eugene Debs said years ago, "Where there is poverty I am in it. Where there is a criminal element I am of it. Where there is a (man) in jail I am not free." My wish is that our film could proclaim, "None of us are free until all of us are free."
The Republican reversal of some voting rights provisions makes the film SELMA "right on time." How, amidst the celebrations of marriage equality victories in state after state, can our film remind us that "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." We of the CR Movement may have become too satisfied with our victories without understanding that those who gave us legislative victories in many cases are no longer on the scene, and those who followed them are beginning to make another Selma necessary. Could the same be said about the victories Stonewall achieved?
Oprah Winfrey, one of the producers of the film, plays a role in the film that I found suggestive of the nation and the world we envision ought to/must become. She "gets out of character" by becoming one of the women seeking to register to vote who was denied. Seeking to march nonviolently, she was the victim of violence. Some who view the film will say that Oprah was in the film to help sell tickets and assist it in getting award attention and nothing more. I suggest that the role she played, as well as other roles she has played, models that saying I heard many years ago to describe someone, "He/She can walk with Kings and Queens but has the common touch.” I view Oprah’s role as not that of "slumming" (playing at being poor), but as one of "getting into the skin and shoes" of a woman — gifted, educated, confident in who she is, but because of her blackness, the woman was "less than." Oprah Winfrey, of course, is representative of the 1% who hold power, but her identification with the 99% in the film is important.
The role that Oprah Winfrey played in the film models what I believe should inspire all of us, what it means to walk as a powerful person in the shoes of one without power. I wept as I observed Oprah Winfrey do what we all must do, no matter our race, gender, status, history, experience or anything else: embrace the struggles and defeats of others and make them our own. (I write this, not to stroke Oprah Winfrey, but to affirm the role she dared to play. However, it would be great if one of you who know Oprah (smile) could see that she read the above. What a bonanza it would be if she could say a good word about “From Selma to Stonewall.")
Selma and Stonewall are more alike than history, culture, and society allow. I grew up in a south where poor blacks and poor whites had so much in common, but the power brokers maintained their control of both blacks and whites by saying to whites, “despite your poverty, you should thank God you are not black.” There are blacks, I dare to suggest, who in their subconscious say, despite the oppression I experience for being black, "Thank God I am not gay.” And I dare also to suggest that there are gays who are white who say within their inner selves, "Thank God I am not black." We have a way of tolerating our imprisonment if we convince ourselves that the imprisonment of others is worse than our own. (Or maybe just the opposite; NOT as bad as our own.)
Stonewall, like Selma, knew police violence and persons who "stayed in their place" as gays, cross dressers, and transgender persons, who knew that as long as they accepted dominance from authority figures, they would not be bothered. How do we, in our film "From Selma to Stonewall," find ways to describe the toll it takes on persons who decide, "the way to get along is to go along?" Selma and Stonewall had its closets: in Selma, black persons in closets who dared not appear to be militant or "uppity," and at Stonewall, persons who "hid their sexual orientation in their closets" or who were on the "down low”.
SELMA is so much more than a Hollywood movie. It is a depiction of American Exceptionalism, not because we have "arrived" as a nation regarding race or anything else, but because our journey that continues is an "Exceptional Journey." We move from triumph to tragedy and tribulation, and back to triumph. I as an 81 year old black southerner, who was born in North Carolina and grew up in Texas, have always felt that if the American south could more courageously acknowledge and accept its less-than-positive racial history, it/we on many fronts, could turn the nation upside down so that it would be right side up. Mass viewing and discussion of the movie SELMA, particularly in the south, could help to end the censorship we do not talk about south or north, east or west: the CENSORSHIP of our racial history via silence, denial, or revision.
Langston Hughes ends his poem by asking; "What happens to a dream deferred?........ does it like a raisin in the sun explode?" How do we, or do we, find ways to assess the emotional and spiritual toll that hiding in the closet of internalized racism and/or internalized heterosexism takes on the lives, humanity and well-being of those who are black, those who are gay and those who are both? Could the there of "From Selma to Stonewall: Are we there yet?" be that place that none of us or few of us have dared to go?