Keep Your Eyes Open: The Right to be Seen

“She’s here! She’s here!” echoed throughout the crowded reception hosted by the Mississippi Archives.

Lowering the wine glass from my lips, brushing my hair over my shoulders, I turned around and there she was—Merlie Evers-Williams.  She wore a robin-blue suit and the dusk of the sunset streaming in through the tall pillars of the building danced off her dark skin. Two built bodyguards—one in front and one behind her-entered as well. The crowd hushed. With her head held high, she addressed the audience with grief and gratitude. I itched my dry white elbow and tilted my ear in the direction of the podium where Merlie Evers-Williams spoke.

During my short visit to Jackson, I had the privilege of attending the 50th Anniversary of Medgar Evers’s Death with my co-workers.  The Mississippi archives had a Greek-style architecture with tall white columns and marble floors tracked your steps in dozens of tiny clicks. Before Merlie Evers entered, we were entertaining ourselves with an exhibit on Medgar Ever’s life and death. The exhibit was intense as it included the rifle that Byron De La Beckwith used to kill Evers. Just being in the building connoted a connection to something important—if you were seen there that meant one of three things: that you made an appearance because it was the politically correct thing to do, or because you were had participated in the civil rights movement. I am sure my friends and I were not the only people who were there because we deeply cared about what had happened to the Evers family. Many people, black and white, came to pay their respects.

The demographic of the event was unlike the current racial reality of Jackson—it was pretty much fully integrated. The parchment-colored building surrounded the chatty inhabitants with a cool polished marble, open to the mint fresh southern air. Steak dripping with pink juice was served with green bamboo sticks. There was bubbly white wine served to the attendees, as well, including myself.

Although I am ashamed to admit it, there was one point in Merlie Evers’ speech when I was distracted. As a writer I have a keen ability to eavesdrop. Even with my hearing damaged from numerous rock concerts, I still manage to do it. I consider listening in on the lives of others to be one of my more positive vices. Finding something that already exists helps me replicate it in a creative manner. One black man briefly held open the door (for a white man, of course), and my curious ears perked up when I heard that the man holding the door was the cousin of the late Emmett Till. “I remember when he was kidnapped” he said as if it were an hour ago. From the evidence that I gathered from his moist eyes, his pain was still fresh even though Till’s kidnapping was decades in the past. After looking into those eyes, I was stung. I hope he did not see me staring.

The feeling echoed throughout my blood stream. My pulse increased to the rate of a rollercoaster, and my heart jumped up into my throat. Notice how he introduced himself as “Emmett Till’s cousin” and not by his given name.  I wish I knew his name. Writing about him without it makes me just as guilty as the man who introduced him. He is an extension of his famous relative, without his own identity.

That night I began to see America for what it really is. Often enough, African Americans are either icons or invisible. Everyone held their breath when Merlie Evers-Williams entered the room, but I saw many black faces in the gallery that were noticed even less than the exhibit was. There were many (black and white) people who stopped to chat with each other in front of the exhibits, to make it seem as if they were more interested in the artifacts than they actually were.

Looking back at what I learned in college, the Black Freedom Movement is now merely discussed in an academic manner.  It’s no longer considered ‘radical’ or ‘against the grain’ to care about America’s unjust racial history, precisely because it is seen as an antiquated milestone. Many people, including myself, believed for a long time that racism was over. Trayvon Martin’s death proved otherwise. The movement boils down to theories that are discussed, but we do not really understand what people who lived through it truly experienced. What is worse than perceiving the movement as a lifeless subject, is when all racial struggles are seen as a product of the distant past. Martin’s death and other lives suffering in the American prison complex, prove that the law is not on the side of African Americans.  I feel I can speak for many people when I say this needs to change-immediately!

