An election is not about self-expression.
-- Mark Lilla, on The New Yorker Radio Hour (August 26, 2017)
I don't feel no ways tired, I've come too far from where I started from.
There are only three important words: justice, truth and love.
-- Rev. C. T. Vivian
This photograph changed the nation.
|Photo by Will Counts, Sept. 4, 1957|
No face is more poisoned than that of Hazel Bryan, also only fifteen years old, shrieking epithets from the center of the frame. Eckford's face however is a blank. I must think that she was feeling many things: fear, grief, anger -- but none of these passions register on her face. Bryan and the mob are expressing themselves. Eckford, by her courage and discipline, is accomplishing much, but one thing she is not doing is expressing herself.
The grand strategy of protest was to unmask the violence inherent in the system. Emotions of the righteous protesters were not the point, and were not on display. If Eckford had broken down in tears, it would only have intensified the violence. Any expression of her outrage and anger might have gotten her killed, or would at least have turned a welthistorische photograph into the record of a shouting match between two teen-agers. This was the template of the classical Civil Rights era: to contrast the calm dignity of black protesters with the threats, assaults and open malice of white people.
Let's not be sentimental about this, or we'll misunderstand. This was not a matter of being nice so that the oppressors would be nice in return. There would be no melting of hearts. The oppressors would not be nice. The emotional discipline of these protests was a strategy, calculated to reveal the malice of oppression on faces that lacked discipline to conceal it.
So when black students sat down three years later at Woolworth's segregated lunch counters in Nashville and Greensboro, they did not come there to express their emotions. And when, almost eight years after the Battle of Little Rock, six hundred people walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on Bloody Sunday, they did not come to express their emotions. When violence came to these people, it was because of their actions, not because of their feelings. They had come there to act and to endure the consequence, captured on film without mixture.
These protests were actions rather than passions. The actions were brilliantly, strategically chosen. The principalities and powers could not let Elizabeth Eckford enter the high school, or let black students sit at the lunch counter, or let six hundred people march from Selma to Montgomery, without losing their authority; so they had to respond, and because there was no righteous option their response could only be violent. These incisive actions had grabbed oppression by the short hairs.
I was trained in the French theatrical tradition of a masque neutre, a face ready to respond to the present because it is unmarked by the past. You and I of course are marked by the past, but you try to respond to the thing in front of you rather than to history; it's a training in presence. If you succeed in dropping your dramas and traumas, then the currents, the sounds, the textures, the lights and spaces, the swirling passions of others are revealed. Eckford's masque neutre was the clean lens that projected the violence of others.
There are historical passions behind these movements -- centuries of grief, of mourning, of righteous prophetic anger, of waiting for the Day of the Lord when justice would roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. But the actions don't speak -- they act. They grab injustice in a place where it hurts.
On the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday I walked with five hundred Unitarians and a hundred thousand other Americans across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In the days before, we were visited by great artists of protest, including Rev. William Barber and Rev. C. T. Vivian.
Vivian spoke with charm, candor and wit about the Freedom Rides, the Lunch Counter Protests, the Voting Rights Marches, the front and backstages of the campaign. A young protester asked him what it was that, half a century ago, had made victories possible, "so that [and here there was a sigh] we don't all feel so exhausted."
In the pause, this is what I thought. I'm not surprised you're exhausted. It's hard work expressing yourself. Coming into the streets every day and evening saying I'm here and I'm black or Latino or queer or poor and you've wronged us and we're angry and you should stop, can wear you out. And the powers can outlast you. To them your righteous sentiments and justified anger are abstractions. They're getting paid overtime. Their patience is greater than yours. They can wait. You haven't got them by the short hairs.
C. T. Vivian said, as I remember, that the movement was repeatedly saved by its strategy, discipline and music.
It seems to me the songs are yet missing, songs that people of different generations, ethnicities and classes can sing together. Could we perhaps sing "Joe Hill", or "We Shall Overcome," without fighting about who created the song and which culture it belongs to and who has the right to sing it and with what apologies to whom? Can we remember what such songs once meant? And can we use them to unite rather than to divide? But perhaps new songs will emerge. Let us hope. They're not here yet.
And the strategies are absent without leave. Strategies that from the first moment put powers and principalities on the back foot, exposing the violence inherent in the system. To say who you are and how angry you are and what you demand and on what day, requiring potential allies to speak from your vocabulary list with your precise talking points, is not a strategy. Where is the direct action -- the action beneath and beyond speech -- that forces a response?
Today's exhausted protesters should study the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Though that action grew from decades of outrage, the execution of it was an exercise in patience, persistence and obedience, shrewd calculation and military discipline. At its center, augmenting the willingness of some persons to walk rather than ride in the back of the bus, was an alternative volunteer transportation system, using over three hundred vehicles for three hundred eighty-one days. There were timetables, commitments, commanders and soldiers. There wasn't, I think, much time for self-expression. Not even the choice of Rosa Parks as the spark of the boycott was spontaneous. She was one of several persons who had been arrested for protesting bus segregation, the one selected as a suitable figurehead. That community then withdrew its money from the bus company. The soldiers of justice didn't have to express themselves every day, because every day they had the oppressor by the short hairs.
I don't know what the new direct actions will be. I am waiting for them to emerge. They will be the kind of thing people can do without expressing themselves. People will be welcome to do them even if they don't come from our social location, even if they don't talk the way we talk. It won't matter how we talk; talk would be a distraction. The action itself, measured by the song, will be the thing.
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