This week’s Live Local features the talented performance artist Joy James, a.k.a. Livity, the Poet. She graciously and generously took the time to share her insights and experiences with encore readers on the heels of George Floyd’s brutal killing and the protests for justice that took place in cities worldwide in its aftermath.
No one should die like that. That was my first thought when I saw the video of how George Floyd died.
It’s a time of considerable strain for many of us. We’ve been struggling to understand COVID-19 and its effects, and we’ve been dealing with how drastically it has changed our ways of life. Unfortunately, this latest proof of yet another black life unjustly taken has driven many to the ends of their wits. It has tipped the scales for me, as well.
I am trying to make sense of the world around me. I still have questions: Why did this man have to die like this? How could someone who knew he was being recorded so casually kill another human being? How does the store owner feel knowing what he caused? How are we going to handle this one? Why does this death, in particular, strike me so deeply?
I have been in Wilmington for five years. We have several protests a year and I’ve known them to be peaceful. The protest on Saturday, May 30, was yet another testament to how dignified our community can be. Then Sunday happened. I was shocked to see the live videos and news feeds declaring the disturbances and harm that had been unleashed during what began peacefully. I went from seeing the police complimenting protesters to seeing people I knew fleeing from tear gas and cursing the police because they felt unjustly treated. No one seemed to truly understand what was happening. It was a very sad day for our city. Mistakes were made on both sides, and I think we’ve seen the reconciliation process in action as, daily, more peaceful protests and marches have since taken place.
Being a black woman in Wilmington has challenges. I know derision causes division. When we have citizens cursing at police, I understand from where the frustration comes. However, that frustration can’t be misguided. When the police asked protesters to get out of the street because it was a safety issue, why did some immediately turn to defy them? The police, or anyone who needs to hear you, will not listen if you openly disregard those who are trying to help, letting your anger override logic.
A highlight of Sunday came when a male protester told Lily Nicole she could not speak for him when police in riot gear came face-to-face with protesters. Indeed, she could and did speak for him. Lily Nicole understood his anger and desire to channel it somewhere, but she also understood what was happening was not the best way to be heard. And, so, she talked down the police for a brief moment to calm tensions.
Change will not be made if no one is listening, and no one listens to someone who is belligerent and does not share the same courtesy. Lily was speaking for that one protester but also for all others, so they wouldn’t be locked up behind bars; so they wouldn’t have their limbs locked up by tasers; so they could continue to have a peaceful platform to be heard. So, yes, she spoke for all of us that night.
As a black woman, I am afraid. My skin is the same brown skin of the males who have been victims of our nation’s structural racism. Black women are not exempt. Growing up, I never feared the police. Now, with the things I have seen in my adult years, I do tense up whenever I see a police officer—and, heaven forbid, if I get pulled over. I shouldn’t have this uneasiness, but it’s there because I know I am not exempt. Now, I think twice about taking walks in neighborhoods other than my own. Now, I am beginning to wonder more and more what people are really thinking about me. Do they see me as a pleasant young lady or am I that very nice black lady? Regardless, I will not let fear rule my life.
When I first started wearing head wraps in Wilmington, I was surprised at the reactions I received. The looks were long, some quizzical. Headwraps make one seem even more “black.” Some equate it with being more culturally rooted and some see it as being radical. Where I’m from, head wraps are the norm, and when I realized I was bringing something different here, I embraced it. I don’t mind exposing others to the richness of a culture other than their own. I don’t mind making myself and my culture accessible.
I remember one specific occasion when a friend and I attended a musical at Thalian Hall. I had on a fairly ornate headwrap with a matching dress. He wore traditional African garb (kufi and dashiki). We were most definitely in the minority of not only those who dressed up, but also patrons who were people of color. The stares we received were memorable. Personally, I felt like royalty and acted as such. That was reflected in the compliments we received. We were examples that evening of how something that looked different was also beautiful.
I didn’t feel out of place because I was comfortable in my own skin. As a poet and an actress, I have to be. I have to be confident in who I am and what I have to contribute to the arts. That’s why it was disheartening to learn that seeking to create a black theatre troupe was deemed unnecessary.
During a recent theater fair at Thalian Hall, a black director and black actor had an informal discussion with a white theatre manager. These are all well-respected people in our theatre community. The director mentioned efforts being made to create a black acting troupe. The manager, unknowingly, made a comment that would be considered a microaggression. He asked if it would really be necessary because he and another theatre manager had already worked out a schedule where one black production would be offered each year, and companies would alternate which theatre hosted it.
If we feel underrepresented in productions here, why wouldn’t it be necessary to form a group that united us in an effort to be heard? How can more people learn to be comfortable with our skin if we are not seen, or if our stories are not heard from our perspectives? As a result, I believe having that discussion opened eyes, and we’ve since seen quite a few more predominantly black productions come to life. However, there is so much more needed growth and open discussions with both sides listening. This is what helps to create real change.
The George Floyd hate crime has affected me more deeply as a mother. Here I am, trying to protect my young son against bumps and scratches and COVID-19, only to be reminded of a more raging disease: racism. I am reminded of the world I have brought him into. As a mother, I am scared. I am wondering if the world in which my son will be a man will be any better than it is now. I wonder if what I do will be good enough to keep his name off of a growing list, but I will do what I can.
I will teach my son to be a man of change, growth, determination and power, who is logical yet compassionate. I will teach my son to channel his negative energy into productive means. I will teach my son to love and respect himself and to have love for all people. I will teach my son to never let anger close his ears. I will teach my son to ask questions and listen for the answers, and I will teach him how to make informed choices that do not allow someone else’s bias to lead him. I will teach my son not to ignore or allow prejudice or oppression. I will teach my son to maintain his dignity.
We know what we are taught, but what matters the most and what causes change is questioning ourselves, then actively seeking truthful answers. If a change needs to be made, we should ask: “What can I do about it?” Then, follow our words and thoughts with action and do it. Just like racism can be ingrained in us through generations, so, too, can the ability to defeat racism.
Teach success. Lead our sons and daughters to take positions that affect government policy and become business owners. Be mentors in our community and teach the next generation how to be better than our own. Donate to organizations doing something for the cause. Channel anger into logical decisions to maintain dignity. And vote for those who represent you. Voting does matter.
The goal of any engine of change is to alter the perceptions of people who don’t see us the way we see us. It is not to perpetuate stigmas that already exist by becoming violent. Just like there should have been someone on that Minneapolis street to be an agent of change by stopping Derek Chauvin from killing George Floyd, in our community, we need to be the person who becomes an agent of change. It is time to end the Facebook Live venting and backyard complaint sessions if there are no calls to action at the end of them. Change is possible. Racists have been known to change. It takes conscious effort over time from all of us. For those who want real change, this question must be answered: What am I going to do about it?
Lift your head and never let it fall
Realize the mission to which you’ve been called
Don’t you know you have great things to achieve?
Open those eyes to see through things meant to deceive
You are more than other people’s perceptions and rejections
More than your past reflections
Or what you think are your silly imperfections
More than any low-set ceiling
Or any lies they have people believing
You are more than the images of belligerence and violence
More than the nooses meant to keep your silence
And be who you are called to be.
—Excerpt from “Raise Up” by Joy James, aka Livity, the Poet