The short story by Raymond Carver, “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love?” centers around the conversation of two couples, defining from their individual perspectives what they believe “love” really is. There are, of course, contradictions as to how love is acted out by a person and how that act of love is perceived by another. In the final analysis, each holds to their own view and no finite definition of love is ever determined by the group.
I don’t know why this short story came to me this morning; maybe it has to do with the fact that I saw the movie “Birdman” which centers around Carver’s story. But as I researched the story line today (I had read it before), I thought of all the ways we humans can approach this idea of a definition of love. Then I thought of how we humans might also approach how we feel about the movie “Selma,” or perhaps even more so, how the movie “Selma” made us feel, not just about the movie but about our history in America and what part we should play in the continuation of that history.
I am never troubled by movies that focus on the history of African Americans in America, historical fictionalized accounts, if you will. I am very seldom distressed or angered over the content. Having lived these many years and having some sense of our presence and history in America (though not nearly enough), I am pretty sure that even the most brutal scenes depicted in movies cannot even begin to capture the reality of our tortured history from slavery to Jim Crow.
So, what do we talk about when we talk about “Selma?”
We talk about the violence and we are angered by the violence. But, once we leave the theater and as our memory of those horrific scenes fade, we return to business as usual. Too often we return to our everyday lives with little thought as to how we can continue the legacy of those individuals, many of whose names are lost to history, individuals who dared to march in the face of a sure white supremacy violence.
We sit in the theater and we weep over the deaths of young and old and yet we hardly blink when another African American young person is shot down on the street today. Yes, we are angry about lives that could have held much promise being snuffed out in the name of turf or offense or rite of passage but we very seldom venture into the community to lend a hand to youth who are too often devoured and destroyed by hopelessness.
We learn the words to “Glory,” written by John Legend and Common (and a wonderful song it is), but we can’t be bothered with celebrating our own anthem written in times when hope was a faint star on the distant horizon, The Negro National Anthem speaks not only of the struggle of a people but also of the persistent hope of a people who had no real reason to hope or persevere but persevere they did. They trod their way over paths watered by their tears, they slogged their way through paths covered with the blood of the slaughtered. Their journey was tortuous and tedious but they kept pressing, kept moving, kept hoping and kept supporting one another. Those linked arms in the movie, “Selma,” were more than just for physical support; those linked arms were symbols of communal support, arms strengthening arms against the evils that were ever present. Today, our mantra is too often more about “Every man for himself. . .”
We leave the theater with the question in mind, “Why,” and then we think out loud as to what we would have done had we been a part of the movement back then, what we would have taken and what we would have done. When we get home, we recline in our easy chair and the question of “What can I do today?” seldom challenges our psyche.
The movie opens with the Oprah Winfrey character standing in an office, a county office. She is not beautiful. She is dressed plainly, nothing that screams “look at me.” She is the bearer of a quiet and elegant spirit.
She looks just a little tentative. There is no one else in the office other than the clerk. She slides a form to him. He looks up at her with open disdain. He then stares down at the form, a voter registration form. He looks back up at the woman, disdain now turning to disgust.
He spits out a command at her.
“Recite the preamble to the constitution!”
She begins, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union. . .”.
He stops her with another demand.
“Name the total number of judges in the state of Alabama!”
She gives him the number.
Clearly irritated, he barks, “Name them.”
The man picks up a rubber stamp, slams it down on the form and when he lifts it, there, in bold capitalized red letters is the word “DENIED.”
The woman leaves but her will is not broken. The next time we see her, she is sitting in a meeting ready to take the next step to freedom across the bridge to Selma.
This scene makes me think of these reality shows where beautiful women elegantly dressed in designer couture spit expletives at one another as they run to snatch weaves and scratch faces, later crowing about their victory over “that b***h!”
What should we talk about when we talk about Selma? That denial is not always permanent and delay is not always denial.
While we are waiting, we must continue to move forward, arm in arm.
“Let us march on til victory is won” again and again and again.