It is 1999, and Debra Ann Byrd wants to talk to me. We’re on a break from rehearsal of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, which I am directing. We go into an empty classroom and sit down in two ancient institutional metal desk-chairs. She looks at me with compassion and trepidation and says “the thing you’ve got to understand about this shit is: it happens.”
I nod attentively, blinking. I am twenty years old and I have no idea what she means. She’s talking about the words she’ll speak in rehearsal today:
we cd even have em over for dinner/
& get raped in our own houses/
Debra Ann tries again. “You’d be sitting there, enjoying the evening with your friend and…” here, a silence as she tries to launch a word that can get from her heart to mine. Instead, she sighs.
I don’t remember the rest of the conversation, just that at some point she deftly allowed me to believe that she’d communicated what she had wanted to and we walked back into rehearsal and carried on.
I had read for colored girls… the previous year in class, and fallen deeply in love with it. It’s a transcendent work of art, but what I cared about was that it soothed some rough longing inside me, affirmed a two-dimensional but precious belief. To me, for colored girls… was definitive evidence that we are all the same. What had happened to WEB Dubois when he lamented “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not” was happening to me in reverse. I sat with Shange and I got it. Her experience was my experience. Her art had bridged the gap between us.
Which is to say that I had completely missed the point. for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf is actually an aching, defiant assertion of the value of brutally othered people. It was, and is today, one of a very few wet drops on the hot dry desert of black women’s stories we ever hear.
I had no way of knowing that. By accident or by will or a combination of both, I still believed in the uprightness of colorblindness. All throughout my life I’d taken pathetic pride in not hating the very few black people I encountered. I wasn’t just not-racist, I abhorred racism in all the forms I knew, which were, in sum: the use of slurs in the present, slavery in the past, and the Klan. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t much racism going on in the world anymore, but if I saw any crosses getting burned, I planned to oppose it vehemently. To me, racism was so over that to deadpan “I hate black people” was a hilariously ironic joke.
When I showed up at a college with a near-majority black population, I held so fiercely to my conviction that we are all the same that I bristled at any assertion of difference. I refused to judge any of my new classmates by the color of their skin, opting instead for the content of their behavior. I didn’t have anything against black people, but I didn’t have much love for people who pronounced “ask” differently than I did. Or who gave their children African names. Or what I considered their obsessive focus on their own blackness. I liked black people, I just didn’t like people who did things that I didn’t understand, and by some odd coincidence blackness and my lack of comprehension often coincided.
In freshman comp I wrote what I thought to be a very insightful essay which opened with the line “a person who defines herself as ‘a black woman’ doesn’t know anything about herself that can’t be seen in a photograph.” My diplomatic professor asked me not to read it in class. I spoke up anyway, but none of my classmates engaged me in discussion. They just looked at their desks, embarrassed for me when I didn’t know to be embarrassed of myself. I was surprised that my black classmates didn’t congratulate me on the common sense of my argument, affirming that they too wished for their blackness to be erased so they could simply be individuals, the way I was. The silence confused me.
That winter, Amadou Diallou was shot 41 times when he reached for his wallet to show police his ID. Just after the news broke, I got on the bus in the middle of one of those city moments, when the whole organism is throbbing with pure reaction. The strangers on the bus, all black, were talking about it, leaving me out. And I was offended. I told them how angry I was about what had happened and how sad, and when they merely looked interrupted, I tried to explain that no one wants to live in a country where the police shoot unarmed people. This hurt me just as much as it hurt them. The conversation, again, ceased. At least until I got off the bus.
At school, my classmates were devastated. I was in student government and our advisor—socially conscious enough to understand that some kind of communion was needed but not socially aware enough to understand how thoughtfully such things should be organized– suggested that we hold a meeting in the chapel for students to mourn and discuss the shooting. We filed in and sat down, completely segregated.
For the first time, my classmates were not silent. They were racked with fear and grief and they didn’t have energy to tolerate, in the wake of this murder, my words of supposed comfort about how race didn’t matter, how we were all the same. They laid into me. I can barely remember what people said to me in the chapel that day, a lifetime’s worth of education in one angry hour. Their experiences, the police, their history, slavery. The colonization of Africa. What? I’d never been to Africa. This had nothing to do with me. A girl turned to her friend and said, “she’s probably going to call her daddy tonight and complain about how the black girls beat up on her.”
I was crying harder than I ever had in public, red faced and snotty and forsaken. I felt broken. I couldn’t make anyone understand that I wasn’t what they thought I was. I was the target of this fury and hatred for no reason but my color and it was unforgivably unfair. I remember literally wanting to tear my white skin off my body. And that is when something cracked and a little beam of light got in. Oh.
This is how you finally, finally shut up and start to listen. And now that I could listen, there were so many things to hear. A young lifetime of missed education. Someone handed me Peggy McIntosh’s memo to white women Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege. Oh. I went to hear my classmate Carin Brown at a poetry slam and when she pronounced herself “Black to the core/not black from the store” instead of dismissing what she said because I didn’t understand it, I saw that my lack of understanding revealed something about me. Oh.
