Opinion: 'Selma' nicely complements 'the talk'

Posted at 3:21 PM, Jan 15, 2015
and last updated 2015-01-16 15:01:35-05

African-American parents have been giving their children a variation of "the talk" even before slavery officially ended in 1865, as well as ever since.

During Reconstruction and the later Jim Crow era, black children were taught to defer to white people when it came to everything from sidewalk-strolling etiquette to sitting on a bus.

There was to be no running in the presence of white people. No laughing, whistling or reckless eye-balling, either. Eye contact with whites was considered insolence. Defiance of a white person was guaranteed to end badly, regardless of the merits of an argument, because the law presumed black guilt.

You had to address any white person older than, say, Shirley Temple in "Wee Willie Winkie," as "sir" or "ma'am" while assiduously studying the grain of the wooden floor boards under your feet. If you bit your tongue, you could stay alive and out of jail.

When segregation formally ended a half-century ago, the rules, which numbered in the dozens, were boiled down to three: Work twice as hard as a white person to get half as much; never leave an integrated bathroom unless all the toilets are flushed, so that "Negroes" won't get the blame for what trifling non-flushers leave behind; and don't make any sudden moves that police could misconstrue as threatening.

These days, only the last prohibition has any cultural resonance. "The talk" has evolved into an act of parental responsibility rooted in a profoundly pessimistic view of American law enforcement's ability to distinguish between criminals and law-abiding citizens.

While mandatory on a common sense level, "the talk" also encourages a low-level paranoia about the criminal justice system, which is portrayed as stupid and racist.

It is one of the most necessary things a black parent does, though it is also one of the worst things from a societal perspective. As a speech, it fosters an expectation of a negative outcome even if the rituals of acquiescence are faithfully observed. It is about surviving the encounter with a cop — not about transforming it into something a democratic society can build upon.

Yes, survive that encounter by any means necessary, but it is incumbent upon us to find a way to turn what is inherently a humiliating experience into something that moves the narrative forward. Chances are, a "terrified" cop who sees a threat where there is none is completely unaware of America's tragic racial history. That isn't surprising, since most Americans, including young African-Americans, are unaware of the parallels between the bad old days and today.

While watching "Selma," the brilliant new film by director Ava DuVernay about the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery, Alabama, voting rights march, I was struck by the creative energy of the movement's leaders portrayed in the film and the uncompromising bravery of the ordinary citizens who put their bodies and lives on the line.

That generation of civil rights protesters became victim to some of the most brutal police actions imaginable, yet they were able to break the back of state terror throughout the South without resorting to violence. The protesters, black and white, had to be twice as "moral" and more tactically sophisticated than the authorities committed to enforcing the structures of white supremacy because, well, it was the law.

The film portrays Martin Luther King as a flawed spokesman for a people who were committed to gaining their freedom a century after the end of the Civil War. The beautiful thing about the film is that MLK doesn't have all the answers. The movement had to push him to strategize outside his comfort zone.

But it is Oprah Winfrey's portrayal of Annie Lee Cooper, the 54-year-old accidental activist whose defiance jump-started the protests, that most impressed me. Ms. Cooper was denied the right to register to vote despite her command of Alabama state civics. "Selma" draws a clear line between voter disenfranchisement and the perpetuation of injustice by the white establishment. The protesters were determined to turn that equation around.

This film should be mandatory viewing at every police academy. Every parent who gives a kid "the talk" should also make watching "Selma" mandatory for context and a way forward.

After watching it, they should encourage the child to vote when old enough. It is a way to do something constructive beyond shaking in fear. Short of that, all "talk" is cheap.

Tony Norman: or 412-263-1631; Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

(c)2015 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Visit the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC