I’ve been trying to find the words, the time, and the emotional space to write about the shattering and remarkable show I saw last week. It was a one woman performance of Dr. Melba Beals Pattilo’s memoir Warriors Don’t Cry. I was invited to chaperone a group of students who have been immersed in a Civil Rights expedition for months to the event. The timing of this performance coming here to their work could not have been better. Many of the students had read the memoir, others had read excerpts. I was in the latter category myself. But like them I felt semi prepared for the content. Of course I knew it was going to be rough.
Hours after the performance I was alone in my classroom, with my eyes puffed out, crying again.
I felt completely worn out, and wildly alone.
I felt like I was coming undone.
What I experienced witnessing these horrific assaults and continuous threats of unfathomable violence in Little Rock, Arkansas during the desegregation of Central High was borderline traumatizing for me. Watching her bending over with raised fists screaming the N word out at us (in one of the 21 the parts–as a segregationist) was shocking and sickening. Hearing teachers, and administrators (in the play) do the same thing cracked my heart. Watching her flee in terror from a mob of high school boys bent on hurting her at the very least-was more than anxiety producing.
Imagining either of my children in one of those hallways, ducking from a stick of dynamite being thrown at their head, or being nearly blinded when bleach landed in their eyes made me dizzy with rage.
Feeling all that hatred and guilt in my body at once was almost too much.
Then back in my classroom, I felt myself shifting. I recognized that the way in which I was able to take in, and hold that story was so much different than even a year ago. I was holding it–and not pushing it away. I sat with it and cried. I embraced the self loathing-in the bigoted teacher, the hateful classmate, and the racist administrator. I marveled at the friend who reached out to help her in a moment of desperate need (the one redeemable white character in the play). The way the actress grabbed and held us on stage with her, through all of her own transitions from the young hopeful, almost naive girl, to the emotionally closed down warrior determined to make it through the school year was inescapably riveting. She pushed me deeper into our shared history-and gave me permission to really see it in all of it’s deplorable ugliness. What a gift.
I was in the audience wanting to stand up and scream GET OUT OF THAT SCHOOL BEFORE YOU GET KILLED. I had no idea what it was like to be her, or her grandmother who insisted she” stop her crying, and be the warrior God intended her to be”. But I know what it means to parent in the hue, and teach and see children of color. As tears streamed down my face, protected only marginally by the low lights, I knew what it was to witness such ignorance and hate, and be powerless against it. As a transracial parent I have the capacity to hold it all, and that is in itself is both a necessary and extremely hard act. As a parent period it was just too much to imagine.
A few hours later my colleague and I processed what had to happen the next day. I felt even more confident in my own work, purpose and path. She and I navigated another layer of the reflection that had already been designed beautifully. A layer that was crafted to allow children of color to say how horrifying that experience might have been, both anonymously and to each other. A layer that was crafted to allow white children to say how horrifying that experience might have been, anonymously and to each other. I sat across from the teacher and cried. I told her that had it been my son in that audience I would be so hopeful that his teachers had the courage and ability to say out loud; “I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have been in that audience with brown skin…” I felt totally heard.
The next morning I checked in with a few of the kids of color that I was concerned about. That night I had called one of their parents to check in. He said his kid had been very moved by the show, and had so much to say about it. The students were all fine, but also very ready to talk more about the show. It may have taken place “back then” but what we witnessed was today. They were absolutely on stage with her in the present, not fifty years ago.
Later that day, while doing my own work with another group who had seen the play, I had an opportunity to help a young man work out his own feelings about how “wrong” the experience felt to him. As a young white male he was I think in a state of complete disbelief at how vicious other white boys had been to Melba. His disbelief took the form of “hating the lies” in the play. When I admitted how much I hated seeing parts of the play too he was shocked. I explained that I hated my connection to the characters. I hated the ugliness and hatred I had to sit through. But, that did not mean I hated the play. I told him how much I loved seeing how unlike all of us are compared to all of the people back then. How I loved how much change her work, and that of the other students created in the world.
At the end of our conversation he whispered to me; “I had no idea how much hate was in the n-word before. I didn’t know that’s where it came from. Did you?” When I agreed that experiencing it like that rather than in a song, or casually between friends on a basketball court really shook me upside down he paused and said; “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to hear it again without being really grossed out. I can’t say it again either.”
I smiled so wide, and told him that now I loved the play even more than I did when it was over. He had a big smirk on his face as he left, because he knew exactly what I meant.