Just Stay Home

Frieze Art Fair 2010 in Regent's Park, London. Photo by Linda Nylind for Frieze. 15/10/2010
Lorna Simpson, Five Day Forecast (1988)

If you are black American and you receive an invitation to join a conference on “diversity and justice,” know that you are being set up. That’s right. SET UP! Under the guise of thoughtfulness, consideration, and fellowship with similarly concerned professionals you will be heading into dangerous territory. Your hosts have hastily dropped landmines in the vicinity of any pathway you might take. So don’t be fooled by the four doormen ready with careful smiles and joyously offered pleasantries. Though they will be stationed at every entrance in sight–front door, elevators, front desk–after you’ve purchased a nasty Starbucks parfait and an even worse vanilla chai latte for $9.52, one of those idle doormen will ask if you can manage to push the elevator button to your floor with such full hands. Rather than perform the courtesy function that is his job, he asks you to weigh whether courtesy, his labor, should be your entitlement. If you are a black American, you have been asked to first offer an apology for the worker’s trouble before saying, “thank you.” Understand that while your plan was to acquire change for the housekeeping tip, you can’t even bestow a courtesy without penalty.

If you’re black American, leaving the establishment won’t be free either. Recognizing participants involved in the same affair as you is acceptable as long as you don’t ask them for directions. Your attempt to ask a question about the second-day conference location means that you will be given a strict rebuke for expecting a courtesy that you never asked for, wanted, or considered. Had you been able to ask your fellows about turning onto L Street, you may have prevented them from telling you, “there’s not enough room in the taxi for you. I mean, we’ve already got four and we each have our bags.” The doorman helping them into this car to reach a destination only 5 minutes away on foot has nothing for you either. “I don’t know. Go that way and turn left,” he hisses. How dare you disturb a man-of-color whose helping four white women into a taxi for a 2-minute ride! Can’t you see he’s busy? “The Google,” is your best option for assistance.

If you’re black American and you think that a conference about social justice means you’re safe, you’ve got a lot to learn. The presenters will presume your ignorance of American history and think a sound or gesture from you can only signify how shocked you are that the presenter graduated college in 1968. Forget the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination happened then, or those pesky uprisings occurring in cities across the United States; just dismiss the slaying of Robert Kennedy and anything else that happened. At the center of 1968 is this man whose name you cannot recall. No, you need to learn from this influential man, little girl. In fact, let me start by asking this older black woman to tell us about her college experience so she can tell you a little something about school integration. After her courageous recounting, you will be asked to tell the 70 people assembled “how you feel when you hear her story?” So on the spot, you figure out something appropriate to say in response that doesn’t reveal how offended you are by his presumption of your ignorance regarding scholarship as it relates to this woman’s oral narrative. “The story certainly enlivens the many narratives that I’ve read about the period,” you offer. “Her story enlivens what has become, what might be called, an iconic act of movement defiance,” you say. Now, of course, this scene can’t take such an ending. You need schooling, girl. “Let me tell you something,” the movement veteran shares. “See there? What you called a ‘movement’ wasn’t like that for us! It was what we lived.” Only two hours later, Charles Cobb will situate similar acts of protest within a “movement” and these very same people will clap for him.

Lorna Simpson, Untitled, 1989

If you are black American and you have thought anything about (in)justice in the United States, don’t go anywhere near presentations about sexual harassment, violence, and Title IX. You should just leave the room when the self-identified feminist lawyer tells those gathered how much she understands arguments against patriarchal privilege. She, in fact, knows first hand because she integrated a previously all-male law school. If you stay in this room, you will hear this woman discuss several cases where young men have been accused of rape and were excessively punished by their colleges and universities, but not guilty in a court of law. Then she’ll tell you about the professors who’ve been penalized because students mistook Yiddish pejoratives as racial offense, and you might have conceded her point were it not for the participant who recommends Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. In this novel, a professor uses the term “spooks” in referencing the perpetual absence of two black students whose names appeared on his roster. Despite never having seen these students, the professor gets targeted as racist. When the lawyer thanks the participant for the recommendation she tells us that Roth’s story mirrors an actual case of a professor who suffers a backlash for using the term “niggardly.” The lawyer finds this ridiculous. “Niggardly has nothing to do with American slavery. It’s a Danish term for Peet’s sake!” They all stop laughing when you remind them that the Danes had a stake in transatlantic commerce. They don’t find it the least bit funny when you ask the lawyer how she can talk about white college boys suffering and not think a thing about lynching. How she can ask us to consider a case of an innocent black law school student accused by a black law student of raping her and ruining his career, and not account for this as a Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill reboot? They want you to stop talking when you ask why she hasn’t used any cases where black male law students accused of raping white law students unjustly suffered. There’s not a single smile from those gathered at this picnic when you tell the lawyer that advocacy for the sake of those suffering white boys with their multimillion dollar settlements will not account for systems of oppression that took and takes the lives of black boys through summary execution. They want to be mortified, but you’ve just schooled them on the difference between inconvenience and death so they sit there.

Lorna Simpson, Plaques (1986)

If you are black American, you need to figure out how you are going to live in a culture where nothing in it was made with your humanity in mind. As for me, when I toss my dice, I understand that winning the game officially means that I must acquire the most money and the most property. However, I have determined that I’ve won when I make it home alive. If you just make it home alive, you are a champion.


4 thoughts on “Just Stay Home

  1. I must figure out a way to Skype you (or something) for a course I’m teaching next semester: Advanced Comp, but we’re focusing on Inequity and Inequality/Social Justice.

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