Phillips: ‘Black Lives, Black Words’ reminds us of the diversity of the black experience
March 3, 2017
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On Monday, I had the pleasure of seeing “Black Lives, Black Words” at the Ethel M. Barber Theater, which showcased eight plays written by black Northwestern students that examined the difficult question of whether black lives really do matter today. The themes ranged from ignorant interactions with friends or coworkers to the celebration of black history. I was struck by the overall emphasis on the nuances of the black experience. Oftentimes the media over represents black roles involving the prison system and poverty, creating and reinforcing reductive, racist stereotypes. At the same time, black people are disproportionately and systematically subjugated by virtually every aspect of society. Without ignoring the fact of institutionalized racism, we must remember and highlight that the black experience is a human experience that involves both beautiful and defeating moments.
As I was watching the show, I was faced with the complexity of the black experience. Whether addressing intersectional feminism or colorism, the plays emphasized that black people need to be seen as individuals. I particularly appreciated that the performance addressed mental health issues within the black community, which are often overlooked. As Black History Month has just ended, it is critical to both celebrate black achievement and success as well as understand the diversity among black people.
After watching the production, I felt compelled to reflect on my own experience, particularly with my blackness in relation to white people. This concept is challenging to understand, and I feel strange discussing it, especially because I am a biracial, light-skinned person from a middle-class background. I recognize that my experience as a black person is unique and is largely informed by my socioeconomic status. As a more privileged biracial person, I found I have the ability to access certain, typically white spaces that others cannot and to try to fill it with blackness. I often find my white friends looking to me for advice when it comes to anything related to race. Yet it is not my responsibility to speak for the entire black community, nor do I have the ability to do so. Ta-Nehisi Coates addressed this when he came to speak at NU last month, pointing out that not only does he not have the answers to fixing racial inequality, and, particularly as a writer, he doesn’t want that role. His story should be his story and nothing else.
Even though my experience is different and singular, there are times when I feel strong commonalities amongst the black community. After Freddie Gray was killed in 2015, I felt a sense of despondency that I felt no one truly necessarily understood besides the black people I knew. This is not to say that when a black person is killed by police, all black people handle tragedy in it the same way. But there are certainly times when black people stand in solidarity with one other over things that white people will never fully understand, whether it is oppression, history, art or music.
Rarely are stories surrounding white people seen as representative of their whole race. But white people often either lump together the experiences of black people, or they don’t see them at all. Never are black people seen as individuals –– and the effect of being invisible can be debilitating.
Black people wouldn’t have to accept the job of having all the answers to the problems of racism if white people would stop seeing them as all the same. If white people are to truly act as allies, they need to stop burdening black people with questions and understand each as individuals. Obviously, white people can feel concerned about overstepping boundaries, but there are other opportunities for white people to seek information about race, such as coming to see performances like this.
Yet there are still problems with allies using theater and art to try to understand an experience distinct from their own. Maybe a showcase of this kind should be solely for black audiences –– sometimes black art isn’t for white people. Some white people might see shows like “Black Lives, Black Words” on Monday and then feel as if they have debunked all myths about black people. But learning about one experience, or listening to eight plays by black NU students, does not mean a person can generalize their understanding to an entire race. White people must recognize the nuance in black experience and avoid taking one story as representative of an entire race.
Telling stories about the black experience could benefit from being more diverse. There are so many different ways to experience blackness, and including people of different skin tones and socioeconomic statuses would not only help people better understand intersectionality, but would also provide insight for audiences to the incredible diversity within the black community. Regardless, the black experience deserves to be highlighted because it is an enlightening and magnificent one.
Ruby Phillips is a Weinberg freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.