Trayvon Martin, Emmet Till and Medgar Evers had thoughts, ideas, quirks and relationships with people who still miss them. Before Trayvon was killed, he was invisible. He remained unseen until George Zimmerman saw him as a ‘threat.’ Playing off the stereotype that African Americans are ‘dangerous’ Zimmerman literally got away with murder. One of the many things that must be fixed in America is to see African Americans as full, dynamic human beings. Not as demons like OJ Simpson or demi-Goddesses like Oprah. Trayvon, just like Emmet and Evers, was a full human being with opinions, thoughts and emotions.

However, there cannot be a racial paradigm without the other side of the spectrum.

Here is where I talk about my race, privilege and potential part of the problem:

Back before Mrs. Evers spoke to the crowd, I walked the around the exhibition alone. My eyes shifted from the walls of the exhibit and to the eyes of the on-lookers. There was one black woman a few feet away from me who saw me. I smiled; she did not smile back.

As a decent looking white woman, I have the privilege of being seen. Whether it is a middle aged  farmer  tipping his red baseball cap, or a red faced soccer mom thanking me for letting her go ahead of me in the bathroom line at Starbucks, I am seen.  Even when I visited New York City.  In the infamous crowded city where everyone is focused only on where they need to go next, when I asked subway directions from a stranger, no one thought twice before they gave them to me. Usually, until people hear my controversial ideas and opinions, they assume I am a harmless cuddly white girl. I absolutely attribute this impression to my race, gender and age; I am young, too. As I have walked though life, I have been and have expected to be acknowledged.

There was no use pretending I was not there. In the exhibit, I had another encounter that struck me. Another black woman was sitting down on a bench and I could see the disappointment slip down her shoulders as she leaned against the stone cold building; she thought I had not seen her. By the time I flashed my smile at her, her eyes were glued to the ground. Not wanting to get caught as a curious white girl staring at a black woman, I looked away, held my wine glass and continued to shuffle though the exhibit.

Something told me this could happen in the North too; how many black faces did I ignore in New York City when I rushed off to my day job? How are young black women treated when they ask strangers for directions on the subway? There are many stereotypes our society throws onto African American women; their status as harmless human beings is certainly not one of them!

While leaving the event, several of these thoughts rushed back into my head like the ocean tide and have stayed inside me ever since. My friend Janie had to leave early to visit a relative in the hospital, but she caught my eye before she left— knowing we would talk later. Riding in my friend Dave’s maroon station with Sara and Max later that evening, I told them the various things I observed and thought of at the event. For the first time out loud, I relayed to them my theory of black invisibility. How black people are treated as either icons or they are ignored.

Dave said “I agree with you, and I think Merlie would too.”

“Thanks Dave,” I nodded in appreciation. I had already told my friends the story of the two different back women I saw who did not return the smile I gave them.

Then I asked, “Is expecting a smile back a form of white entitlement?” He assured me that I was reading too much into it. Although I appreciated Dave’s support, I was not, and still am not, convinced. But who knows? It was a sobering event, and perhaps it is hard to smile during a remembrance ceremony for the death of a rare brilliant hero. Maybe I made the mistake of trying to lighten the whole thing up.

In 1896 Paul Lawrence Dunbar wrote the poem, “We Wear the Mask” which details the stifled emotions and expectations of African Americans to smile and pretend for the sake of white appeasement.  He states “We smile, but O great Christ, our cries to thee from tortured souls arise.” Maybe the woman I smiled at did not want to masquerade her true feelings anymore; I do not blame her. She was tired of wearing Dunbar’s mask, tired of her invisibility. I am glad I saw her true face at that moment. Pretending is wearing ‘the mask.’ Readers of all races, keep your eyes open.

Keep your eyes open for how white people treat African Americans and other people with a racial minority status. Black readers, how do you see yourself and the people you identity with? Keep your eyes open. Readers of all races, for a second you forget to see someone, blink and try again. Open and start all over again with your seeing. Notice the light dancing off peoples’ faces when they smile. Notice when their eyes fall onto the white marble floor and defeated, sink in to it. If you receive a malicious stare at the sight of your dark skin, please know you are better than the person who threw their toxic gaze at you. If you smile and someone does not return it, let them be. Keep your eyes open. People have the right to be seen.

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