Wearing Smiles, Wearing Masks
Prof. Mari N. Crabtree
assistant professor of African American Studies
I am a historian, and so I have no illusions about whether the past often rhymes with the present or whether the past intrudes upon the present. It does. Often rudely. As a scholar who writes about the legacies of lynching, I have seen in the past and in the present the indifference and tacit approval with which so many Americans look upon violence against African American bodies and spirits. Recent coverage of police violence has simply revealed stories that have been told in African American communities and other communities of color for centuries, stories that didn’t need video evidence to be recognized as truth. In my courses, I want my students to see through what Charles Mills calls “a certain schedule of structured blindness and opacities” in order to connect past violence to present violence and to see how violence is but one way in which the West has sustained centuries of systemic exploitation of non-white people. So many of my students already know this reality all too well. They see it in their own lives.
I started all three of my classes yesterday with Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, “Smile.” We talked about the poem and Terence Crutcher and double consciousness. We talked about the lessons parents pass on to their kids to protect them from destruction—keep your hands on the steering wheel, no sudden movements, cooperate. We talked about the limits of such lessons in a nation in which an unarmed man with hands raised is shot and killed by the police. We talked about what is lost—what part of the soul is crushed—in that space between obsequious and safe. Two of my students were brought to tears. I would like to think their tears came from a place of catharsis, not pain, but it was, in all likelihood, pain. Raw pain—pain that they so often mask behind smiles in different company around campus.
by Elizabeth Alexander
When I see a black man smiling
like that, nodding and smiling
with both hands visible, mouthing
“Yes, Officer,” across the street,
I think of my father, who taught us
the words “cooperate,” “officer,”
to memorize badge numbers,
who has seen black men shot at
from behind in the warm months north.
And I think of the fine line—
hairline, eyelash, fingernail paring—
the whisper that separates
obsequious from safe. Armstrong,
Johnson, Robinson, Mays.
A woman with a yellow head
of cotton candy hair stumbles out
of a bar at after-lunchtime
clutching a black man’s arm as if
for her life. And the brother
smiles, and his eyes are flint
as he watches all sides of the street.