LETTER FROM THE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR JULY 29, 2020
#PENUMBRASTRONG || A Letter from Sarah Bellamy, remembering Emmett Till & more
Greetings Dear Community,
Last Saturday, July 25th, was Emmett Till’s birthday. Had he lived, he would be seventy-nine years old. Instead, his life was robbed by men who were never held accountable, even though they later admitted to his murder in Look Magazine.
When JW Milan and Roy Bryant were finally arrested, the White Citizens’ Council-a rabid segregationist group cloaked in ‘good Christian values’-set up collection jars across the South to raise money to pay for defense attorneys. Even though the defendants were represented pro bono, they raised a notable sum of money in 1955-$10,000, the equivalent of nearly $100,000 today. The case went to trial and the all-white jury deliberated for less than an hour before acquitting the murderers of all charges.
White people donating to that fund then is not unlike the Go Fund Me that was set up for Darren Wilson after he fatally shot 18-year old Michael Brown in Ferguson nearly 60 years later. Within days of launching, it had raised over $200,000. History tells us that the impulse to donate is less a compassionate gesture toward the accused, but instead a pledge of allegiance, a signature, a ballot, and a rallying cry. In these cases, it represents an opportunity to participate in the maintenance of white supremacy.
Mamie Till likely didn’t expect justice for her child in a county courthouse in Mississippi, but she testified anyway. She kept the casket open at Emmett’s funeral, ensuring that people around the world would see what racism had done to her fourteen year old son.
Its brutality was shocking enough to shame scores of white Americans into action. Sixty-five years later the brutal killing of George Floyd has done the same. Finally the mainstream is not affronted by the phrase “black lives matter.” But we cannot be naive to the fact that people around the country are still donating money to campaigns that promote hate. It represents the same thing today as it did then. It’s still happening.
So much disregard for humanity has been heaped upon us recently-brown-skinned children separated from their parents and held in pens. Thousands and thousands of Americans dead from a disease that disproportionately affects black and Native people. Land, water, and wildlife harmed by greed. State sanctioned violence. Virulent racism ending innocent lives. Staggering misogyny and sexual abuse. What have we become? Is this where we imagined we would be in 2020?
So much of this is attributable to racism. We are experiencing retribution for having elected a black man president, for finally making room for a black family in the White House for eight out of our two hundred and forty four years as a nation.
After the moral wave of the Civil Rights Movement, the martyrdom of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the footage of peaceful protestors being beaten, and yes, the photo of a brutalized child laying in a coffin as his sobbing mother draped herself over his crushed body, after all of this proof of its hideousness-racism got a little quieter. Most white people were embarrassed by overt racism in public. Instead, many saved that for their backyard parties and dinner tables and board rooms. For awhile.
It surged back into the public sphere after Barack Obama’s election, and though the Obamas bore some of that burden, the cost was more acutely exacted against black civilians, many of them children. We should have been concerned when white teenagers across the country mocked Trayvon Martin online instead of seeing a peer who had been stalked and murdered. We should have been concerned when we learned that police officers in Port Canaveral, Florida were using his likeness as a shooting target. We should have been concerned when lines cued around the building at a gun show where George Zimmerman was signing autographs. We should have been concerned when white members of Congress accused President Obama of “trying to divide the nation” when he said that if he had a son, he would looked like Trayvon. We should’ve known.
And we did.
We’d been there before.
Distancing ourselves from racism, sitting in appalled judgment of those who publicly express racist sentiment, feeling pleased with ourselves; it makes us complacent. We cannot abdicate responsibility for where we are today. This happened right in front of us, eyes wide open. Each and every time that racists get away with their public expressions of hate, it emboldens more. In four years we’ve gone from having the first black president in United States history to a president who is on record calling white supremacists “very fine people.” This is what America has been, what it is today-it must be no longer.
George Floyd’s murder should signal a tectonic shift in our national narrative. It should be a moment that we look back upon in horror, but from the vantage point of having finally addressed the virulence of racism in our midst.
A society adjusts to atrocity incrementally and cumulatively. Small accommodations shift a nation’s ethical center. One day you look up and wonder how we could find ourselves in such a place. We look up and we barely recognize ourselves. The shame can be debilitating. It cannot be an excuse. We must move past shame, complacency, even our own fatigue. We must rescue our founding principles from their perversion by hate. We must discover what America is without racism-something this nation has never known.
How will historians write of this moment? How will they evaluate our ethics, our actions?
We can ensure that those who read about us one day find a brave, compassionate people who didn’t just talk about justice and peace, but fought to realize it at every level of our social fabric.
We can change our reality. We can make this the moment when we finally become what we dream.
Know that Penumbra is in this for the long haul. We will not be deterred. Penumbra will continue to serve our community as we uniquely can. We welcome you to work alongside us to realize the dream of a just and peaceful world
With abiding love,
“How are we going to take the songs of all of this wonderful flock here and weave them together to create this great orchestra that will sing the song of healing? ”
—Seitu Ken Jones