“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” ~ Edith Wharton.
The first corny joke that I remember learning was a play on words. This is not as effective when you have to read it, but here goes: “What is black and white and red all over?” The answer was “A newspaper!” (because it is black and white and read all over!). I had been introduced to puns – which for some reason usually make people groan. But the human race is unique in its verbal communication, and we love to develop and change our language over time. My father, himself a word lover, had a sharp wit, which could still peep through the fog of dementia. One day (near the end of his life) my sister asked him if he would like his glasses to look at something, and with a hint of the old Pearce Jones he responded “I ‘specs’ so!”
This week it was messages in black and white that kept appearing to me. The first was in the Netflix series: Colin, in Black and White, a retelling of the Colin Kaepernick story, starting with his childhood as a ‘biracial’ adopted child of white parents and his talent as an athlete. Coincidentally, my first attempt at a novel (published only on Word Press, and missing the final chapter) was called Life in Black and White, since it featured a white woman who goes to live in Jamaica. I must digress and tell you that although the novel had been started decades ago, and had to be rewritten to be more relevant, when I published it, I did so one chapter at a time, and it had quite a dedicated following. I owe them the ending!
But Colin’s series show how the microaggressions he encountered from white people, as well as other far less subtle displays of prejudice, helped to develop his sense of racial justice as he tried to navigate his reality. His parents appeared to have been woefully unprepared to provide him with any real guidance of how to cope with prejudice, with living while black. Like many well-meaning white people, they seemed to operate under the illusion that if we don’t talk about something, it doesn’t exist. So when he gets pulled over by a cop, and treated the way every black driver can expect to be treated (even while they are in the car with him), you can see their confusion. They had no idea of ‘the talk’ most black fathers give their sons, about how to behave when approached by an armed, uniformed, member of the police force.
The other impactful show that featured black and white images was the documentary ‘Paper and Glue’, the story of the French ‘street artist’ JR, who started out on the streets of Paris, and evolved into a major global artist and activist. You may have seen the iconic image of a child, on a huge posterboard overlooking the border wall between Mexico and Texas. He has posted photographs (in black and white) showing the eyes of the women and children of the favela in Brazil, plastering enlarged photos on the walls of the distressed homes, so that people in the city below could look up and see them. He has displayed his photographic art in Egypt; he even went into a maximum security prison in California, the prisoners there joining in and starring in the project. The most significant effect of his art is to make the unseen visible. He has used his stark visual displays to bring attention to groups of people who are usually forgotten, ignored or disdained by society.
This made me think about how people use the platforms they are given. Colin Kaepernick could have been known for his quarterback skills. He had an impressive record-setting stint as a college player, and was doing the same as a pro. He was already an exception. In a profession where 70% of the players are black, 75% of quarterbacks are white. Only 35% of assistant coaches are black, and there are only two or three black head coaches. Yet Colin took an even more risky decision. In 2016 he decided to remain sitting on the bench during the playing of the national anthem, to protest police brutality. At first nobody noticed, but as he continued his act of protest (taking a knee to show respect to those whose lives have been lost, but also protesting the continued acts of injustice and violence which occur every day), other players joined him. He opted out of his contract with the Forty-Niners, but no other coach offered him a job. At the time (before George Floyd’s death, and before the Black Lives Matter movement surged) his protests made (white) people uncomfortable. And in Donald Trump’s America, his protests were seen as anti-American.
JR, the French artist, could have gone mainstream with his art. But he decided to reject any corporate funding and the control it would exert over his decisions, and continues to travel to areas of the world where he can bring the invisible into sight. He has helped to found schools in France and Brazil, and has given opportunities to countless other artists. One of the people he featured in his first project (Ladj Ly) has gone on to win an Oscar as director of the movie ‘Les Miserables’, a tale of racist police violence in France.
We may not have a global platform, or a global audience, but we can choose to project from our own platform. This week the children’s hymn has been echoing in my mind: ‘you in your small corner, and I in mine’. We never know how our own light may illuminate some cause, some injustice, but we should shine it none-the-less. December is the month of colorful lights, lights on Christmas trees, lights on houses, and we can choose to reflect that light, and add our own.
This Friday morning, may your light shine pure and clear, highlighting all that is good in this world. Have a wonderful weekend, Family!