The Green Book Movie: Don’t Let the Imperfect Be the Enemy of the Good

For the last couple of months many have celebrated the movie ‘The Green Book’ at the Golden Globe Awards, the Critics Choice Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and soon at the Academy Awards. The accolades for Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen come amid criticisms about the accuracy of the movie, the manner in which African-American concert pianist Don Shirley was portrayed and his relationship with Tony Vallelonga, his Italian-American driver, during a concert tour in the 1960s through the Deep South. The movie has been called racially tone deaf.

I don’t want to get into the debate. Really, I don’t. But I also don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I had never heard of the ‘Green Book’ until I was an adult, long after it was useful and needed. That doesn’t mean my family didn’t use it. I just don’t know. We traveled a lot, but primarily to visit family in the mid-West and in the North. Driving was typically done in one day, no lodging necessary and we always packed food for the trip. My sole hotel experience as a young child was a family trip to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. On that trip, I only remember seeing African-Americans at the motel where we stayed. ‘The Green Book’ may well have guided my Dad in knowing where to stop for gas or even in knowing of the motel where we stayed. If he used it, he didn’t talk about it. Like I said, I knew nothing about it until it came up in conversation with a family member.

img_4151My mother had undertaken a genealogical study of her family. When her 950-page tome was printed, instead of calling it The Descendants of James and Keziah Charity of Charles City County, Virginia, its official name, the family has always referred to it as ‘the green book’ referencing the bright green color of its cover. On one occasion, someone mentioned ‘the green book’ and quickly added, “Not the original one, I’m talking about Aunt Edna’s book.” That was my prompt to ask, “What original one?” Not until then had I ever heard of Victor Green’s reference guide, The Negro Motorist Green Book.

Just as African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson was unknown to me until I saw the movie Hidden Figures, I had never heard of Dr. Don Shirley until I saw the movie, ‘The Green Book.’

Some younger black viewers or white viewers may be unaware of the degradation suffered by African-American performers, talent sought after to play or act for white audiences, but still not able to eat in the local restaurants or at the performance venues. The threats to black performers in the South and the manner in which they had to live while performing was portrayed in the movie. I know that the greats of the ‘40s and ‘50s who came to my hometown of Richmond, Virginia—names like Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington—could play in the white venues, but when it came time to eat or sleep, they were in Jackson Ward, one of the all-black enclaves in Richmond, in hotels and restaurants on Second Street. The movie even references a 1956 event in which Alabama native son, crooner Nat King Cole (father of Natalie Cole) was about to perform in Birmingham when members of the Ku Klux Klan came on stage and beat him with clubs in front of an all-white audience.

So many of the contributions of African-Americans to this country are rarely revealed, seldom studied, hardly taught. This potentially flawed, but beautifully-acted, movie has revealed parts of history, American history, to many who never knew it. I am conflicted. Do I want an accurate portrayal? I do, but those who could attest to accuracy—Shirley and Vallelonga—are both deceased and the movie notes it is ‘inspired by,’ not a documentary.

I want to celebrate the revealing of another hidden figure of African-American history and culture. I want to celebrate Mahershala Ali’s powerful portrayal of an African-American virtuoso who had been lost to history. I want to recognize that ‘The Green Book,’ the movie with its imperfections and ‘The Green Book,’ the guide, reflect the reality of separate, and unequal. Together they—the book and the movie—have promoted another conversation about racial injustice. That is good, good for all of us.

 

Apologies are good, but what about redress?

A few weeks ago, I visited the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian complex here in Washington, DC where I live. I’m not sure what drew me to the museum that day, but while there, I happened upon ‘Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II.’ The exhibit had opened last year on the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, signed by FDR two months after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. By this act, over 100,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans living in the United States were placed in prison camps across the country. Hard stop. Reflect.

Another piece of American history about people of color seldom explored at any depth in our American history classes. If it were, maybe fewer of my friends would have almost gasped when I mentioned reparations for the Japanese. I knew about the internment camps, but I had never heard about reparations. In 1988 President Reagan signed legislation offering a formal apology (one for slavery wasn’t issued until 2008) to those who were interned along with a $20,000/person payment of compensation.

unbalanced --

Forty acres and a mule,” the promise made to slaves following the end of the Civil War immediately came to mind as I read the exhibit materials on reparations. I had heard about that promise all of my life. I knew it didn’t happen, but didn’t know what HAD happened.

