In a black residential area of Little Rock, Arkansas, I asked a young man about this. He was 20 years old and out of work, with plans to start school at Arkansas State University in the fall. ”It’s because they’re all racist,” he said. When I asked him if he ever experienced racism in his daily life, he answered no. “But that’s because I never see any white people,” he said. “If they want to leave, let them leave. I have to pay $20 rent for just one room. I need to hurry up and find a job. I don’t have any furniture.”
“Actually,” he continued, “I’m part black, part Indian, part Filipino, and part French. So I guess I’m actually yellow.” He was light-skinned, and apart from his curly hair his facial features were not unlike those of a Japanese person. But in the United States a little bit of black makes you all black, despite how you think of yourself.
“In the future I want work with computers. That’s where the money is. I think that maybe joining the military is the easiest way to get into that. But before that I want to try my hand at boxing. I want to be like Muhammad Ali,” he said, echoing at 20 years old something that I heard from many children.
A 400 Year Burden
The white capitol building shone in the 95 degree heat of the Jackson, Mississippi sun. Here I met with 22-year-old Ralph Thurmond. He spoke with a particular crisp rhythm. He worked as a fire extinguisher salesman while putting himself through Jackson State University, a black college with a proud reputation.
He was born in Chicago, and attended high school on 47th Street, in one of the toughest ghettos in Chicago. He said that he had 21 siblings related by blood. He had moved alone to Jackson two years ago, back to the land where his grandfather had worked as a sharecropper. When I told him I was Japanese, he told me that he was learning about Buddhism and Shinto. “Our religion used to tell us to revere our ancestors, but that was stolen from us,” he said. “Are there any black people in Japan?” he asked. “What do the Japanese think about black people?”
For the first time in a long while, I felt like I had met a friend that I couldn’t really talk to. I told him all about the purpose of my photography. “I wanted to live like a black person,” he told me. “I came back to the South because this is where our roots are. When I finish college, I want to go to Africa to study our traditional culture.”
I asked him if college wouldn’t allow him to get a white collar job and live a comfortable, middle-class life. “Some people do that,” he replied, “but I think that’s just a form of Uncle Tom-ism. I don’t believe in their system, or what they call affirmative action. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for equal rights, but all we got was integration, which was just what the white man wanted. It’s all a trick. Middle-class blacks are just being led around by money. There are 22 million blacks in the U.S., but there’s just a small number of black people who decided to turn white. They’ve been given jobs as a kind of apology, and it deludes them into thinking that there is no more racism. They try to make other black people think that, so that they can protect themselves. When blacks and whites go to school together, they are taught white history, made up by white people. It’s all just a trick. We blacks have our own culture, our own language, our own music. White people can never separate us from that. Black people should make the decision themselves to stay away from whites.”
I couldn’t help but wonder how many people think along the same lines.
“What do you think about how black people braid their hair?” he asked. “It may look strange to you, but that’s an expression of black culture and tribalism. They’re living much more like black people than any middle-class black person is. Here in Jackson, there’s a group of people hoping to return to Africa. I go to the meetings sometimes. There’s all kinds of people there, both young and old.”
I asked him if he was always conscious of being black. “Of course I am. There isn’t a single black person in this country who isn’t constantly conscious of their race.”
It’s a problem of perception. How does one live in order to truly obtain freedom? It’s only been 20 years since the beginning of an organized movement for equal rights. They have won many victories, removing the discriminating laws and systems. But the history of slavery lasted for 400 years. Perhaps the time has finally come for the pain of that long period to be relieved. But doing so won’t be easy.
The problems that blacks now face are not systemic ones, but ones of their own perceptions. In America today it seems as if the civil rights movement has largely come to an end. The Black Panthers have left behind their previous extremism, and perhaps their efforts to enter into a more general sphere are a result of their involvement in the civil rights movement. Perhaps a new era is coming, supported by youths such as this. But they seem to be moving in two different directions.
In New Orleans, I saw a blaxploitation film called “The Mack”. The movie theater was filled to capacity, the entire audience was black. The main character was a successful pimp, back on the streets of the ghetto after a stint in jail. An antihero to the core, living a life permeated by drugs, sex, gambling, and violence, he was tricked into killing a friend by a dirty white detective. Realizing he had been set up, he finally makes a connection with his older brother, a black rights activist. The movie ends with the hero sending his brother off on a long bus ride to escape the police. It was a frightening, wonderful film. The theater was filled with emotion. When the white detective fell, cheers went up. When he was killed, there was applause. It can’t have been a coincidence that this film was shown as a double feature along with Disney’as “The Ugly Duckling”.
The American television drama “Roots” recently presented the American era of black slavery. This series and such movies dramatize a reality that many blacks face today, one which is not as good as it might be, but one that might bring blacks together in a feeling of solidarity.