Every day, I get glimpses of the erasure of Americans of color. My May 8 New York Times arts section (“For a Great Escape, Try a 1940s Musical”) describes the era when white movie stars like Fred Astaire and Shirley Temple danced in blackface to tap and jazz, trained by African American dancers, allowed to appear in Hollywood films only in stand-alone scenes that could be cut out when the films were shown in the South.
In the same issue, I learn of another erased American of color, Thomas McKeller, the elevator operator whose “tautly muscled body” was sketched in charcoal by John Singer Sargent, serving as the basis of the artist’s gods and heroes murals, his model’s African American facial features replaced by “classic” Greek and Roman features, hair and skin.
The very next day, the Times runs “A Killing Sheds Light on the Fear of ‘Running While Black,” about Black joggers who call out greetings or flash smiles to white passersby, so as not to be feared, knowing their individuality is unlikely to be seen. As one runner puts it: “I don’t know who taught me that, but I know it’s required, and that’s really sad.”
Three days later, the Boston Globe reports that due to the COVID19 pandemic, Boston officials have finally (but temporarily) dropped the entrance exam to their three prestigious public high schools, a test based not on what is covered in Boston lower schools, but rather on what’s covered in private (“independent”) lower schools. Another erasure, this time of black and brown youth, who are, largely for this reason, less likely to gain entrance to Boston’s “exam schools.”
The next day, I see a public TV documentary on Asian American history, including how Chinese laborers who built much of our country’s first transcontinental railway were excluded from the famous 1869 photograph of the final “Golden Spike,” joining East and West coast tracks, just as during and after World War II, the more than 1 million Black soldiers were left out of World War II news broadcasts lauding “American soldiers'” bravery. Decades later, the Department of Defense commissions a documentary about Black soldiers’ WW II contributions, but nixes Black filmmaker William H. Smith’s inclusion of soldiers’ frank accounts of racism. That full reality can finally be seen, thanks to Smith’s independently produced “The Invisible Soldiers – Unheard Voices.” Perhaps this explains the recent comment of Drew Brees, the white Saints quarterback who claimed that “taking the knee” dishonors his grandfathers’ service, ignoring the Black soldiers who served as well.
And now, because of the global visibility of the excruciating near 9-minute knee-on-neck murder of George Floyd, what’s been invisible, especially to whites like me, has been revealed. We are finally seeing and feeling our country’s intransigent, institutionalized, inhumane and intolerable racial inequity. As writers, we can all be part of uncovering what’s hidden, to insure that people of color, now and in the past, are no longer erased.