It started when Union General William T. Sherman met with African-American leaders following the end of the Civil War. Those newly freed men said land ownership was crucial to sustainability in their new freedom. Sherman agreed. Via Special Field Order No. 15, on behalf of the federal government, he promised the freed blacks forty acres from land confiscated from the Confederacy, particularly in Georgia and South Carolina. The settlers also were offered Army mules. One year later, even though families had settled this land, President Andrew Johnson returned all the property to the former landowners.  Again — Hard stop. Reflect.

That’s where it all began. The racial wealth gap… and so much more.

Not only had the slaves built the wealth of those landowners—of the country—they were now denied a fundamental means – land ownership – to establish their own wealth.

I can remember my father, the owner of a small real estate company, repeatedly telling me about owning property. He saw the value of land ownership, its importance. He would say, “You can live on it, borrow against it or rent it out.” In reality, home ownership has been the manner in which most Americans have gained assets—wealth — as the value of their property rose and as they handed it down, generation to generation. When you look at the failure of the US government to provide the promised forty acres against the fact that according to the US Census Bureau, black families are more likely than any other race to live in poverty, you see a correlation. At least I do.

That decision not to honor forty acres and a mule set the stage for the wealth divide.

A report that came out a couple of years ago noted that it will take 228 years for African-American families to amass the wealth that white families have today. Just a few years less than the number of years that Africans were enslaved (1619 to 1864). I had read that report and tried to digest the weightiness of knowing—228 years to gain parity with a current statistic— while the wealth disparity continues to rise out of reach.

So, when I learned the Japanese, a much smaller community in America than African-Americans, with the length of internment much shorter than slavery, had received amends, my first thought was “What about us?” I do not begrudge those who were interned compensation for what they had lost in revenue, possessions, their sense of self-worth and faith in America. They were due.

So are we.

Are black families due reparations?

Yes.

The Friendship Spark

There’s always the chance a dormant friendship can re-ignite, but doing so needs a little kindling, a resurrected spark, and someone to breathe life into it.

If I had thought about it at all in my 20s and 30s, I would have said the friendship of the Valianettes—my closest childhood friends—was over. It wasn’t an unpleasant ending, no drama, just life’s transition as we moved into adulthood. First, different colleges, then careers, and husbands and children. The distance grew between us. I didn’t think then about how time had passed and life had parted us.

We had been friends since elementary school, a group since middle school and a named club—the Valianettes—since high school. We went everywhere together. Long before seat belts limited (and protected) the number of people in a car, we would pile into someone’s car, sometimes on each other’s laps, to get to that Friday night party. We always went together. We had to. None of our parents would allow us to go unless a critical mass of the group was going; protection in numbers. There were duos and trios of even closer friendships within the group, but we were all intertwined friends. Then that major rite of passage—high school graduation—occurred, and the bond evaporated. Even for those of us who went to the same college, too many things—the newness of becoming an adult—took us in different directions and it just wasn’t the same. For nearly twenty years, we were apart. No one thought anything of it; we had all moved on.

Then in just one day—with the arrival of my son AJ—my friend Marsha changed all of that. She and AJ were the kindling.

shower twosome. twelve.compressed
Top photo — L to R — bottom row: Gloria Reid, Marsha Ware, Debby Smith; middle row: Zena Claiborne, Debbie Riddick, Tamara Copeland, Renee Mills; top row: Veronica Abrams, Janice Bowie, Madeline Swann; Bottom photo: Tamara and baby AJ

Marsha’s life had taken her to a small girls’ college in Western Virginia—Hollins College—not as a student, but as a staff member. As part of her responsibility, she would periodically bring a group from Roanoke, Virginia to Washington, DC to see the nation’s capital and would call me to get together for lunch. After several times, we realized it was like old times and when I told her my then-husband and I were adopting a baby; she decided to host a shower for baby AJ.