This was no kind of instant transformation. It would be years, and I would fight everything I was patiently told about racism in America like a mad stupid dog. I could not unclench my fingers from around the idea that not being racist was about ignoring skin color. That was a lynchpin to my identity, and I just grasped it tighter as more and more information backed me up to the edge of the truth. If Martin Luther King hadn’t dropped everybody off at the mountaintop before he left, if opportunity was not, in fact, equal, if I was ignorant of my own country’s true history, if I was benefiting from other people’s suffering and if I’d somehow managed never to notice all this, then who the fuck was I?
People tried to tell me, but I couldn’t stand to hear them. I couldn’t let myself believe it, because I was too worried about what it would cost me if it were true. I needed the absolution of universality. So like a dumb tourist in a holy temple, I stole for colored girls...
The concept behind my production was that there was nothing particularly “black” about the play — that it was for all of us. And I cast it multiracially. I got around my mentor’s disapproval by casting a white woman with a black sounding name as the Lady in Blue. Not only did I cast a white woman, I cast her instead of one of the most talented actresses in school, Ta’rea Campbell, who rarely got to play anything that really showcased her because she was black. I don’t know what excuse I gave myself then, but in retrospect, I think I knew that Ta’rea was likely to challenge what I was doing. She was not good at hiding the fact that she was what any sane person would call “sick of that shit”, and what I would have called “angry.” My face is literally red with shame thinking about it sixteen years later.
I also cast Carin Brown and Debra Ann Byrd.
I haven’t spoken to either of these women since college, but I think of them all the time. I continue to be overwhelmed as I come to a deeper understanding of what they did for me. They patiently, and with an incomprehensible generosity, tried to explain. I didn’t deserve it. In the entire canon of my university reading, there was exactly ONE story about black women in a black woman’s voice. I didn’t just steal something, I stole the ONLY thing. I had thoughtlessly picked up something precious that was never mine and used it for the exact opposite of its vital, intended purpose. Shange was clear about who her words were meant for. She made it the title. And even as Carin Brown was put in the position of using those words to make my selfish, belittling and ignorant point, she tried to educate me without hurting my feelings. It’s not hyperbole to call this Christlike behavior.
I cannot really imagine what it must have been like for Debra Ann, who at 15 years my senior had personally lived many of the stories in for colored girls…, to be directed in that show by me. The silence that my whiteness and the protocol of a rehearsal conspired to produce must have been a stifling insult. Still, she worked right around and in spite of me, imbuing the text with the depth and understanding it deserved and inspiring her castmates to do the same. She simply defied my context.
Now, every time I am in a conversation where a man tells me that I should take catcalling as a compliment, I think of Debra Ann. When I find myself trying to explain to him that the rape scene in the movie diminished me and end up further diminished by his response, I get a small sense of what that conversation cost her. When he comes at me with a blustering rage about universal truth and the way the world is, I know exactly how he feels. When I resist the urge to scream, to pound my fists or leave him sitting there in his own ignorance I remember who my teachers were and I realize just how high they set the standard.
Thank you, Debra Ann. I’m so sorry. Thank you, Carin. I’m so sorry. Ta’rea, I’m so so sorry. Oh, Dondrie. I’m so sorry. Carlos, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Bashirrah, I’m sorry. Maurice, I’m sorry. Angelette, I’m sorry. Vicki, I’m sorry. Adam, I’m sorry. James, I’m sorry. Marneita, I’m sorry. Everyone in the chapel on the day of Amadou’s death. I wish I could find you all and tell you that I’m sorry.
But I can’t.
And what good is that apology anyway? The only way I know to thank you is to try to see the times where I can step up to others’ racism and to wield what it won’t cost me and would cost you. The only way I know to apologize is to keep listening, even though it will never be enough.
somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff
not my poems or a dance i gave up in the street
but somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff
like a kleptomaniac workin hard & forgettin while stealin
this is mine
this aint yr stuff
now why don’t you put me back & let me hang out in my own self
-Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf
Cara Blouin runs the Art Church of West Philadelphia, a gathering space for art and community, and is a freelance director and new-play dramaturg. She is best known in Philadelphia for producing Dan Rottenberg is Thinking about Raping You and The Republican Theater Festival. Other Philadelphia credits include Josh Hitchens’ The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Curio Theater,) and the world premiere of Joy Cutler’s Pardon My Invasion. Cara is the facilitator of “The Souls of Black Folk” series for new plays at the Painted Bride Art Center and has served as a teaching artist at Drexel University and the Community College of Philadelphia. She was also the founder of the New York-based Stone Soup Theater Arts, and the Universal Culture School in Hunan, China, which teaches English to Chinese teenagers using an arts curriculum.