Toward Empathetic Imagination and Action

AUG 15, 2016

by Anna Deavere Smith

While traveling in various parts of the country to do interviews upon which Notes From the Field is based, I was particularly influenced by two women I met in South Carolina, one in Charleston and the other in Summerton. They were both actively involved in the mid-twentieth century movement to desegregate American schools: Millicent Brown and Beatrice Rivers.

Ms. Brown helped integrate Rivers High School in Charleston, South Carolina in 1963. She told me about the trauma she suffered as the first Negro to walk the halls of Rivers when she was 15 years old, facing hostility from many students and teachers alike. After some months she began having symptoms of a heart attack. Today, at age 68, she still has those symptoms. She is collecting a series of interviews with others around her age, who were “firsts.” Many still have the same physical and psychological symptoms that they experienced as barrier- breaking youngsters.

Beatrice Rivers was a petitioner in the desegregation case Briggs v. Elliot. Filed in 1951, it preceded the more famous Brown v. Board of Education into which it was eventually subsumed. To this day, pulses go up for the old-time black folks in Summerton, South Carolina when they talk about their case. They are proud of their struggle and upset that most Americans evoke only the Brown case when they talk about civil rights history.

The case began in 1947 as a demand for equality in transportation—a story that is easy to remember, once you hear it. The community asked the county for a school bus so that their children would not have to walk as many as nine miles to the school for Negroes. The county said no. The community somehow found a broken-down bus and got it running. They asked the county to pay for gas. The county said no. The NAACP stepped up to support the community in 1949, expanding the demand to one of equal educational opportunities in Clarendon County.

The first action was for black citizens to gather at their church to sign a petition for education equality. Beatrice Rivers’s signature on that petition curls and curves in that old-fashioned, perfectly rounded “cursive” writing. She told me that all of the adults who signed the petition lost their jobs, her father among them. He was a janitor at the “white” high school, and many in the town liked him. He was the last to lose his job, but lose his job he did. Popularity was not enough to override racism.

As some of you well know, even though southern towns were eventually ordered to desegregate, they found ways around it. They created private “religious” schools for white children.

I spoke with Terry Peterson, a white man who was a young activist in those days. He is still at the forefront— fighting for social justice in Charleston. He looks like a southern gentleman, with a full head of white hair. I wanted to know his point of view about why the county refused even to supply gasoline for the bus. He shook his head. He shrugged. He pursed his lips. And he said that the same sentiments exist today. I told him that some white people say racism is not real. “It’s real,” he said simply. And he started to weep.

Have we squandered a generation’s hard-won victories? In many American cities today, schools are as racially segregated as they were in the 1950s. And other social forces and institutions are separating us from each other even more.

Thomas Jefferson constructed a plan for public education in the Notes on the State of Virginia, as one speaker in the play, philosopher Maxine Greene, points out. His plan was for a system that would reveal the “excellent students” and throw out the “rubbish.” The “rubbish,” Maxine says, were the poor kids who couldn’t make it.

Schools that work as sorting mechanisms are deep in our American DNA, whether the sorting is meant to find talent and aptitude, whether it is meant to weed out those who slow “us” down, or whether it is meant to keep races and social classes apart. Those working to dismantle the “school-to-prison pipeline” make a strong claim that schools sort out future prisoners, feeding the astonishing growth of America’s prison industry and making us the developed country with the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Laws were one way we looked at the problem of integration six decades ago. I am grateful for the laws. My education and my career are byproducts of laws that helped make it possible for more of us to reach our arms over the chasm of racism and classism. But sixty years later, it’s obvious that laws are not enough.

We have fine law schools in this country; one of the best in the world is on this campus. Could you ever imagine The Graduate School of Empathy and Love? I know that sounds ridiculous. But I also know that some individuals have a special aptitude for these core elements of our humanity. Those gifts should be honed, nourished, refined, and celebrated in the same way we cultivate athletic prowess, intellectual productivity, and business acumen. We need a generation of leaders who are as loving as they are strategic.

We need such leaders to help us find ways to imagine ourselves as beings who could extend our concern beyond the boundaries of our front doors, our fences, our perceived self- interests, our skins. How?

As an artist, my effort has been to broaden the realm of my inquiry beyond my writing room and beyond understanding based on personal experience. For forty years, I have been creating plays out of fragments of conversations with diverse groups of people from all over the country. When I was a girl, my paternal grandfather and I used to spend hours talking. He said, “If you say a word often enough it becomes you.” I have been trying to become America word for word. I interview people—seeking to understand a problem from a variety of points of view. This practice allows me to enrich my understanding of my country. I choose moments of crisis as the pivot points.

I now seek to extend my work beyond the artistic product that evolves out of those many conversations. I now extend the realm of my work into the audience. What do you think? What is your position on the large and complex landscape of points where failed attempts at education meet prison walls, broken families, broken dreams, broken possibilities? Even the position that is far from the nexus of the problem is a position. We all live somewhere in the landscape. We are really all connected “to the person next door, down the street or whatever,” as a woman in a maximum security prison told me.

We must do the work required to make our democracy robust. I invite you, groups of strangers, to sit together during this play to chew, fret out loud, speculate, connect, invent, find. We need to be together. While I did research in my broken-down boarded-up hometown, Baltimore, I met a charismatic, articulate man in his late twenties. He had spent a lot of his young adulthood in prison, where he developed a rich vocabulary by studying the dictionary from beginning to end, and back again. With passion he said: “We can’t wait for the leaders to make it better. We have to make it better.”

Actress, playwright, and teacher, Anna Deavere Smith is said to have created a new form of theater. She received the National Humanities Medal, presented to her by President Obama in 2013. She was the 2015 Jefferson Lecturer for the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow for Theatre Arts (for the development of Notes from the Field). She is a MacArthur Fellow and received The Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. She is the recipient of two Tony nominations, and two Obie awards. She was runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize for her play Fires in the Mirror (seen at the A.R.T. in 1992). She has created over 15 one-person shows based on hundreds of interviews, most of which deal with social issues. Twilight: Los Angeles, about the Los Angeles race riots of 1992, was performed around the country and on Broadway. Let Me Down Easy (seen at the A.R.T. in 2008) focused on health care in the U.S. In popular culture she has been seen in “Nurse Jackie,” “Black-ish,” “The West Wing,” The American President, Rachel Getting Married, and Philadelphia. Books include Letters to a Young Artist and Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines. She has a number of honorary degrees including Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Juilliard, Union Theological Seminary, and The Radcliffe Medal. She sits on the board of trustees for the American Museum of National History, the Aspen Institute, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She is University Professor in the department of Art & Public Policy at New York University. She also directs the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at New York University.


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