Who would come? Well, the Valianettes, of course. They were the core of the invitation list. That one gathering was so much fun it led to many others. We just needed that spark. First just lunch now and then, then regularly-scheduled lunches, then weekends at someone’s home, then our first trip together — all led now to twenty years of being reconnected after twenty years apart. Last year, we laughed and finished each other’s stories on a beach in Jamaica.

Is our friendship special? I think so. I know no one who is a part of a group that has been together since the first grade. Sometimes I think about the role that segregation played in placing us together in school, early dance classes and in scouting troops, but that wasn’t it. Others have been together in similar circumstances, but that magical connection didn’t happen for them. It wasn’t until we attended one of our high school reunions we realized that others had noticed the strength of our bond. One of our teachers was there and commented on the fact we were together at the gathering. She said, “I knew you would all be together. You were always together.”

As we enter a new year, reminisce, and consider our prospects for the future, we sometimes think of a joyful moment in our history and believe it was just that, the past — something to be remembered with a smile. While singular events may be long ago, whatever led to the joyfulness of that event, the core of that happiness, is still there. It can be brought to life with intentionality and nurturing. So, as I enter 2019 and reflect on what gives meaning to my life, family is paramount, but friends—the family you choose—are a close second.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld lang syne.
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

— Robert Burns, 1788

Toys aren’t just playthings

When I was a young girl in the late 1950s, I loved dolls. Lined up on my bed were baby dolls and dolls supposed to be my age and, eventually even grown-up ones, like Barbie. I loved to dress them up, comb their hair and have endless conversations with them. But there was a problem.

dolls

None of these dolls looked like me. Not one.

My doll-playing years happened just a little over a decade after the groundbreaking research of psychologists, Drs. Mamie and Kenneth Clark. In 1947, they released their study showing that black children as young as three—when given two dolls, identical except for skin and eye color, the children—almost invariably chose a white doll as the one they liked better or wanted to play with. Even though the black children had the choice of a brown doll that looked like them, they still preferred the white doll. The Clarks concluded that these children had already internalized an unconscious belief that white was better.

The Clark doll research of decades ago and even more recent studies show that children as young as three have a sense of racial identity and racial hierarchy. This important research points to the impact of all the other messages these children receive — overtly and subtly—about black and white people.

While my parents couldn’t easily find dolls that looked like me, today’s parents don’t have that problem. They have a plethora to choose from. Finding one that racially resembles a child—almost any child—is no longer difficult. Children today see a rainbow of skin colors in dolls, in action figures, and in the Crayon colors labeled ‘flesh.’ Not only are characters racially diverse in the animated cartoons they watch but also in the books they read. Merchandising and media today seem to reflect the literal complexions of America.

As parents or the adults in children’s lives, we know that toys aren’t just playthings, items to entertain. We have learned that from all the child development research we consume as we try to be the best parents (and grandparents) for our children. We know that toys are important tools in shaping how children see the world and how they negotiate it.

Knowing this, we make conscious decisions when buying toys or educational gifts. We want our children’s learning to be enhanced by these gifts. I wonder if most parents, when selecting them, think about the messages they send about race and how they value people who don’t look like them. Consider this comment from Jennifer Richeson, a Yale University social psychologist:

“In some ways, it’s super simple. People learn to be whatever their society and culture teaches them. We often assume that it takes parents actively teaching their kids, for them to be racist. The truth is that unless parents actively teach kids not to be racists, they will be. This is not the product of some deep-seated, evil heart that is cultivated. It comes from the environment, the air all around us.”

We can, and should, use the occasion of gift giving to demonstrate to our children what we value.

I don’t believe diversity alone fights racism in the world, but by celebrating diversity, those of us who influence children help to instill in them a bias toward a belief that all men and women are created equal. And that is a valuable gift we should want our children to have, right? That is an important step toward valuing and promoting racial equity.

So, this holiday season as you think about what to give the children in your life, celebrate who they are and who their friends are. Help them see the beauty, the humanity, and the intelligence both in people who look like them and those who don’t. While we don’t want our black children to have a childhood bedroom that looked like mine with all white dolls, we also don’t want white children to have that bedroom either.

Wishing all the Daughters of the Dream readers a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, or a Happy Kwanzaa. For whatever holiday you celebrate, I hope you have a joy-filled time with friends and family.