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James & Annie (and Me)

By Kathy Y. Wilson · March 19th, 2003 · Your Negro Tour Guide

I left during intermission. I got half a play buzzing through my brain.

Growing up I couldn't understand why my mother, born in 1934, never got excited about TV movies and documentaries that retread racial paths she'd literally walked along.

I was all over anything on PBS or network television about America's screwed up race relations. I remember Roots quieting my whole neighborhood and generation. We were spellbound by how real slavery looked.

It wasn't a myth, a lie or a history book footnote. We'd come from somewhere.

Likewise with PBS's Eyes on the Prize and Slaves in America. They titillated my starving intellect and filled in the crevices left by my stingy public school history lessons.

I still love watching black people testify about where we came from and what we made along the way. And the art, families, literature, travels, laws and love are always a salve to racism.

The most divisive and the trickiest parts of racism are the lies it tells. Racism makes its sufferers defensive. It makes its victims believe they're insane because, surely, this clerk isn't following me through this store and I know this Realtor isn't showing me only homes in black ghettos.

Racism makes its underclasses crave invisibility and, once that's achieved, forces those underclasses to act out so they can again be visible if only for the purposes of the statistic.

In 1979, I was in the first class bussed to a predominantly white Greenhills High School and I lived through the blunt trauma of "Guess Who's Coming to Study Hall?"

At Heritage Hill Elementary School in Springdale, I was daily terrorized by Robert, the black-haired white boy across the aisle who quietly showed me some strange fruit -- grainy photographs of black people limply hanging from trees.

He and his dad were going to do the same to me, he whispered.

For weeks I thought this was my lot, that this must be what the fourth grade is supposed to feel like. I finally told the teacher and emancipated myself. Robert still lurked, but I wore down his resolve by tricking him into thinking I wasn't afraid of him.

Travelling through sequestered parts of the Midwest, I've been told the public bathroom wasn't available for me or that I'd better get my nigger ass away from wherever I happened to be. Working at The Journal-News in my Hamilton hometown, I got death threats so often I thought "nigger" was my name.

I'd long given up persuading my mother into seeing those televised retellings of her past starring other people. Not out of frustration. Out of respect.

"I don't need to relive that," she said. "I lived through stepping off sidewalks for white people, coming to back doors and reading from second-hand textbooks passed down from the white high school."

She sucked air through her teeth instead of cursing. "That was painful then."

And now I get it. Last week I went to see Warren Leight's James & Annie at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati. Or I tried to see it.

There were some funny lines, some good sentences. I was relieved to laugh, and I laughed too loud. I do that when I'm nervous.

I was nervous because I knew the road was soon to bend into coal-black misery for James, the naíve, gung-ho and blindly patriotic World War II veteran chasing an honorable discharge. In a fit of end-of-war passion he'd fallen for Annie, an equally naíve white woman chasing her own set of freedoms.

And this is where the dramatization of history turns back on itself and lands at reality. For blacks, the enactment of America's racist past (and present) doesn't end when the final curtain falls or with after-show drinks to wax poetic about the play or this and that.

I'm silenced and haunted by the nuanced realities of post-war life for black war vets -- white soldiers crossing the street to keep from saluting black brass who ascended the ranks in empty appeasement of Eleanor Roosevelt and whose lives were expendable when they weren't cooking and cleaning for the white armed forces.

James got caught up because he bought into the American Dream, and he choked to death on its nightmare.

There are times when I'm steeled against sorrows without happy endings, victimization without redemption and realities with no escape hatches. But not last Wednesday night.

James & Annie did what good art's supposed to. I was uncomfortable. I didn't get answers. And I was reminded.

But it was just one of those days when, like my mother, I couldn't look right into the face of it. So instead of changing the channel, I left.

But I'll go back and see the other half. I want to. I don't run. Just ask Robert.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.


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