When They See Us
I am an avid reader and writer – it is safe to say that I am in love with words and the power that I believe they have. So I am especially struck in the moments when words, this medium that I place immense value on, seem to fail. When what was once a bottomless well of creative possibility suddenly runs dry, and there is not enough vocabulary in the universe to express what you wish to express. I question whether it can ever really be expressed at all and if there is a point in even trying.
One of these moments where words seemed to fail me was after watching ‘When They See Us’. It is one of the most painful things I have ever watched. And if it affected me, a mere spectator, so deeply that I have lost nights of sleep over it, I can’t even begin to fathom the pain of those who actually had to live this reality – not just watch it. I am yet to finish the series. I had to ‘take a break’ which in itself, reveals the relative position of privilege I occupy. I can press pause, or scroll down my feed, or skip and fast-forward when I feel overwhelmed, whether that’s with anger, grief or confusion. I have the capacity to desensitize if I want to – that is a luxury.
For those who may not have seen it or heard about it, ‘When They See Us’, is a drama series telling the true story of five young black boys who were falsely convicted and imprisoned for a brutal assault in Central Park in the late 80s. I won’t even try to formulate the myriad of thoughts and feelings this show triggered in me. But what I remember most about that first night after watching it was this: an acute sense of powerlessness. What can I do? What can we do? How do we stop this from happening? Because tragically, this is not the only case like this, and there are probably so many stories which are yet to be told. In light of the vast, systematic injustice exposed in the judicial system, my passion for creative arts felt like an inadequate response. People’s lives are at stake.
Should I ditch the creative arts and become a lawyer or a judge to try to eradicate prejudice in legal processes? Is being part of a system the only way to change it, or do we need to work from the outside in? Should I start a grassroots advocacy organisation? What’s the solution here?
All these questions raced around my mind and then it dawned on me that I wouldn’t even be asking myself these questions if the medium of storytelling didn’t first lead me here. Ava DuVernay (writer and director of ‘When They See Us’) has taken up the instrument of film and television and is wielding it powerfully in the fight for justice, dignity and equality, to counter warped narratives that we mass consume and that leave us misinformed and complacent.
So I will watch the last two episodes of that series because the stories of Yusef Salaam, Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana Jr are important. I can’t afford to cocoon myself in the bliss of ignorance or comfort. I must stress that watching it might not be the right choice for everyone because it is truly, truly distressing, but do educate yourself – whatever that looks like. It is, however, what is right for me. It is affirming my conviction that the creative arts goes beyond bringing beauty to the world – it has the ability to bring liberty too.
And whilst I can wallow in what sometimes feels like the futility of words, words are all I have right now, so that’s what I’m going to use. They will be my freedom fighters. Silence is not an option.
On that note, I thought I’d end this blog by sharing a poem I wrote in response to watching ‘When They See Us’
There are no words for your kind of pain So I will not attempt to fill this page With words that cry out Against their own inadequacy. In spite of their feebleness And futility They fall from my mouth Like leaves from a tree, Like pencil shavings Under the blade of cold steel: Harsh reality. Your tragedy has unraveled me But what we unwrap is not a gift But a burden. It’s tied with a bright scarlet bow That they call justice. And we are told to celebrate To commemorate The stories that erased ours. These words continue to fall. They are heavy raindrops, Released from clouds impregnated With false promise. We bleed. Miscarriage of Justice. Justice. If she was born, Her first cry would be the exhale Of a million breaths held, Her first laugh The dewy balm of healing. And as her little hands Clutch our fingertips We see the tender strength Of possibility. She cries when we grow silent. But we have bled And still we bleed. Miscarriage of Justice. I close my eyes And pray for conception.
(Photo credit: The featured image is not my own. All copyright belongs to the owner.)