This story does not make me look especially Good. But it was my Sunday afternoon.
I am prepared to be humbled. I am prepared to look foolish. I am about to be That Girl. That Woman, actually. I am 23 and just graduated from an elite liberal arts college where nothing is politically neutral and the intricate simcha-dance of Jewish identity feels as immediately pressing in my self-definition as it does in my academic research.
So as I enter the exhibit, “Art of Rebellion: Black Art of the Civil Rights Movement” at the Detroit Institute of Art, I give myself a pep talk, set intentions to listen and absorb whatever I can, to hold space for the richness of all the emotions and experiences conveyed therein. I remind myself to infuse my sense of intrigue with the kind of reverence that reminds me of distance. The kind of distance that, perhaps, enables eventual closeness. This is real life, real struggle; these are real losses and some notable real triumphs. This is not Mine. I will never understand.
In recent months, I have been taken aback by the distinct comfort found in the admission “I cannot understand what you are going through; I can barely imagine the pain you must feel.” The counterintuitive, clashing counterpart to “I completely understand…”, this transparent revelation of human shortcomings has nourished me in unexpected ways and wholly transformed my understanding of empathy. Somehow, “I will never understand,” opens a door; it’s as if recognizing these irreconcilable gaps in respective experiences and perceptions allows empathy to prevail. It’s as if fierce compassion requires an awareness of one’s inevitable incompetence, and the gall to try to compensate anyway, knowing at the outset that there will be no Successes. You will never have another’s eyes. In order to understand at all, you must recognize that you will never fully understand. But it is an imperative to try.
And so, with this in mind, I set out to try. I try not take myself too seriously. I am prepared to be wrong, to be corrected, to be disproven by those who have touched the things I am merely observing from a voyeuristic, if hypersensitive, stance. Yet, setting this intention only makes me acutely aware of how I take myself way too seriously, how I have an Ivy chip growing on my freckled shoulders, how I act like I’m basically short on oxygen if my mother admires a row of renovated houses in Downtown Detroit and I don’t manage to make mention of gentrification (when my credibility is based solely on my last four years of liberal academic norms, one class on Urban Sociology, and a handful of friends who majored in Urban Studies). But somehow I just need to state for the record that I Know Things, that the tuition dollars counted for something, if only for making me completely insufferable to be around.
Don’t be so hard on yourself, dear. I know, I know. But as I stare at the rich colors of paintings from the 1970’s and wish I was alive back then, as I consider the swooping curves of a thick wooden sculpture, an ode to the injustices committed against female bodies of color, I wish I had an “impostor” stamp to imprint on my forehead, if only to impress the reminder upon myself. After all, it’s apparent to everyone else.
I stare at an abstract work depicting a blurred mob, a Klan hood at the focal point, conquering the space and demanding a gaze of trepidation. What a shame. Shame, shame, shame. Nothing’s changed. I hear the faint echoes of “Jews will not replace us” and know this black-and-White Supremacist image is an homage to threats that still breathe, that howl – at me too. Except this isn’t about me, or about Jews, or universalizing messages of equality and justice and love of the stranger. Those are important, but this is “Art of Rebellion,” and can’t I just let these remarkable black artists display their stories, their guts, in vivid abstractions and poignant details, and stop inserting anything more? I keep my hands to myself but somehow feel like I’m violating the museum signs against touching the artwork. I feel my thoughts and feelings permeating the exhibit space, as if coating the works with grey dust. I take two large steps back, almost knock into a stranger, and feel defeated. I can’t win. That’s the whole point. Can I tuck myself away?
I make that ugly squinting face that happens when I feel compelled to cry, but the liquid has yet to pool in my barren eyes and flow to my pale pink cheeks. Am I being authentic? Performative? Who is watching anyway?
The last section of the exhibit connects past movements for racial justice with contemporary struggles, and culminates with a graffitied wall devoted to Black Lives Matter. Tears finally come when I face a black canvas, with three white-outlined faces layered over each other; they are the silhouettes of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Mike Brown, a few of the more infamous cases of systematic violence against men of color. No one should die for wearing his hood up. No mothers should be in mourning. And I mean it. Of course I mean it. But my tears embarrass me almost as much as the lack of them had a few minutes earlier. Who am I to cry here, my white tears doing nothing to actually promote progress or deepen connections with real people? I cry because it is devastating, and because it is the Right Thing.
I play devil’s advocate with myself – would I find it offensive to see gentiles crying at Holocaust memorials or upon reading Lamentations? On the contrary, would I consider it callous not to? No, no – it’s not about the tears, per se; but there has to be a dose of “I will never understand.” I try to come to the conclusion that it is most preferable to land in this place of tension, where I keep trying, conscious of my perpetual un-victories.
