A Break from the General Theme of this Blog

I just came across this article from Slate.com about the two iconic girls in the famous Little Rock Central High School photo from our history books. It reminded me of an article I once wrote for a now defunct website. The way the site worked is that a columnist would write an article and then someone would respond and then the columnist would have the chance to respond to the response. I don’t have the response, but I have the response to the response and the gist of the response is evident for the most part in it. (Caveat: I had actually sent the first article to the editor asking for any editorial advice and he went ahead and published it and sent it to a respondent. That’s my unsubtle way of excusing myself from any crudities latent in the original article.)

Manute Bol, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Economy of Dignity

…anyone hung from a tree is under God’s curse.

–Deuteronomy 21:23

This is merely a thought experiment. I’m sure I could benefit from reading Rene Girard, but that would be less fun.

Let’s start with Manute Bol. As you may remember, Bol was a mediocre basketball player in the 1990s, famous and valuable in the NBA for being extraordinarily tall. A relatively unskilled immigrant from Sudan, he performed mainly as a backup center for several teams in and outside of the NBA before retiring because of rheumatism. After retiring, he used his fame and freakish frame in a variety of reality TV stunts. It was, to be sure, as degrading as reality TV tends to be for everyone. He boxed William “The Refrigerator” Perry and played minor league hockey, neither of which would seem terribly humiliating if it weren’t for his 7 foot 7 inch, 225 pound body and arthritic joints.

I remember reading a commentary on a sports website that made fun of Bol after he joined the hockey team. The commenter described the increasingly bizarre stunts as desperate and an affront to Bol’s own dignity. Under normal circumstances (that is normal in the abnormal world of reality television), I would concur with the commenter. But that is because under normal circumstances reality TV appearances coincide with self-aggrandizement and greed. One sacrifices his dignity by setting foot in the studio on the hopes of winning fortune and fame and parleying the “earned” fame for more fortune and fame (Here in Britain, Celebrity Big Brother, from what I can tell, casts washed-up celebrities, perhaps, but seems to have an equal number of people who became celebrities from being on plain-old Big Brother).

In the case of Manute Bol, however, it seems as though he did not care at all about himself. He saw his quasi-fame and stature as exploitable commodities, for sure. However, he used his earnings to help Sudanese refugees to the extent that (from what I can tell) he went bankrupt. So perhaps he sacrificed his dignity and more, all for the sake of others. Bol, a Christian, seems to me to have undertaken the call to imitate Christ to an extent that would challenge most martyrs. When we read novels with Christ figures, the most important element of the character is his or her death for the sake of others. Too often, it seems to me, does the narrative ignore the source material’s sacrifice of dignity along with his life. Jesus was spat upon and slapped and made fun of. The ultimate degradation was his dying on a post, which the Jews considered a sign of his being cursed by God. Bol underwent terrible humiliation in order to raise money for the neediest people. From what I can tell, the only benefit he gained from his altruism is this article and the appreciation of the recipients.

But at least he has that. Let us extend our experiment to another subset of sacrificial characters. Have a look at these three photos: call them photo 1, photo 2, and photo 3. Photo 1 is the most obviously related to the epigram. It is of two black men hanging from a tree. Here, these two men were strung up by a mob of people who could not wait for justice to run its course. It is likely that the men did not commit any offense at all. In photo 2 we see a black teenager attempting to enter a white school in Little Rock in1957. She demonstrates a dignified posture and a stoic expression on her face. Photo 3 is of three people—a native American man, a white woman, and a black woman—at a sit-in in a soda shop in Mississippi in 1963 while young white men pour drinks on their heads. Of the three photos, only the third is obviously analogous to Bol’s activity. Regarding the lynched men, they were accused of raping a woman and killing her husband so they did not endure the humiliation and death under their own volition. In the second photo, the woman is trying to get a fair education so she is not technically being altruistic, though she may have been aware of the larger effect her attending the school might have had. She also is not doing anything humiliating however difficult it may have been to walk by those protesting her self-integrating behavior. The third photo does display those obviously trying to affect change. They could likely buy a soda somewhere, but they underwent humiliation so that others would not have to at a later date.

