TOUR Day 19 - Washington, DC and Race Stuff / by Sophie Johnson

This is really the first time that we have woken up in the same city that we are performing in. I sat in a van for a total of 20 minutes today, on the way from our hotel to the venue. We’re at a Residence Inn in Alexandria, Virginia, which is probably my favorite kind of hotel to stay in, because they decorate it like it’s a real house, with a full-size fridge and EVERYTHING. They put the garbage can under the “kitchen” “sink.” It feels like staying at a very clean, malnourished friend’s apartment.

I was craving a bookstore, so Jonathan and I took the Metro into DC Proper. We went to a little used bookstore where I bought the fifth “Harry Potter” for $3. We ate tricked-out macaroni and cheese from a street vendor. Then we got on the train again to go to the National Mall, where all the museums are free, and you can shrink in front of famous monuments.

Jonathan and I are both the types of people who are like, “What do you want to do? I don’t really have a preference. Did you want to… go to… THIS museum? I mean, that would be fine with me, but any museum is fine. Did you… it sounds like maybe you want to go to THAT museum. That’s totally cool too. Any museum is totally cool. I would do any museum. You just pick whatever you want.” You know: we are non-committers. In many social circles, we can be very useful and easygoing additions. Groups of non-committers together, however, can drive each other into the ground. Eventually everyone just goes and sees “Gigli” and no one is happy.

I’m not sure how we decided to go to the Smithsonian American History Museum, but I think it was because I remembered being very affected ten years ago when I went there and saw “All In The Family”'s Archie Bunker's ACTUAL CHAIR, which is in that museum, in a big glass box. There is something very emotional to me about objects in glass boxes. I get to wondering about the last time someone touched the object. I squint my eyes at the objects and try to imagine them in homes or in someone’s hands. Each artifact that finds its way into a museum tells a long, unknowable story, and the humanness inside that is almost too much for me to bear. I get kind of weepy in places like the Smithsonian American History Museum. But I guess that’s not saying much, because I get kind of weepy at Folgers commercials too.

We saw Archie Bunker’s chair, and the ruby red slippers from “Wizard of Oz," and Benjamin Franklin’s walking stick, and Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone. Jonathan snapped a picture of a Nine Inch Nails cassette tape that was in a glass box with a phonograph and an aughts-era iPod (I think the box was supposed to be about music through the ages, but Jonathan kept saying, “Trent Reznor made it! He made it!”) Then we walked across the stark marble hallway to check out the African American History Wing.

The objects in that wing were powerful, if unsurprising. There were shackles that had been worn by slaves on plantations in the 1800s. Likewise, there were whips, and newspaper clippings advertising slave auctions, and then an early edition of “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” There was a whole wall about Abraham Lincoln: it included his suit, a facsimile of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the hat he was wearing when he died. The hat looked like a cartoon top hat that had sprung to life. Once you’d walked through the hall of Civil War artifacts, you were supposed to loop back around to the Civil Rights Era hall. Last year, I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed at the Lorraine Motel. I include that just to say that I was not really expecting to be particularly affected by this hall. I kind of thought I’d breeze through, and then we’d be able to go see something else.

But instead, I started to feel something unfamiliar and uncomfortable. It started when I was browsing the catalogue of potential slogans that you were invited to paint on your sign if you participated in the March on Washington. They were simple phrases, like, “End Discrimination NOW,” and “Equality for ALL.” I read through the whole catalogue and thought, “Huh. Those feel oddly familiar.” 

And then, as you would expect, there was a projection of Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. People watched a few lines and then shuffled on to the next artifact. Of course, that’s because most of us have watched that speech hundreds of times since grade school. We were taught in school that this was the speech that changed it all. We were taught that it was too bad Martin Luther King, Jr. had to be a martyr for his cause, because he changed the world, and now his dream is a reality. At least, that was the message at the liberal, mostly-white public school I attended in Portland, Oregon. 

Watching him speak yesterday, I felt something brand new about that speech. Rather than being filled with pride and reverence for a man who gave his life for a change he never got to see, I felt deeply ashamed. I wept openly in front of the screen as people (mostly white) passed through.

I have been leisurely traipsing about the country joking about sex stuff in big rooms full of happy people; in the meantime, the struggle for civil rights for people of color in this country is in the forefront of the news. This is not just because another unarmed black teenager was shot to death by police. It is not just because police brutality surrounding the subsequent peaceful protests in Ferguson is sending the country into traumatic flashbacks about similar abuse in the ‘60s. It’s because that “I Have A Dream" speech is absolutely as relevant today as it was 50 years ago — in every corner of our American reality. 

Ruby Bridges, the first student to attend a desegregated school in Louisiana, still lives in New Orleans. While I was teaching first graders about her a few years ago, I told them how many people fought for black kids and white kids to be able to attend school together. One girl in my class raised her hand and said, “So, Ms. Johnson… when is that gonna happen?"

As white people, we can’t just sit this one out. What’s happening in Ferguson is real. What’s happening in our public schools is real. We have to take it upon ourselves to understand race oppression as it exists today: namely, with police, the courts, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the prison industrial complex. For-profit prisons with disproportionate rates of black people (who are held longer in prison than white people who commit the same crime) deny released prisoners the right to vote; they are denied rights to housing; they are denied rights to employment. That’s slavery with a different name. It’s our responsibility to be allies. We must be willing to be unpopular. 

More than anything, white people need to be listeners. It is of the utmost importance that we are able to hear the stories of the oppressed without getting defensive. That means being willing to be wrong. That means being able to look our own racism in the face and embrace the possibility that we might need to change — even if we are self-described liberals; even if we have an “Eracism” bumper sticker on our cars; even if we can recite the entire “I Have A Dream” speech from memory.

Lots of cool things have happened in America — The Smithsonian American History Museum tells that story beautifully. You can’t help but feel pride in there, looking at John Coltrane’s saxophone, and a ‘70s-era Hensen-crafted Kermit the Frog Muppet. But if this is our country, and we truly want to be proud of it, we cannot allow ourselves to be comfortable with policy that allows any group of people to be treated as less than any other group of people. We have to be willing to fight for “Equality for ALL.” Even now. ESPECIALLY now.

And then maybe someday, someone will look back at one of our artifacts in a glass box, and say that we stood on the right side of history.