As I feel my heart open a crack, I feel compelled to connect to anyone I can, to get outside myself. I sometimes wonder about the security guards at museums, standing surrounded by breathtaking, provocative, statement-making art and artifacts all day. I want to know what the guards think, because when is the last time someone picked their brains? Hold on, I smell some self-righteousness. Okay, but I really do want to learn from strangers.
The security guard is a middle-aged black man; purely out of curiosity, I ask, “do you have a favorite piece in this exhibit?” Not because he is black, although that definitely makes me more curious. I want to clarify and qualify before I ask, wary of tokenizing. And even that hava amina (arising flicker of thought) brands me as a Good White Person (but in a bad way), trying too hard to check her social justice boxes for the day. But I need to let it go. He looks caught off-guard, and implicitly I feel I have done a mitzvah because he is probably never asked that. I am driving myself crazy. I want to take my Mitzvah Points and go hide in a Beit Midrash (study hall), buried in Aramaic, where my insights are valued – and challenged – and it’s all fair game.
I would have asked him in any exhibit probably…right?
And I would have asked a white guard the same question, yeah?…Of course I would, certainly.
He says he doesn’t have one, and asks what mine is. I point to a really abstract painting on a long, narrow canvas, stained with deep purples and reds, and stammer that I’m in awe of artists who can convey the core of an experience without being explicit about it, how that’s really powerful.
He says something about how these issues are still so relevant, how there is still so much to fight and fear, and I demonstrate my agreement with vigorous bobblehead nodding. He points out that I look like the exhibit has affected me emotionally. Deep down, I consider this a mark of success. Can you be an impostor towards something you really are? Can I be authentic and stilted at once, trying too hard to not try, or to try just enough, in the right ways? Are these tears forced if the sadness is natural? I wear myself out. I don’t deserve sympathy. And not because I don’t have oppression in my veins and in my bookshelves; just because this is not about me or about Jews. This is not mine.
But just as I am finally feeling decent about my gestures of solidarity, my thoughtful gaze, my subtle facial expressions to show I am engaged in his story, he breaks from his anticipated script. I came prepared to nod even more voraciously as this man praised black activists and aired his grievances toward the White Establishment. Hell, I am ready to sing those praises and vent those gripes, unleash the anger to which I am not entitled. Except he launches into a somewhat non-sequitur tirade about “black-on-black crime,” and the “unfair double-standard” of prohibiting white people from using the N-word. And then, as if his role is specifically to test the bounds of my tolerance, he declares how much he hates Black Lives Matter, and endorses the revised “ALL Lives Matter.” And I sigh and think of all the rebuttals I could provide, all the talking points I have been taught, and that make so much sense to me. I consider the words of the people of color I know, and focus on being the best Advocate I can be. And I cringe at my self-satisfaction, willing my lips to stay glued shut, erring on the side of caution. Like I’m someone’s savior. I call myself out, and then call myself out again for any satisfaction I got from that moment of critical self-awareness. This is what you’re meant to struggle with; you don’t get a gold star, lady.
I want to push back gently on his faulty logic, point out the mistaken statements and conglomeration of disparate issues. I want to say the Right Thing, to save the day, to “walk the walk” of my gratuitous Facebook posts in support of the #Resistance and cement my spot on the Right Side of History.
Except I am in a bind I imagine most conservatives fantasize about as they mock “snowflakes” like me in “clever” memes about getting caught between competing progressive values. As if we have a monopoly on cognitive dissonance – ha! What I do know is that talking over a black person to explain why black lives indeed do matter would be the Actual Worst, and so I refrain from speaking much at all. I let it go, thank the man for his time and honesty, and try to summon gratitude for the constructive tension that remains and rattles. I am proud of my fortitude, standing there respectfully, turning the volume down on my every “but–but–” objection, in favor of making way for the response to the conversation I initiated. I started this, after all. Had I gone into this with a fixed answer ready to fit my comfort zone and voting patterns? And what the hell do I do with this guy?, I ponder, perplexed. Who says I have to “do” anything about him or the encounter? It’s not my job to educate him, or to be “correct.” I heard him out; I didn’t do him a favor or provide a service. I satisfied my own curiosity, and my ego as well. Maybe I would have been better off not asking in the first place. I don’t really believe that.
But I am humbled. Not because he has proven me wrong, because he hasn’t. I still could not disagree with him more, even though his life is immediately affected by the matter at hand, and mine is not. His voice holds more weight here in some ways, but not completely. What it does mean is I need to shut the hell up, nod along, and feel very uncomfortable. I will never, ever understand. He will never know my consciousness either. Neither will you.
I will never understand. And that is no excuse not to try. I swallow my pride, laugh at my neuroses, give up on having the right answers.
Thank you to Shais Rishon for helping me process my thoughts and feelings, and challenging me to move beyond my own head.
Image: “James Baldwin in setting sun over Harlem,” Ming Smith, 1991 (featured in DIA’s “Art of Rebellion” exhibit)