By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor
They’ll focus on the fact that the Memphis officers were black as it helps masquerade the blue that perpetuates anti-black violence.
– Francis Maxwell
A meditation by Rev. Susan K. Smith:
In 1961, James Baldwin was interviewed by Studs Terkel. He shared how, while he lived in Europe, he relied on the music of Bessie Smith. Listening to her song, “Back Water Blues,” Baldwin said that she helped him “dig back to the way” he had been as a child. He shared that he had never listened to her while he lived in America, “in the same way that I never touched watermelon, but in Europe, she helped me reconcile myself to being a nigger.”
He said that while in Switzerland, he played Bessie Smith every day as he wrote Nobody Knows my Name. Asked if he felt a sense of shame about a heritage “that is really so rich when he accepted the white man’s stereotype of him,” he answered:
I’m afraid that is one of the great dilemmas, one of the great psychological hazards, of being an American Negro. In fact, much more than that. I’ve seen a great many people go under because of this dilemma. Every Negro in America is, in one way or another, menaced by it. One is born in a white country, a white Protestant Puritan country, where one was once a slave, where all standards and all the images – when you open your eyes on the world, everything you see, none of it applies to you.
Like everybody else, you go to white movies, fall in love with Joan Crawford, and root for the Good Guys who are killing off the Indians. So it comes as a great psychological collision when you realize all of these are really metaphors for your oppression and will lead you into a kind of psychological warfare in which you may perish.
His words reminded me of how I came to an “aha” moment not long ago when I realized that as a little girl watching television, I bought into the images and stories on television much in the way Baldwin is talking about. I believed that the Indians were “the bad guys.” I didn’t think about how the programs like “Leave it to Beaver,” the Andy Griffith Show,” and “Father Knows Best” were set in all-white neighborhoods, spaces where neither I, as a little Black girl, nor my family would have been welcomed. Every group of people attended to by white missionaries had as their goal, it seems, to make us “white” in our thinking. We were never to expect that we would have the same privileges as white people in this country. Still, to even be a candidate for survival, we had to learn and internalize the lessons taught to us by whites who wanted and needed, above all else, to preserve and grow their power.
When I wrote about this for a newspaper, I was challenged by several white readers who said I was spreading hate. God gave me hush-mouth grace, so much so that I could calmly ask at least one of those who were miffed, “Surely, you know I am telling the truth, right, when I said I would not have been welcome or safe in Mayberry? Surely, you know that?” For some reason, that question quieted him, but he didn’t leave me alone until he said, “well, it wasn’t just in the South that that kind of thing happened.”
I never thought, though, about the things we watched on television being “metaphors” for our oppression. I didn’t know that there are three levels of oppression, according to those who study it – interpersonal, institutional, and internalized. So I didn’t realize that what I was seeing – and in fact, what we all grew up with – was cementing ideas about who and what mattered. We were internalizing our treatment and being shown what to believe. And we were given the message that “being white” was the standard to which all in this country should aspire.
What we saw on television and in movies and what we were taught in school helped feed our experience of being oppressed – and it’s not just Black people who were so affected, but others as well. The standard of what women were supposed to do was set. (Being the dutiful wife who stayed home and did housework while wearing an apron over a dress, the outfit completed by a string of pearls) The image and reminder of who white society believed Black people to be were set. The image of “the strong man,” i.e., white men who tackled and destroyed the bad guys, was set. So much of what we believe was set by these metaphors that we were fed daily.
Only by God’s grace and power has the internalized oppression we experienced not wiped us out. We have been damaged, but we have not been destroyed. On the contrary, I suspect that as we increasingly recognize the metaphors that still exist, alongside the new metaphors that are constantly created, we will grow more sure-footed and convicted of the truth that we are all “fearfully and wonderfully made.” We don’t have to feed the metaphors; recognizing them gives us the freedom and authority to reject them. It is the most powerful moment of awakening that any of us can have and, therefore, worth pursuing. Perhaps we have some reconciling to do – about who we are, whose we are, and what our place is in this world, not according to the oppressors, but according to the God who created us all.
Rev. Dr. Susan K Smith is an ordained minister who is also an author, writer, and speaker, who concentrates on the intersectionality of race, politics, and religion. Currently working on a biography of Rev. C.T. Vivian, she is the author of several books including “Rest for the Justice-Seeking Soul.” She is the Director of the Office for Clergy Leadership and Development for the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, Inc., serves as a consultant for the African American Leadership Council of People for the American Way, and is a co-chair of the Minority Outreach subcommittee for the Nonpartisan Ohio Voter Outreach Committee (NOVOC). Smith is available for speaking, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, PhD, at email@example.com