By Jody Gray | It is common knowledge that among people of color and American Indians there is a coping mechanism called “code switching.” Basically, the idea is that an individual alternates their behaviors or language to fit a particular situation. It is so common, it often plays out as just our survival instincts taking over.
As someone who has worked in the field of equity and diversity for over a decade, I’m not immune. Code switching can lead to me compartmentalizing parts of my identity to stay present in the work at hand. For the most part, it’s not an issue, but there are times when those pieces of our identities come into direct opposition with each other. I have been struggling in one of those spaces for the past month. Let me give some context.
Last spring I was approached by a small African American-, woman-owned publicity firm asking if the ALA Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services (ODLOS) would be interested in partnering on a project inspired by the upcoming film “The Birth of a Nation,” a film about Nat Turner.
The basic ask was to push out a message to libraries inviting them to participate in a lecture series and community building initiative,"The Birth of a Nation: Slavery, Resistance & Abolition." The series was in observance of the 185th Anniversary of Turner's Rebellion, as well as the United Nations' International Day for the Remembrance of The Slave Trade and its Abolition, observed annually (since 2007) on August 23 (rememberslavery.un.org). Each library would have their own event, and the publicity firm would help to find local speakers and promote the events.
I had already heard about the film as it was getting quite a bit of buzz and had won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It was being touted as a great piece of historical drama, written, directed and starring a young African American filmmaker named Nate Parker. I gladly signed off on the partnership.
Of course, what we didn’t know at the time was that Nate Parker was accused and acquitted of sexual assault 17 years prior.
I was heartbroken and angry when this news broke. How could I support someone who might have done something so awful? I spent the first week hoping some fairy would come down and make it all right. Perhaps he was wrongfully accused or it wasn’t him at all, but some other Nate Parker. Then, when I read his responses to the press, I was heartbroken again. His responses were focused solely on how he had been affected, with zero regard for the woman who accused him of rape.
I am not a rape survivor; however, I am a woman, and I am Lakota. If you are not aware, American Indian women suffer physical and sexual assault at a rate far exceeding women of other ethnicities. This is a reality that is not often talked about, but it is a reality that impacts my community greatly, and I take it very seriously. As a woman and one who identifies as Lakota, my instinct was to disavow any connection to this film and filmmaker.
Then, Gabrielle Union, an African American woman and rape survivor, wrote about her role as both an actor and a producer on the film. Things started to become complicated. Walking away from this would also be walking away from her and all of the other actors, writers, and crew that worked on the film--a film that addressed a part of history that is often ignored and is rarely told from the point of view of African Americans.
In addition, there is the reality of the systems of oppression that exist in the entertainment industry for people of color and American Indians. What does it mean to hold Nate Parker, an African American man who went to trial for sexual assault, to a higher “ethical” standard than white male filmmakers like Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and Bryan Singer?
All of these white, male filmmakers are accused of sexual assault, and all of them are still making films and being honored in some settings. I have heard the argument that it is because their careers were already well established, but let’s be honest, their race benefits them. And should any of them even have that option of continuing their work without anybody holding them accountable?
The truth is, Nate Parker will be held to a different standard. Why? Because people of color and American Indians have to hold each other accountable for our actions. You never just represent yourself, you represent ALL of the people who came before and after you.
Like many, I have watched and been appalled by Parker’s arrogance and ego in his initial response. As time has progressed, it is apparent that he has had some media training around how to address these issues. Which has led many to question the authenticity of his statements. Is it possible for him to begin to recognize the impact of his actions? What does that look like? Should his process even matter?
In the end, I’m cognizant of the fact that my opinions do not always belong to me, alone. I am now a director of an office in a national organization. My profession is now in the mix. What if I answered incorrectly? What if I let my ego and arrogance take over? What if I’m wrong?
That is why I am struggling. I don’t know the answer. My feelings shift all the time. I read articles. I listen to podcasts. I search for the same answers that others are asking of me. I don’t have an answer, but I do have a responsibility to address it.
The ugly truth is that our colleges and universities have a problem with the way they handle sexual assault cases. The entertainment industry has a problem with representation of people of color and American Indians. Historically, we have not taught men about consent, and we have blamed women for sexual assault. The other truth is, we need to have discussions and exposure to the history of this country from different perspectives. Sadly, it is rare that we have films like “The Birth of a Nation.”
I have been in conversation with the individuals who reached out to the office for guidance. We have talked about ways to disengage their event from the film, if that is what they wish to do. We have explored how to bring discussions of sexual assault into the discussion and how to partner with organizations that support sexual assault victims.
I continue to try and make sense of this matter. After listening to several podcasts, reading different articles, and being present in the conversation, I realize we all struggle with this. Sometimes, probably more often than we allow it, there are no answers; there are only critical conversations...
Jody Gray is Director, ALA Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services
Nate Parker’s Past, His Present, And the Future of ‘Birth of a Nation’”
Code Switch: Race and Identity Remixed
Cold Empathy for Nate Parker
Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race
Gay, Roxane. 2016. "Nate Parker And The Limits Of Empathy". Nytimes.Com.
Times, Los. 2016. "'Birth Of A Nation' Actress Gabrielle Union: I Cannot Take Nate Parker Rape Allegations Lightly". Latimes.Com.
"Join the Lecture Series, "The Birth of a Nation: Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition"", American Library Association, July 5, 2016.
http://www.ala.org/news/member-news/2016/07/join-lecture-series-birth-nation-slavery-resistance-and-abolition (Accessed September 12, 2016)
Thank you for this, Jody!