World Up on Race: Dear John, The Power of the Lens by Esther Armah

BY , September 24, 2010

The next installment to our collaborative series with J.Love Calderon, this is a not-quite love letter written for Love, Race and Liberation: ‘Til the White Day is Done.

The author of this post, Esther Armah, and J.Love, are speaking at the Brecht Forum on September 27th at an event called “Women on the Left; White Women on White Privilege.” We hope you can make it, to join into the discussion. Click on the flyer at the bottom for all the details.

A love letter. That’s what I’ve been asked to write. How do I do that? Where do I start? I do not love you. So maybe this should be a “Dear John” letter, a break-up letter, where I go back and look at our dysfunctional, codependent, inter-connected relationship, minus hatred and rose-colored lenses. Except that our history keeps us connected and, leave though I may try, I keep running into you everywhere I go. Damn. Okay, forget about the “Dear John,” part. Let’s just share. Me first.

My relationship with you has been rocky from the beginning. The intimate lash of a tongue, and the kiss of the lynch made me wary of you all those years ago. In the beginning, you always had your way, called the shots, laid down the law. You always demanded the missionary position, had to be on top. I had no choice. It was an abusive relationship. I always felt like I was struggling to breathe. It was fraught, tense, violent, and scary. It went on for hundreds of years. Wasn’t exactly a marriage, no white dress, no aisle, no flowers, no honeymoon. It was a relationship, though.

Change came. As it always does. I stopped working for you – at least in that capacity. I fought for you to recognize my humanity. Blood was shed so I could get a chance to be in a classroom, graduate, go to college, work for myself – or, indeed, you. And all these years later, here we are. What we have run from is our truths, our individual truths; yours and mine. Let’s not run anymore. Walk with me. Isn’t love truth? Some say the truth will set you free. Cliché? Maybe. Sometimes truth does other things. It binds you, cripples you, paralyzes you, and even destroys you. I feel for you. I wonder how it must feel to know that your truth, what you have and who you are, is a lie, and wasn’t achieved fairly. There’s no need to get defensive. Another truth? You have watched me, scrutinized me, labeled me, categorized me, despised me, yearned for me, envied me, hated me, been scared of me – and then you voted for me. I vote for some truth between us.

Let the past be the past, you continually tell me. Okay. I can do that. First though, you need to hear how it affected us. You were lied to. When you described me as savage, less-than, ignorant, unworthy, those were lies you told yourself and were told. Not just that I was less-than, I mean that you were somehow better, more human, more noble. That, too, was your lie, your burden, your privilege and, ultimately, your cancer. You carry that to this day. That’s why you won’t be part of something I’m part of. You insist on taking it over, invading it, razing it, re-writing it or re-telling it. The hero is always you, you either saved me or killed me. Or pitied me. You were hoodwinked, bamboozled. And now, you’re suffering, the world that gave you so much is taking away those things that made you, you; that gave you esteem, a sense of value. That’s the danger of the single story. You can’t always be the hero; you weren’t. You were the villain, the criminal.

So, now it’s time to just be. It’s hard to swallow the resentment, the call to criticize, chastise, wail on you. I’m trying. Give me a minute. This is tough. Who might I have been with your path? Who might you have been with mine? We never got to walk in each other’s shoes for a minute, much less a mile. So, no more single stories. No more versions of you where you rescue or save me. Our weird inter-dependent need has created cowards and built careers. Guilt has been the commodity that paved a lot of paths; truth was much harder to come by. We need each other. Admit it. I know it’s hard, but you did. Me too. Our versions of ourselves are connected due to our pasts. Were then. Still are. You need me. Still do. You, like Ali, think you’re the greatest. It ain’t bad, it just ain’t true. Your version of me was your truth, your way of getting by. I survived us, our relationship, I got scars, you do too.

Now I watch you, read you, listen to you and hear myself defined by you all over again. Whether it’s the small screen, the big screen, the airwaves, the page – your version of me continues to provoke me, make me mad all over again. Now, I challenge you. You voted for someone who looks like me, so no longer can rest on a singular version of me. You gotta stand up when I walk in, gotta call me “Massa,” or maybe just President. Low blow, couldn’t resist that one. Look how far we’ve come, you say; some of us say that too. And yet. And yet. Recent natural disasters remind me that your single story, your single version of who I am stays with you, in your brain, in your soul, you’re fixated. You mean well. You don’t mean any harm. That’s what you say. But you cause harm. You do.

Your lens on my body has always been intrusive, zooming in, close up, nothing hidden, everything exposed. That lens didn’t stop me from navigating around it, over it, underneath it to get to where I stand today. Here we are. You and me. I realize we have a strange inter-dependence. You became my fall-guy, my guarantee for blame; I continued to be who you perceived and portrayed me to be, someone you wanted, despised, feared, envied. Why? Why are you so attached to this single story of me? Why must you define me in these boxes and by these terms? Is that what your path did to you; robbed you of an ability to measure me beyond that single story.

Time to challenge you and do for me. So, my truth is this; there are no single stories – not yours, not mine. There is a power in the lens, to shape, re-write, re-tell and re-package various truths. To whittle, mold, sand everything down into the single story. There are perspectives, versions, sides. You want absolutes, I can’t give you those. That’s what lies do, make things absolute; makes them black and white. Truth is much harder, much grayer, more painful, but much more freeing. So, here we are, you and me. The power of the lens. No more single stories. What now?

Esther Armah is a radio host, playwright, author, and award-winning international journalist. She has worked in print, radio, and television in the U.S., UK, and Africa. She now lives in New York.

If you can’t make it to the Brecht Forum on September 27th, check out this audio clip of what you might’ve heard:

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