Selma, and the 99 Problems of White Folk


Behind the times on this one I know; but I just watched the Selma movie. And yes. I cried. At one point a big yelp of a sob. It was during the first attempt to cross Pettus Bridge. As I watched police in riot gear fire gas canisters and rush to “contain” an “unlawful” protest, I was struck by the moment. It wasn’t for the reason you might have thought.

I am sure that many watched the scene and thought: look how horrible people were to each other back then. Some might have thought: how horrible people can be. I thought: my God, have we changed at all?

The movie, and I think Duvernay does this intentionally, asks us a question; but I wonder if many of us can hear it. I was surprised not at how bad these people were; but how much like us they are. You heard critics refer to the protestors as thoughtless progressives, socialists, and instigators. You saw people complain about “big government” forcing locals to act against their morals. You heard people complain that protest did no good. You had people ask, “Why can’t they just shut up and be content to live in the greatest country on earth?” You had politicians remark that there are a million problems and black people would just have to get in line. You had people complain about the softness of white liberal hearts.

And as each scene moved into the next, I had an increasing feeling of déjà vu. Been here. Done that. Had that argument. And so I cried. Not for those on that bridge; but for us. Because sometimes it seems to me that we never left that bridge. The tear gas still rains. Blacks are still being killed by cops and “scared” citizens.

And none of us care anymore than Johnson did. They are just one “problem” amongst 99 other problems. And not our problem anyway. To paraphrase Hova: as a white Southerner, I got 99 problems and being a n^%$*& ain’t one.

And this is I worry the shadow side of a movie like Selma. It is so easy to watch and click your tongue saying “Glad we got that out of the way.” It is easy to become the Pharisee at the altar praying, “Thank God that I’m not like an Alabamian.” It is so easy to watch the struggles of Martin and say “Man I’m glad we’ve gotten better than those guys.”

Yet it seems as if we might be judging the splinter in the eyes of another; while missing the plank in our own. Blacks have a lot of things better. Yes, they can go to McDonalds. Yes, they can go to the polls. Yes, there is a Black President. But there are still so many mile to go before we reach the land of Martin’s dream, or fulfill the promises of the Preamble to the Constitution.

It seems that we have gotten better at saying that “all men are created equal,” yet, in Modern America some still seem to be more equal than others. Some still have a greater chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For many it’s simply the pursuit of surviving another minute; forget that life, liberty, and happiness stuff.

The cliché says that knowledge of the past frees us from the failures of the past. Yet, just such a statement begs a question: what does it mean to know the past? Most of us can talk about Martin. But do we know Martin? All signs point to no.

Watching the film, I was struck by how prophetic King was. How powerful and insightful. How revolutionary? How scary? Yet in the process of our hagiography, we have pulled the happy Martin from 5 minutes of his most famous speech; and ignored the tired prophet proclaiming a pox on all our houses.

If we really want to see America become all it can be, all it promises to be, all we pretend it to be: we must reclaim this prophet from the sentimental glow of praise for him. We give him praise to ameliorate our own feelings of inadequacy and in doing so, I fear, we are dooming another generation of black men and women to the squalid existence from which Martin sought to free them.

We owe ourselves, our country, and our minority brothers and sisters more. And anytime we get on our high horse about the importance of Constitution; yet remain blind to the myriad ways in which the promises of Jefferson remain unfulfilled, we damn ourselves, our country, and our neighbors to a purgatorial prison of our own design.

How can you participate in the re-claiming of our American dream?

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