These basic analyses of the photos, however, are not the intent of looking at them. Note that two of them are from a website called “Photosthatchangedtheworld.com.” Whether the abused in the photos desired to affect change for the greater good or not is beside the point. The fact is that they did. When people saw the pictures, they recognized the need for change and thus the photos spurred it on. But why? Because of the indignity the subjects suffered? I guess. But look again at the photos. Who are the subjects and who is suffering the indignity?

The point I’m trying to make is that dignity is entropic. Bol sacrificed his dignity and, to my mind, is a type of hero because of it. You could say the same about the photos, except that over time things have changed. Now, I’m suggesting, the ones who have sacrificed their dignity for the greater good are the actual subjects of the photos. Go back to photo 1. The lynched men truly suffered and James Cone posits a very convincing argument about the importance of the lynching tree in American history and how it relates to the cross of Christ. But the lynched men are not the subject of the photo. They are dead. The subject is the crowd banally standing around as if at an informal gathering or casual get-together. The same goes for the other two photos. The subject of photo 2 is the woman yelling at the black schoolgirl; the schoolgirl’s glasses hide her eyes so we remain distant from her. In photo 3, the three protesters likewise remain a bit mysterious. We cannot see two of the faces and the third’s is a bit distorted by the angle of the photo. The young men surrounding them take up a more dominant place in the frame and their faces are so clear we could probably recognize them today even after the intervening 46 years has aged them.

Without these true subjects of the photos, the pictures would lose all their power. They would not have been “photos that changed the world.” The ugliness displayed by the mobs is where the power lies. Over time, however, as our attitudes have changed (marshaled in partly by the photos themselves suggesting that perhaps our attitudes haven’t changed as much as they have been codified in surprising ways) we now perceive that the ones who have sacrificed their dignity are the crowd at the lynching, the woman yelling at the schoolgirl, and the young men pouring drinks on the protesters heads. Occasionally I’ll look at those photos and focus on the offenders and wonder what it would be like to see my grandparents in photo 1 or my parents in photos 2 and 3. I wonder what it would be like to be the kids or grandkids of those people and see their granddad calmly smoking while two men hang to death in plain sight or their mother yelling epithets at an innocent teenager or their father emptying his milkshake on someone. It would be so horrible. But it would be necessary.

In the end, the ones who have sacrificed their dignity for the greater good are, ironically, the ones who tried to maintain the status quo. The sitters-in at Woolworths received more than the dignity they spent from the bullies surrounding them, as if dignity were an investment. Who does not respect the ones who suffered in those photos these days? The ones who made long-lasting sacrifices are the ones in the mobs. It is difficult to call them Christ figures, of course. After all, Christ got to rise from the dead and is revered the world over. The subjects of the photos are vilified, though in a way they live on—their faces seared in our consciences like wanted posters at the post office.

But that is exactly what makes them true sacrifices. Their vilification is necessary for the chastening of our attitudes. They have sacrificed their dignity for the sake of our sins, whether they wanted to or not.

[end first article]


The Economy of Dignity, ctd.

…anyone hung from a tree is under God’s curse.

–Deuteronomy 21:23

So they hanged Haman on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the king’s fury subsided.

–Esther 7:10

For Christ, our Paschal Lamb, has been sacrificed

                                                –1 Corinthians 5:7

An unintentional martyr: Neda becomes ‘symbol of goodness’

–Headline from CBC.ca 22 June, 2009

Rather than merely defend my previous post from clearly defensible conclusions made by my respondent, it might be more worth our time to further the conversation at the same time. I want to point out, however, that I never meant to defend the perpetrators of the racial sins in the photos and certainly did not mean to compare them to Christ. I understand that my wording was a bit ambiguous in places and I could have been more forceful than “The ones who made long-lasting sacrifices are the ones in the mobs. It is difficult to call them Christ figures, of course.” Even invoking the comparison is problematic.

Moving on, I would like to respond to the response by first considering the nature of sacrifice. At one point, L— introduces the adjective “selfless” when describing sacrifice. But sacrifice need not be selfless to be effective. I even pointed out that the photo of the lynched men was not a depiction of selflessness, even by the two men hanging from the tree. They would likely elected to have that cup taken from them. Also note that, when St. Paul describes Christ as a sacrifice, he compares him to a Passover lamb—a lamb generally does not act selflessly (not to say that Christ didn’t, only that even blemishless sacrifices need not be selfless).

