Not In Our Town ... or yours ...
Drove out into the Diablo Valley last night to attend a screening of the PBS documentary, "Not In Our Town, Part II" hosted by the local NIOT organization. It was held in suburban Concord at the community center, and drew about 70 social activists to an evening of soul-searching and introspection. Though the valley is perhaps 99% white, there is a very slowly-growing minority middleclass now in the mix. They're a long way from claiming racial diversity, but at least this tiny group of perhaps 20 socially aware suburbanites are doing their best -- still -- to sensitize their surroundings toward greater acceptance of "others."
It was in the neighboring community of Walnut Creek that my young family lived and where I was radicalized by racism years ago. Some of the dear friends in the audience last night have been actively working for positive change over the past 35 years. They still are my dearest friends. I returned last night because of the strong bonds we've shared for at least that long.
It was a strange evening.
While the original film's focus was based on anti-Semitism and racism aimed at African-Americans and a community's response to it, the central themes have seen a subtle change to focus on gender, primarily. I realized last night that -- just as the womens' movement (feminism) stepped in front of the march of Blacks toward full freedom and equality some years ago -- the same can now be said of gender politics. There were perhaps 6-7 African Americans and about the same number of Asians in last night's audience. When the discussion started after the screening -- it was clear that many of those attending (especially the youth present) were here to deal with crimes against homosexuals. The case of Newark's horrendous killing of Gwen Arejo by 3 young males appears to have attracted the greatest community response. Racial aspects were de-emphasized during the talkback, though the problems were certainly given equal attention in the film. Poignantly, an elderly Japanese man rose toward the end the discussion to speak of his internment in a relocation camp during WWII, but the subject was no longer relevant. Response to him was merely patient and polite. The country's concerns have again become "Euro-centered," and racism has now been relegated to the past as if solutions had been found long ago and mattered little now except to the extent that those issues served to jumpstart other movements.
I found myself in a strange place. I thought that my (expected) contribution would be helping to bring an urban Black perspective to the evening. Why else would I have driven from so far to be here? What happened, though, was that for the first 15 minutes of the 1 hour film I was Black. When that feeling dropped away, while watching the film, I was left with being the mother of a deeply troubled gay son now deceased. The pain of that resurfaced as if it had all happened yesterday -- to reduce me to tears at his loss and outrage at finding myself in a kind of double jeopardy. I was surprised at how powerful the grief continues to be.
We were asked by the facilitator, Hugh Vasquez, to pair up (with a stranger) to talk for two minutes -- uninterrupted -- about our personal reaction to what we'd just seen. I was chosen by a gay man (a physician?), one both proud and articulate. He spoke of his defense of a gay man who'd been returned to the community after serving time for sexual offenses. He was passionate. I was unmoved; still struggling with my own confusion and wondering if I could do this -- or even if I wanted to?
But I did. Though most of my mind was taken up by framing my response while he was making his two-minute declaration of his empathy (and it was that), I did manage to spill out some description of my confusion at trying to deal with racial bigotry and gender crimes simultaneously and how the loss of my son to both was crowding out everything else leaving me with only tears of embarrassment at the inability to crowd all that into 2 minutes even if uninterrupted. The frustration was paralyzing. This stranger reached over to drape his arms over my shoulders in an effort to comfort me as my words trailed away into nothingness... .
Then the floor was opened up so that everyone could speak their minds. The microphone was passed around as each spoke kind and thoughtful words of love and compassion for those less fortunate. Remember, these were liberals gathered in celebration of other communities that had illustrated super-sensitivity and the ability to create proper responses to the outrage of social injustice.
I wondered if I would be able to say anything sensible? After perhaps 20-25 brief comments by these good folks, I finally found my voice, signalled for the microphone and said:
"I'm Betty Reid Soskin. I'm here out of context. I've driven from 37 miles away -- from Richmond, at the invitation of friends to join with you to view this great documentary. However, if this screening were held in my town tonight instead of here in Concord, at least 40% of this audience would be African/American, perhaps 36% would be Latino, a number of Laotian refugees, and the minority might well be White. Forty-nine percent of their children would have dropped out of highschool before the 10th grade. Most would be lower-income and many unemployed. I find myself wondering how differently the viewing of NIOT would be in such a setting? This film is directed toward the privileged, to those assumed to have the power and the will to discriminate unfairly to the detriment of others.
I've had a difficult time all evening moving between my black self, my mother self, and that part of me that shares in privilege. My eldest son, gay, dark-skinned, and deeply troubled over his entire lifetime -- died a few years ago of societally- and self-inflicted wounds from physical and mental abuse and alcoholism. He suffered countless muggings. He suffered the added burden of being one in a black/white monogamous partnership that lasted for 18 tortured years. They lived with the scorn and rejection of both racists and homophobes who frowned on everything that they were. Both were filled with self-hatred that manifested in an addiction to alcohol.
Were we there, we would have been viewing this film with those who are the victims of racial and gender bigotry with little need to self-examine their "privilege." They would be the subjects of the crimes with none of the ability to share in the largesse of attitude possible here.
Yes, I'm totally out of context, and I'm not sure in this moment how to handle that."
In a few moments when the discussion ended, the film's producer-director told me that there was nothing she would like more than to show this film in Richmond. She asked that I speak with her partner to find just how we might arrange that. I will do that. But I'm stuck with wondering just how much interest there would be in this documentary, one so specifically designed to reduce the crime of bigotry in the communities of haves. The problems of the inner city are defensive problems; problems of the have-nots. There is a major problem of internalized hatred (the killer of my son and those like him) that is destroying young Black males in numbers that shake the community to its soul as gun violence continues to escalate on the streets of Richmond without pause or reason.
I can remember hearing someone in a very high position in the state remark that "...there is some logic in allowing these street hustlers to kill each other off without interference by the police. It saves society the costs of trials and imprisonment." It's my suspicion that there are members of the police departments who echo those feelings and act on them. That these young lives are marked by self-hatred learned at an early age from the damning attitudes of the greater society; attitudes reinforced daily in the schools, on the playgrounds, and on the streets of the inner cities of the country are of no concern. I'm ashamed to admit that I stood in stunned silence, unable to find a reasonable response to my friend's telling comment; embarrassed for him, but allowing his awful words to stand unchallenged. How many times has this happened to us all?
Maybe that's a genre of filmmaking that needs to be explored -- but that presents a different order of problem -- one every bit as destructive as the examples we saw last night on the screen of the fire-bombing of a Jewish synagogue in Sacramento, the murders of two honored and much-loved gay men in Redding, the burning of a cross on the lawn of an African-American mother in Anderson in Shasta County, and the unbelievably brutal beating death of lovely young transgendered Eddie "Gwen" Arejo in Newark.
The destruction of human lives through internalized hatred may be one of the most important unexplored issues of our times.
How on earth does one go about examining doing that through film?