There are some images that leave an indelible imprint on the brain. As they should. One that is burned into my consciousness is that of the young student-athlete – standing frozen and stoop shouldered in a posture of parasympathetic surrender while his head is shorn of his precious locks. He had only two options: to submit to the assault on his body or disappoint his teammates by forfeiting the match. So he stood down – alone in front of a crowd while athletic trainers butchered his hair. Seriously, I cry every time I watch the video (and yes, I choose to watch it). I want to embrace the child and tell him this isn’t about you or your hair. It’s about the negative space.
As I understand it, “negative space” is a term that describes the space around an image. Although it is almost as if it doesn’t exist, it is certainly not “nothing”. To the less discerning eye the focal point may be hyper-visible, while the effects of the negative space go unnoticed making its function all the more potent. The young man who is the focal point of this sad image is Andrew Johnson. Who was in the negative space? Were his parents in the gymnasium? Surely his coach was there. Was George Maxwell hidden in the locker room while an audience of other adults witnessed the humiliation of someone else’s child? Why didn’t he intervene? Was he afraid of forfeiting the match, or getting thrown out of the gym? Why didn’t someone tell him that some places are worth getting thrown out of?
By now these questions are all rhetorical, but not without merit. How we occupy the negative space defines our personal character as well as our collective culture. It is certainly easy to do nothing in the space, whether out of willful oblivion or privileged detachment. (We all know how that goes: If some injustice isn’t personally upsetting, we not only have permission to not care, we feel absolved of responsibility to notice.)
Sometimes we choose to do nothing because it is easier to become conveniently considerate of others: you know, why raise a ruckus that may make other people uncomfortable? Or sometimes, sometimes we take refuge in old adages like “if you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.” Actually, that was never good advice, but now more than ever, it is not only misguided counsel, it is dangerous. Judging by who she is Becoming, I’m pretty sure FLOTUS Michelle Obama did not mean “shut up”, when she said we should “go high when they go low”. What I also know for sure is that the milquetoast statement by superintendent David Cappuccio was not an example of “going high”; neither was the wrist tap on referee Alan Maloney enjoining him from refereeing future matches at that school “until further information becomes available”. I would like to describe Mr. Maloney as (among other things) a rogue referee. Perhaps in this case, I can satisfy my urge to excoriate Maloney by calling him Delilah. Remember that story? As a puppet of the Philistine powers, she betrayed Samson by shearing his locks while he slept, thus stripping him of his power. Of course, Maloney ’s abuse of the power entrusted to him must be and has been called out. However, the fuller story is in the negative space in the gym. The deafening silence coming out of that space suggests that he was no more or no less than active agent of a culture that agrees to normalize racism. In this case, Andrew Johnson submitted to public humiliation, physical assault, and spiritual wounding to support and to hold onto the connection with his team. Why spiritual wounding? I’m also pretty sure those shears cut into his young soul. Re-purposing that negative space with our outcries and active intervention is how we can participate in his healing.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but I am going to say it anyway. What happened in that gymnasium is happening in our larger culture. Right now our nation is held hostage by a ranting toddler in a soggy diaper. It is no accident. He didn’t just stumble into the White House. He was put there by people who agreed that racialized hatred is what best protects their interests and social status. He gets to flail and fling whatever he extrudes all over the White House – defiling our collective conscience, consciousness, and yes, our Constitution. He can do so precisely because of the negative spaces around him. Again, by negative I don’t mean the people who voice their dismay, their anger, or revulsion. (In fact, many who voice their negative opinion are often “shushed” and scolded.) I mean the spaces occupied by people who distract us by passing out sweet candy and hugs to a former First Lady. I mean the spaces inhabited by people who pervert constitutionally delineated legislative process in order to hold onto their power by any means necessary. Mitch, Paul, Mike, and Susan come immediately to mind as exemplars, and they are in fact, rather noisy. I mean the spaces occupied by people whose deafening silence signals endorsement of systems that function to pump poison water, tear gas, and rubber bullets into the bodies of other people’s children. My commitment and my hope for 2019 is that we will join with Ayanna, Kamala, Jahana, Alexandria, and Nancy in whatever ways we can to grab the negative space and occupy it with purpose.
I’m sure it can be done in large ways and small on an everyday basis. My husband saw it happen just a few days ago. Sitting on a 12th floor oceanfront balcony, he saw a gaggle of teenagers walking the beach early on a Sunday morning. At one point, a teenaged girl stopped and picked up a stick. She used it to draw in all caps: Katie (not the actual name she used) is a bitch! The teenagers looked at it, pointed and laughed, then walked away. It is quite possible that someone in the group disagreed with that epithet but chose to respond by doing nothing – going along to get along. A few minutes later, a small group of kids came running down beach – none of which seemed to be more than 10 years old. One young girl stopped, read the offending word, then erased it with her bare foot. She then picked up the same stick and wrote: Katie is an awesome person. Who knows who “Katie” is; chances are she would never see the disparagement nor the affirmation. But Andrew Johnson did see it and he felt it too. Too bad somebody-a parent, a coach, an onlooker didn’t step forward and demand that the assault end. Too bad they didn’t pull out the rule book that the team had followed all season long and say this is not a requirement for the sport. It is racial harassment. Too bad that there was no one in the gym like the young girl who chose to stop, notice, and pick up the stick. There are time when it is our duty to pick up the stick and disturb the “peace” of a negative space. We can use that stick to erase disparagement and affirm humanity.