Note also that both Haman in the book of Esther and Neda on the streets of Iran just this last week sacrificed their lives in very different ways. However, they were both thrust into their sacrificial roles against their wills. Despite the unintentional nature of their sacrifices, their names have become rallying cries for the oppressed, albeit quite differently.

The above logic may be crude, but I doubt L— and I would disagree too much about the details. In many ways, I’m just describing facts. Where I think we might diverge is when she writes about the oppressors in the photos of the Civil Rights Movement: “Was their hate, oppression and violence key to the movement? Yes. Yet these instances captured on film should not be individualized.” She continues, “Thousands of similar events happened without the oppositional tactics of the non-violent movement and/or cameras to make them public.” My problem with these statements is that, if I understand her, she seems to be doing exactly what I said has happened while at the same time arguing that I have it wrong.

To make my point, let’s go back to photo 2. The description under the photo says that the subject of the photo is not the black teenager Elisabeth who “suffered physical and emotional abuse from [her] schoolmates.” Rather it is Hazel Massery, the woman yelling behind Elisabeth. The description concludes, “40 years later she apologized to Elisabeth.” Now, of all of the schoolmates who abused Elisabeth, how many do you think apologized 40 years later? I don’t know for sure, but it would not be a surprise to find out that Massery was the only one. When L— describes these instances as “captured on film” she makes an apt double entendre, because of the thousands of perpetrators, only the ones in the photos were caught. Perhaps my father did pour drinks on the heads of demonstrators. Perhaps my mother demonstrated against desegregation. Hell, my grandfather lived in the Mississippi Delta and Memphis in the 20s and 30s. He may have attended a lynching for all I know. Because they were not captured on film doing such terrible things, their dignity remains in tact (for dignity is more about perception than it is about guilt). Meanwhile, the repentant Massery remains the symbol of the thousands of oppressors that we know existed but exist namelessly and facelessly. In a way, she carries their sin on her back (and face).

Do I equate Massery with Elisabeth? Absolutely not. Do I equate her with Christ? I don’t believe I need to dignify that with a response. However, that does not change the fact that she is a type of sacrifice, however unwillingly she became one. She is Haman, though, not Neda.

Before I conclude, I at least want to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in the U.S. As Condoleeza Rice put it, we have a birth defect. I agree also that we have not overcome this defect despite the election of Obama (on the other hand, lynching is mainly relegated these days to the rare symbolic gesture and blacks have the right to vote and eat anywhere they like. The arc of history is long…). However, I’m not sure exactly how that makes my previous essay more problematic. If it does, I apologize for not being clearer. My main concern was with the nature of dignity and sacrifice, and to discuss that, we must, in my opinion, individualize. For to neglect to do so, I fear we run the risk of the perpetrators themselves. They equated all black people with each other and we will fail to find the roots of the systemic racism by ignoring the individual oppressor. We also dehumanize those who are not so lost as to bar them from the community. In our own attempts at a Christ-like ethic, perhaps we should invoke the words of Jesus on the Cross, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

To illustrate my point better than I ever could, I’ll point to pages 243-244 of Will Campbell’s Brother To a Dragonfly 25th anniversary edition (2000) (a book worth reading in its entirety). On those two pages is an anecdote of Campbell’s visit to a U.S. National Student Association (which included SDS members) in the late 60s where they showed a CBS documentary on the KKK. After one scene depicting an illiterate Klansman turning left instead of right while in formation, the group of “leftist” students cheered the bumpkin’s idiocy. Campbell followed the scene with a speech that I’ll print in its entirety: “My name is Will Campbell. I’m a Baptist preacher. I’m a native of Mississippi. And I’m pro-Klansman because I’m pro-human being. Now, that’s my speech. If anyone has any questions I will be glad to try to answer them.” The result of that speech is harrowing and I don’t want to ruin it for you. What he didn’t say was that he was the head of the Southern branch of the World Council of Churches and that he gained his bona fides by enrolling the first African American into Ole Miss. He explains what he meant in his speech later. He writes, “I was never able to explain to them that pro-Klansman is not the same as pro-Klan. That the former has to do with person, the other with an ideology.”

It is with that sentiment that I individualized the photos and sympathized with all characters in them.


About azlewis

I'm an academic living in the poorest neighbourhood in Canada. I also teach at a local seminary.
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