POST: 'Blood at the Root' - to be an ally you have to be humble

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What’s it about?

Set in a high school in modern-day Louisiana, Blood at the Root is about remembering that everything comes with history that makes it what it is, it is about remembering that everything (and everyone) has roots through which they rise.

What'd I experience?

Louisiana usually feels far away. The Civil Rights Movement usually feels far away and long ago. The putrid stench of white privilege usually feels far away and faint in a city like New York.

But lately it all feels close, too close.

The story of the Jena Six, on which Blood at the Root is loosely based, is infuriating in its details but frustrating in how common it feels. In 2006 six male black students at Jena High School in Jena, Louisiana were arrested and initially charged with attempted murder after a fight with a white student. The students, who came to be known collectively as the Jena Six, were all no more than 17 years old, yet several were slated to be tried in court as adults. They faced up to 100 years in prison.

Blood at the Root looks at this story through its roots in the months preceding the charges, in the months when the Jena Six were still considered boys, not men. It begins on an unusually hot fall day in the fictional town of Cedar, Louisiana. All the six onstage can really think or speak about is how insanely hot it is.

For Raylynn, a black student in her senior year, this day marks the anniversary of her mother’s death. She decides that this day must be different, that this day must be about breaking rules. She looks at the audience every time she’s about to break a rule. Her first rule to break is that of the class president – Raylynn wants to run for class president this year, even though she knows that no one who looks like her has ever held the position.

Her next rule-break: sitting under the big oak tree in the school courtyard. Frivolous as it might seem at first, breaking this rule changes everything. This particular tree had always been occupied by the white students of Cedar High. Soon after Raylynn breaks this rule, things in Cedar heat up in a different way. 

"Nooses hanging like vines..." thinks Raylynn as she and her friends stand dumbfounded under the oak tree. Someone had hung nooses on the branches of the tree after Raylynn and a few other black students had dared to sit there. School administration dismissed the nooses as a prank.

A prank. Just some "rope." An extensive history of unabashed racism, of systemic racial discrimination, of an open rejection of black lives, yet the nooses were just a prank, a silly joke. Surely, a few pieces of rope tied to a tree where a black person had recently sat doesn't constitute a threat to anyone's life? Surely it has nothing to do with how the black kids and white kids in the school rarely associate with each other? What a fun little joke, how can anyone be offended?

With racial tensions already high from the nooses, when several black students, one of them Raylynn’s younger brother De'Andre, get into a fight with a white student, things only get worse. Like the Jena Six, De'Andre is arrested and held in prison, awaiting trial as an adult, his promising future in football uncertain, his side of the story untold.  

After the show, the actors returned to the stage, along with directors of the National Black Theatre, to engage the audience in a talkback session. An audience member - one of few white people in the room - asked how she can best be an ally to people of color. As she asked the question, I swear I heard a sense of pride in her voice, like she wanted recognition for asking such a progressive question, like she had been commended for asking this question in the past.

The question and its asker may have annoyed me, but its answer, courtesy of Jonathan McCrory, Director of Theatre Arts at NBT, left me in awe of how profoundly uncomplicated it was. His answer was simple: to be an ally you have to be humble. You have to understand that your voice does not need to be heard in every room that you enter. There are other voices that have been waiting to be heard for centuries longer than yours.  

After sharing a “unifying breath” with Jonathan and the rest of the audience, I left the theatre feeling better equipped to take action during the moments of injustice and aggression in my own life and those of my friends as people of color. 

But as I sat in a classroom just three days later listening to a white classmate speak about her frustrations with not being able to speak however she wants, about how the push for political correctness is a hindrance to productive discussion, all I could do was sit. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that she needs to be humble, that her frustrations are rooted in prejudice, that by taking a discussion about race and making it about herself she was perpetuating the very oppressive systems that criminalize being Black or of color in America. A whole movement calling attention to the neglect and murder of black lives and voices, yet she couldn't see her through privilege. But all I could bring myself to do was be silent. 

That’s why Louisiana feels closer than it usually does. 

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