For years I had been friends with Christopher Johnson on Facebook. It wasn’t until this past fall I actually had a chance to get together and speak with him in person. I had checked out some of his performances on youtube that he had posted and I really enjoyed his poetry and spoken word. “I want to pick your brain one day,” was the email I sent him. A month or so later we met for coffee to discuss writing and I checked out a couple of his shows over the months to come. Right around the time I met him, he told me he may be writing a play based on Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (not to be confused with The Invisible Man, totally different). I never read the book Invisible Man, but According to this article and advertisement at Broadway.com it was “Inspired by Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece novel Invisible Man, Invisible UpSouth aims to challenge the way traditional theater-going audiences think about race and humanity and how they move through the world; how one can be well-educated and still blind to the world around them.”1. I know it was written in the 50’s and addresses the issue of feeling invisible in society as a black man. Christopher had taken this play and rewritten it into a present day black man in Providence RI, along with the assistance of Vatic Kuumba.
I knew I had to catch this show Sunday because it was closing day and I had promised I would show my support, plus, I really wanted to see this show! Now, I’ve seen a few of Christopher’s shows before and I know that this man has a way with words, but I was in no way prepared for this experience.
This play talked about the riots, Black Lives Matter, employment issues, and the fact that not only does racism still exist, but just how it effects the local community here in Providence. This show hit me in so many ways. Not just the words, nor the actors, but the feelings and emotions it stirred within me. The hate, fear, anger, hurt, and sadness that is caused by bigotry and racism. The sometimes not so in your face racism but the underlying racist remarks and sometimes all around ignorance. It touched on so many of the topics and comments white people make when they are trying not to be racist. One of the lines is where the woman keeps saying to the black man, “but you’re so smart! You’re not like those thugs.” Ugh…that made me cringe as I sunk down in my seat, embarrassed to be white. Embarrassed for the people who actually say things like this and really believe it’s ok. It’s like you may as well say, “I’m not racist but…”
It brought up so many assumptions and stereotypes people make when they watch the news. Things like, “he should have listened to the police.” It brings to light the fact that people don’t understand what it is like to be a black man in America. To be feared for how you look, regardless of the person you are. They discuss the conversations that are going on in black households on a daily basis.
When the play was over, there was a Q&A discussion which included feedback from the audience. What really hit me were the mothers. Mothers of black sons who pray on a daily basis that their son will be ok. Their sons, honor roll students, never had detention, all around good, respectable boys. Black boys. These mothers repeatedly having conversations before their son leaves the house, “but if the police stop you, do what you’re told”. The fear is so real. I know it is for me.
What if Jesus
is coming back
coming to America
as a Syrian refugee
denied the second coming of Christ
called him a terrorist
screened for months
in internment camps
what if Jesus already came
but changed his name
to Laquan McDonald
or Michael Brown
What if Jesus was called
was spit on and taunted
for carrying the
black lives matter cross
and the crowd jeers
for blocking highways
for marching to state capitals
and the crowd jeers
because blue uniformed Pharisees
said Jesus was a part of movement to kill cops
when all he wanted
was for cops to stop systematically murdering people
who look like Jesus
by people who call themselves
What if Jesus
keeps coming back
and keeps getting crucified
what if God says
I so loved the world
I sacrificed you a 1000 times
What if Jesus said
-by Christopher Johnson*
My son is Cape Verdean but to many he looks Spanish, so I don’t worry as much. I don’t mean that to be ignorant, what I mean by it is the fact that I know that racism exists, not that some one won’t discriminate against him, but if he were darker skinned, I believe I would worry more. It’s ridiculous that anyone should think or feel that way, but I know that it is true. Not just because I watch the news, because I see it with my own eyes. I have friends who have experienced it. I have been there to experience it.
Sometimes I think it’s because I feel like we haven’t dealt with much in your face kind of racism. There was always the ignorance when he played sports. There were parents who would get confused at whose mother I was because there was another boy on the team who was mixed race. They would literally ask whose mom I was. The other boy’s mom is black and his dad is white, but his mom and I would laugh and joke about it, so yes I’ve seen ignorance.
The only other incident I really had was being pulled over by state troopers. They said that I was texting and driving but I was actually talking on the phone when they pulled me over. I had just picked up my son from work and he was in the passengers seat of my beatdown, falling apart, ’02 Chevy Malibu with his hood up. When they pulled me over they asked who he was and asked for his ID. All he had was his school ID because he was 17 at the time, which he showed them and they let us go. My son was convinced it was procedure but I was bothered by it and felt we had been scoped out because maybe something else had been going on. Maybe they saw the kid in the passenger’s seat with his hood up. Maybe I’m paranoid or maybe I should be.
The older my son gets, the more freedom he has and the more I worry. We live in a decent neighborhood and he isn’t a trouble maker, but my son has a mouth and sometimes doesn’t know when to keep it closed. Those are the things that worry me. Wrong place, wrong time. That’s all it took for Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Laquan McDonald and the list goes on. How do we do better? We need to continue talking and coming together to make a difference. To teach different points of views, break down fears and prejudice.
I left that play with tears in my eyes. Some woman I didn’t even know, a mother, hugged me as I left and we talked about how we fear for the children. I picked up my son off the bus that night, discussing these fears, continuing these conversations. I have continued to tell him over the years, “there are two people who are right, even if they’re wrong, cops and teachers. Sometimes you have to keep your mouth shut.”
These were just some of my thoughts upon seeing the show this past weekend, along with the thought that more people need to hear these words. I know Christopher has a lot to say, but there are so many more that need to hear these words. I wish I had seen the performance earlier on so I could have encouraged more people to go. I only hope that this will be performed again, that people will come to understand things from a different point of view. That eyes and hearts can be opened to the invisible man.
*this poem was written by Christopher Johnson and performed in the play
photo credit: http://images.bwwstatic.com/columnpic7/200200C34DFE05-F68F-AFC5-6004BE8792359EAF.jpg