The words we use

My background research on The Whistler led me to lay hands on a few issues of Life magazine from 1965 which I keep around my office.  Too dispirited to jump into work after hearing the latest news update on the Trayvon Martin killing, I began leafing through the August 27, 1965 issue. The cover story was on the Watts riots:

  • Arson and Street War–Most Destructive Riot in U.S. History

The interior subheads read:

  • Out of a Cauldron of Hate–Arson and Death
  • ‘Get Whitey!’ The War Cry that Terrorized Los Angeles

    Get Whitey

    from Life Magazine, August 27, 1965

  • In a Roaring Inferno ‘Burn, Baby, Burn’
  • Wild Plundering–Grab It and Run
  • Deep New Scars in the Rubble-strewn Precinct
  • Deadly Souvenirs of the Insurrection [sic]

The slant is hard to overlook, but maybe it was an outlier. I took the time traveler’s privilege to backtrack and rifle through March 5, 1965, with its cover story on the assassination of Malcolm X.

  • A Monument to Negro Upheaval

trumpets the cover.  Hm.  There are others, but you don’t need to hear them.

I’ve been thinking lately about how we transcend racism, and how we fail.  The Martin case is depressing, outrageous, and thought-provoking, but it’s not news. We’ve been here before; in fact, we never left.  How many times in your life could you say, “It’s a choice between us and us, not us and them.” It takes an act of intellection, almost a leap of faith: it takes having friends of another color. In The Whistler, Joshua the jazz musician tells Henry the protagonist that “Every morning when I look in the mirror I think, ‘Oh look, you’re black, and you’re going to be that way all day.'”  Until he has a different story to tell, our sickness must get worse. But the truth, as another character points out, is always bigger than the stories we’re able to tell about it. Therein, I think, lies the hope.

And in the meantime, the distance from Life magazine’s “Get Whitey!” to the death of Trayvon Martin is short, pointed, unexceptional, unacceptable.



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