Anna Deavere Smith on the Importance of Bringing Light to History’s Shadows and Resisting the Destructive Patterns Handed Down to Us by Our Invisible Pasts
By Maria Popova
“Society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed,” Hannah Arendt wrote in reflecting on Jewishness, the immigrant plight for identity, and the meaning of “refugee.” A refusal to perpetrate such social murder is what led Leonard Cohen to leave out the verse about the relationship between Blacks and Jews from his now-iconic song “Democracy.” When asked about the decision, he offered: “I wanted a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation or a call-to-arms or a defense.”
The everyday bloodless murders that stand in the way of such revelations in the heart are what Anna Deavere Smith limns in a few stirring passages from Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines (public library) — her remarkable memoir exploring the relationship between the personal and the political through the art of listening in a culture of speaking.
In consonance with poet Elizabeth Alexander’s assertion that “we live in the word,” Smith locates the seedbed of prejudice in the unwillingness to hear each other’s stories:
It may be that cultures with fewer words are in less danger than we are. So many of our words are being contorted, mangled, stretched, distorted in public life. I’m surprised they survive. I’m surprised they mean anything.
So suspicious is the ear. Its structure has changed. We sit with only one ear toward the speaker, and the other is tuned to the nonexistent next beat.
A self-described “Negro girl from Baltimore raised in segregation,” Smith lived through integration at the age of eleven and attended a predominantly Jewish school in an era of raging antisemitism, in a culture she recalls as one with “no boyfriends and girlfriends across racial lines, or religious lines.” In a sentiment Zadie Smith would come to echo a generation later in observing that “things have changed, but history is not erased by change,” Anna Deavere Smith writes:
History always lurks, changing reality into shadowed moments that are haunted by a past.
She shines a disquieting beam of awareness on the lattice of shadows lurking in her own childhood:
Whites didn’t play with blacks, or Jews, for that matter, and Reform Jews didn’t play with Orthodox Jews, and Orthodox Jews didn’t play with Jews fresh from Europe who didn’t speak English. Even Jews made fun of a Jewish girl with a Russian accent who brought sandwiches made of meat with a strong smell and purple horseradish, despised her for being so not “of it.”
Children breathing in that cultural atmosphere came to understand, as the young Smith did, that bullying can take many forms — that the archetypal bullies who wield fists are not the only ones who “exploit our unspoken hostility for us.” Reflecting on the less obvious but often more pernicious forms of bullying, Smith recounts the story of a little Jewish girl from her class named Lila:
Perhaps beatings are subverted when “shoulds” appear in a group. Those subverted headings transform into another type of hostility… Lila was beat up with humiliation.
Our homeroom teacher was a black woman who was not particularly popular. She was also our science teacher. She had to fight to get control of the room. I can only imagine what it was for her, too, to be in integration for the first time, probably having been educated in segregation (I know, for example, that she had gone to a black college) and now having to teach in this “loaded” integrated school. By Christmastime, we calmed down. She “proved” herself to us and we actually felt warmly toward her. The class decided to buy her a Christmas present. A rumor started that Lila, who was the quietest person in the room, Lila, who never ever had to be told to sit down, to be quiet, to do anything, Lila, who simply came to school and went home, who never seemed to socialize with anyone . . . Lila was not going to chip in for the Christmas present. Her parents wouldn’t allow it. This became our headline for two weeks or so: what we were going to do about it, how we were going to vote in terms of ostracizing Lila.
A tall, beautiful black girl (who was pregnant and would soon be forced to leave school) began some of the mockery toward Lila. I remember that it pained me. I also remember how surprised I was that the Jewish kids (again, the predominant population) began to turn against Lila too. What had started as a sort of 50–50 vote about whether to buy a Christmas present at all, now turned into 99 percent for the present, and Lila on her own. No one took her to the schoolyard and threatened to beat her up, no one stuck her head down the toilet, but the daily vote would be taken, the vote toward unanimous for buying the present or not, and as the days went on Lila became stronger and stronger in her position. The teacher would be out of the room. The tall, beautiful black girl would take the vote.
Every day Lila would sit with no expression on her face as we lifted our hands. Her hands stayed firmly planted on the desk. Her parents did not celebrate Christmas, and they would not allow her to buy a present for the teacher. I did not know if the fact of the teacher being black complicated it on another level. Lila never cried, she simply sat quietly as all kinds of things were said, and she never explained anything further. In fact, I don’t remember her ever saying anything — it was simply known she would not be chipping in for the gift.
Finally, the teacher got wind of the whole thing and shamed us all by saying, as she should have, that in this spirit she didn’t really want a Christmas present, and that Lila should not be forced to participate if her religion wouldn’t allow it. I remember this story because it was the first time I saw that a beating — even a public beating — could happen without anyone so much as striking a blow.
Smith’s Talk to Me is a fantastic read in its entirety, mapping through the stories of people she talked to over the course of twenty-five years — people ranging from a YMCA lifeguard to an inmate in a women’s prison to Christopher Hitchens — the possible paths before us as we work to unstrike those history-shadowed blows. Complement it with Mark Twain on compassion and how religion is used to justify injustice, Albert Einstein on the interconnectedness of our fates, and Elie Wiesel’s superb Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech about our shared duty in ending injustice, then revisit Anna Deavere Smith on the discipline of not letting others define you.
Published April 23, 2018