Black Struggle Through a White Lens

So this week has been a bit of a mad one as I’ve been attending the festival pretty much every day, just to warn you this post may be kinda bookey.

What I have to say does actually pertain to the documentaries that I’ve seen, two in particular. The first, King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis, a film of original Newsreel and TV clips following MLK from the mid-1950s all the way through to his assassination in 1968. The Second, Pay it no mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson, a film of interviews from those that knew her best, detailing her life as a Trans person, Stonewall instigator and Activist in New York from 1960s to her unresolved death in 1992.

Both documentaries were amazing and I would strongly recommend everyone try to watch them (they can be found with a smooth Googles).

However, what I want to talk about is the audience reaction during and after the screenings specifically the audience reactions of the predominantly white people (cause Denmark) but also the non-black POC. I saw the MLK documentary first and it was a small screening with a low turnout (as to be expected) but those who were there thoroughly seemed to enjoy it and approaching the end of the film when it moved onto his assassination and his subsequent funeral I noticed that a few people were crying or were just quite emotional at what were obviously sad scenes. It’s safe enough to say I left with a far more sympathetic and kind-hearted of view of white folk (an sentiment rather alien to me tbh). As a member of a marginalised community (more than one) it is always ‘nice’ to see others sympathise, empathise, and genuinely feel for the pain that you experience. BUT, just to be clear ‘others’ don’t get cookies for showing they have basic human decency, it’s simply nice to see every now and then, I guess(can you feel the eye-roll).

So bring on the next day when I go to see Pay It No Mind and oh what a different feeling I had leaving that cinema. Just to set the scene for those of you who do not know much about Marsha P. Johnson, this is a Black Trans Woman at the heart of an LGBT movement, the Stonewall movement, pushed for trans inclusion in Pride events, who faced hardship on hardship. Tragic struggle, life as a sex worker, as a homeless person, as someone who suffered from mental illness and was found dead at the bottom of the Hudson River with no explanation and no investigation by the police. A life so treasured, that meant so much to so many people that the parade that directly followed her funeral service close down main streets because that many people turned out to show love. However there was no crying at the end of this film, there was no visible emotion at the end of the film either for that matter of fact. Instead what I heard during and after were giggles. Multiple people got up and left part way through, and a continuous murmur of conversation near enough throughout the whole film.

So two stories of two Black people at the centre of Civil Rights Movements, that faced setback after setback, fight after fight, and died under unimaginable circumstances, with very different reactions from the white and non-black POC audiences. Why is that?!

Here’s my theory. White sympathy, white allyship, white concern for Black bodies, Black lives, and Black stories is only ever present if they can wrap it up in a beautifully romantic package. I find it absolutely incredible how whiteness has romanticised and distorted this story and image of Martin Luther King within an inch of it’s life that allows them to be able to align with civil rights issues and civil rights causes. When you hear people talk about Martin Luther King they speak of him as if he was this meek and mild human being who wrote kindly worded letters to Congress and presidents to ask for the rights of black people to be seen as human beings. It is then behind that which they stand when they disregard #BlackLivesMatter, when they disregard protests that happening here and now. No, Martin Luther King may not have been Malcolm X (of younger days) but Martin Luther King was low key militant, he wasn’t this passive person that whiteness tries to paint him to be. He demanded the rights of Black people. He fought for the rights of Black people (with his body and words). Whiteness in its warped and evil way has managed to romanticise some black figures and civil rights stories such as MLK and Rosa Parks to make it palatable for them to sit and cry and ‘feel’. But wrap that same fight for equality, for inclusion and for humanity in a different package outside of the cisgendered, heterosexual prism and it is rebuked. It is sniggered at, and it’s ignored. It is so insidious.

RIP Martha Pay It No Mind Johnson you are the light and I am, because of you.

And whilst I’m in a ranting mood, I’m also tired of having to watch the stories and lives of the people that pioneered for my existence to live a better life being told by their friends, and people that have known them throughout their lifetime. Maybe if you stop killing them they could tell their own stories, and still be here to continue the fight. How bout dat.

Also, It doesn’t for second escape me that it’s not just because of this malformed image of Martin Luther King Jr that the audience reactions were different. It’s because Marsha is trans and because of that people seem to not be able to see her as a person and that’s more than fucked up. And that’s why comments like Chimamanda’s (why sis?) are more than problematic. The othering of trans women is nothing more than an attempt to strip them of their humanity because you feel that it will uplift yours and that’s something I will never stand behind.#TransLivesMatter.

Ima close this out with a quote from the man himself, written in ’63 from a Birmingham jail cell.

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season. Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

And in the words of Miss Johnson, “Pay It No Mind!”




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