The terrifying act of confronting racism

It was 1983 and blues musician Daryl Davis was performing at a bar in Maryland.  This wasn’t just any bar, it was a “whites only” bar and if you’re unfamiliar with Mr. Davis, he’s a black man.  But by the end of the night, Davis had formed an unlikely friendship with one specific audience member—a Klansmen.

The Klansman had told Daryl he’d never heard a black man play the piano as good as Jerry Lee Lewis. Davis replied, “Who do you think taught Jerry Lee Lewis to play that way?”  In any other case with a different black musician, the exchange might’ve been more abrasive and confrontational but Daryl chose the contrarian approach.

After a night of conversation, the Klansmen would hand Daryl contact info for one of the Grand Dragons. This would plant a seed in Davis’ mind that maybe he could form a friendship with one of the Grand Dragons. Regardless of their glaring differences, Davis realized that if both sides find a mutual connection—such as music—it lends the opportunity for the two to bond. Ultimately, this bond would encourage Klansmen to be more open to discussion about race. It was a lot to bank on but Daryl’s experience that night in Maryland motivated him to go all in.

I had one guy from an NAACP branch chew me up one side and down the other, saying, you know, we’ve worked hard to get ten steps forward. Here you are sitting down with the enemy having dinner, you’re putting us twenty steps back.  I pull out my robes and hoods and say, look, this is what I’ve done to put a dent in racism. I’ve got robes and hoods hanging in my closet by people who’ve given up that belief because of my conversations sitting down to dinner. They gave it up. How many robes and hoods have you collected?[1]

I Like America and America Likes Me – Joseph Beuys

 

Davis’ approach draws a parallel to performance artist Joseph Beuys when he locked himself in a room with a live coyote for three consecutive straight days.  The purpose of the piece was to focus on the 1970’s America and the oppression of Native Americans.

The coyote was a representation of America at that time; feral and wild.  To put it more simply, the byproduct of the cynical history of America and whites’ mistreatment of minorities.  Joseph saw the coyote as America’s “spirit animal” and Beuys being a representation of “us”.  Beuys rode on the concept of America being a melting pot and a land of opportunity where a foreigner like him could come to this country and live in harmony with other races and creeds.

You could say that a reckoning has to be made with the coyote, and only then can this trauma be lifted.

During those three days, Beuys performed various gestures at the coyote who would shift between hostile and calm.  The coyote uncertain of Beuys’ intentions and Beuys unsure of the coyote’s.  There were moments in which the coyote snapped at him and other times in which the two embraced.

At the end of the three days, Beuys emerged from the room unharmed. The lesson from Beuys’s strange performance was direct: in order for America to heal its social wounds, it can only do so through direct communication and willingness connect with all its varied populations.[2]

We were a little shocked at the extent of his naivete. – James Baldwin

 

On May 23, 1964, James Baldwin and several cultural leaders attended a private, unpublicized meeting with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy at a New York apartment.  The purpose of the meeting was to address and formulate resolutions towards race relations in America.  Ultimately, the meeting itself did not reach any progressive conclusion.

Baldwin would express that Kennedy was naïve about how serious the conflicts and issues of race were in America.  In one instance, Kennedy claimed the Justice Department was a key supporter of the Civil Rights movement. Jerome Smith, an attendee, refuted that claim and detailed stories of the Justice Department allowing violence against black citizens.  The meeting peaked when attendees began to walk out, which left both sides angered and bitter towards one another.

Kennedy would later admit that he wasn’t prepared for such a confrontation.  When met with the realities of oppression that existed in America, he became defensive and in denial. Despite the meeting’s disheartened conclusion, the residual effect was a step in the right direction.  A month after the meeting, President John F. Kennedy would give his Civil Rights Address where he would publicly acknowledge the need to confront racial inequality in America. This would lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 coming into legislation[3], considered to be a landmark achievement in American politics.  The act ended segregation in public spaces and made it illegal to discriminate based on race, sex, color, religion, or nationality.

The irony of it all? The individual who pushed for the legislation the most was none other than Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

Find someone who disagrees and invite them to your table. – Daryl Davis

 

Progress stands the best chance when opposing sides can confront their issues head-on.  That’s not to say that meeting with like-minds won’t produce positive results.  President Obama’s meeting with prominent black figures in April 2016 resulted in 58 federal prisoners being pardoned by the President[4].  On the opposite end of the spectrum, Trump’s meeting with Kim Kardashian-West led to the commute and release of Alice Marie Johnson who was serving a life sentence for drug trafficking conviction. The latter meeting strikes closer to Daryl Davis’ philosophy.

Kim Kardashian-West has been vocal about her opposition to Trump and his policies. She could use her differing beliefs as an excuse to reject interaction with Trump at all costs.  Instead, she met with the President and convinced him to commute Johson’s sentence. Something that might have never happened had she chosen to be more closed-minded.

Though Kanye’s approach—whether his intentions are selfish, genuine, or an odd combination of both—may not be immediately effective, history has shown us that the long-term effects are paramount to progress. But the main issue isn’t so much the approach but that Kanye just might not be the best candidate to spearhead this endeavor.

Imagine for a moment Colin Kaepernick, Obama, Oprah, John Stewart, Bill Gates, and even the likes of Ben Shapiro meeting with Donald Trump to have a dialogue about all that troubles America.  If dozens of Klansmen can befriend Davis and leave the Klan, and a disastrous meeting with Kennedy could result in the Civil Rights Act, there’s definitely hope for Trump. And for those who may deem it an utter waste of time, I encourage you to look to South Africa.

After decades of the apartheid, the country was able to reset race relations by realizing that the true culprit of these crimes against humanity was the system, not the people[5].  Perpetrators were allowed confession and amnesty, the victims given rehabilitation and resolution, and the country was allowed to start over and heal.

No matter how difficult our current times may be, America has overcome hostile eras time and time again.  The Civil War, two world wars, the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, The Cold War—the peaks and valleys of America’s trials, failures, and triumphs speak for themselves.  America is capable of resolution over destruction but for what it’s worth, James Baldwin said it best:

[1] The Audacity of Talking About Race With the Ku Klux Klan

[2] When Joseph Beuys Locked Himself in a Room with a Live Coyote

[3] Baldwin–Kennedy Meeting

[4] Obama made progress on criminal justice reform. Will it survive the next president?

[5] A Radical Idea for Predatory Men: Confession, then Amnesty