Speaking Two Languages
Lou Gossett, Jr. grew up on Coney Island. Here, he remembers, he didn’t give much thought to how he was like or different from his neighbors. Instead, he smiles, he would eat gefilte fish with one friend and corned beef with another after school. “It was not until we left there,” he says, “and got into the reality of the rest of the world, where the racial problems existed.”
As Gossett recalls his childhood and early career in Greenwich Village for The Black List, Vol. 1, airing 25 August on HBO, he sits in a depthless space, a gray screen behind him. This sense of abstraction is carried over into his interview as well: his questioner Elvis Mitchell never appears and you never hear him speak a word. Instead, Gossett’s testimony, like all others in the documentary, is presented as a series of gliding, elegant fragments, bits of his own voice overlapping from shot to shot. Occasionally, an archival or personal photo illustrates a memory: Gossett’s recounting of his work with Cicely Tyson, Maya Angelou, and Roscoe Lee Browne in Jean Genet’s The Blacks cues images of the stars when they were young and startling to that “rest of the world,” not quite prepared for their brilliance, grace, and verve.
The Black List, Vol. 1
Toni Morrison, Colin Powell, Chris Rock, Faye Wattleton, Susan Rice, Vernon Jordan, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Serena Williams, Al Sharpton, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lou Gossett Jr.
Regular airtime: Monday, 9pm ET
US: 25 Aug 2008
Apart from these rudimentary peeps into the past, the interview images—shot by photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, who has designed an accompanying gallery exhibit—offer elegant, uncomplicated visual access to an assembly of “high achievers.” Their fields are diverse (including sports, politics, and entertainment), their experiences wide-ranging: from Toni Morrison (“If you have no access to the political life or the governmental life or the institutional life or your world you do reinvent or invent a reliance on religion, magic, something else, that’s yours”) and Keenen Ivory Wayans (“Black audiences always laughed at white people in horror movies because they did exactly the opposite of what we would do”) to Vernon Jordan (“There’s a definition of black America but there is no definition of white America”) and Serena Williams (“It’s a lot more than just hitting the ball as hard as you can; I never get credit for mental”), the interview subjects appear both candid and careful. Each makes sense of being black in the United States through narratives of overcoming daunting obstacles.
If The Black List‘s presentation is seemingly simple, its stories are layered, poignant, and provocative. The film opens with Slash, who describes the complexities of racial illegibility. “People I don’t know ask me, ‘So where are you from?’”, he says. Mistaken for various ethnicities and races, he asserts that in his particular sphere of work—popular music—his definition by others didn’t trouble him. “On the professional level, it’s pretty common knowledge that I’m half-black or whatever,” he says. “I was never really phased by the color barrier.” That is, until the determinedly ignorant Axl Rose penned the notorious Guns N Roses track, “One in a Million,” with lyrics including the n-word. Though he protested before the song’s release, Slash was questioned about it afterwards (how could he have been associated with such language?), making that “color barrier” very apparent.
Other interviewees recount similar realizations. Faye Wattleton, former president of Planned Parenthood (1978-1992), was raised in the segregated South, her parents tent revival preachers (“I listened to a lot of lectures in my lifetime, on very hard church benches”). She soon became aware of gender inequalities, within and across racial communities. “When choice is denied, the first women who are denied that choice,” she states, “more likely to be my African American sisters.” She also regrets that her own daughter did not come up in a segregated neighborhood, where members of different classes lived side my side. Though her mother wanted Wattleton to become a missionary nurse, to “bring enlightenment to the dark continent of Africa,” she smiles, “What I tried to do was bring enlightenment to the dark continent of North America.”
Al Sharpton comes at the question of gender identity from another angle, citing James Brown as a model. “I learned manhood from James Brown,” Sharpton says. “I kind of brought that into my activism.” (Here a photo shows the reverend at a time when his hair was big like Brown’s.) Today, he worries, the model of masculinity for young black boys and men is resistant to white dominant culture, but without what he calls “grounding.” He declares, “There’s no legacy to continue. You’re connected to nothing. So manhood becomes thugism or hoodlumism, or not ‘Did you go to college?’ but ‘Did you do your time in jail?’ Or you’re a real man ‘cause you got shot.”
General differences between black and white perspectives on masculinity come up in dancer Bill T. Jones’ story as well. “A product of the ‘60s,” he says, he came to believe that “identity politics” was a matter of self-definition and progressive thinking put into action. But when he called himself “an artist first,” then black, he was surprised when a room full of fellow artists “exploded.” Though he had hoped to “break out of categories,” he felt schooled that day, realizing that “There will always be a chasm between me and most people black or white.” As a child, he says, “I was expected to speak one way at home but when you go out in the world, talk proper. Speaking two languages, putting forward signals that at once said I’m safe I’m not gonna hurt you, I’m smart, I’m not stupid, you can respect me.” As a black man, Jones notes, he has to take care to embrace his blackness but also, not threaten those outside the race. It’s a delicate balance.
Brookings Institute fellow Susan Rice (currently senior foreign policy advisor to Barack Obama), also frames a particular conflict between black and white aspirations. “I just get pissed off at that old school mentality where we’re talking about whether somebody’s got a white mother or a white father and they ain’t black enough and they went to Harvard so they can’t be really down,” she says, her face formidable, pained, and inspiring all at once. “When are we gonna get past that? It’s old think, I think, to assume that what’s good for African Americans is the opposite of what’s good for white folks. Why do we have to have that zero sum mentality at this point?” As she lays out a role for government in combating poverty, improving education and health care, and uplifting all races, she smiles, but sternly.
Colin Powell provides a bit of history concerning integration, with attention to the role played by the U.S. military. He also remembers driving through the “Deep South” with an LBJ sticker on his Volkswagen (while stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia): pulled over by a state trooper, he heard him approaching in his knee-high boots (“Clomp, clomp, clomp,” Powell imitates), and was then surprised and grateful when the trooper sent him off with a warning: “He said, ‘Hmm, boy, you need to get out of here as soon as you can.” At the same time, the founder of America’s Promise is well aware of the work that still needs to be done, phrasing it to underscore who really needs help: “There are a lot of white folks in America who still have not crossed over,” he says, “And it is an obligation for those of us of color to help white people understand that, to bring them along.”
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