A black police detective goes undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. Sounds like a farce, except that the movie BLACKkKLANSMAN is based on the 2014 memoir by the black police detective who managed to become a card-carrying member of the Klan. This was back in 1978, but it was only a year ago last August that white supremacists marched the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, where one young woman was killed. Spike Lee’s film takes a close look at the racism that existed forty years ago and connects it to the legacy of slavery that began with the Civil War’s end and continues even to this day.
This is a chance to talk about the race issue. But first, a few more details about the film:
It’s the 1970s and Colorado Springs’ first black cop is a newly-minted detective who has the audacity to call up the number advertised by the Ku Klux Klan in the local newspaper and pretend he’s an angry white guy looking to connect with some fellow racists. The Klansman on the other end of the phone likes what he hears and asks Ron Stallworth for his name, and Ron–rookie that he is–says “Ron Stallworth.” You see the problem here. Not only will a white police officer have to pretend to be Ron to pull off an in-person meeting with the KKK, but he will be using the name of a real policeman–and that one mistake could backfire in any number of ways.
This problem creates some of the tension, but it also provides some of the humor. That’s one of the remarkable feats of this film. It’s funny, as well as creepy and suspenseful. The local Klan group wants to blow up a building and kill Black Student Union members. But the Klan’s hatred isn’t limited to blacks. They hate other minorities; they hate gays; they especially hate the Jews. And the white police officer Ron recruits to pretend to be “Ron Stallworth” is Jewish.
My friend Laura and I co-host an afterschool Book Club at a public elementary school in South Dallas once a week. It’s in the kind of neighborhood where there are bars on the windows, where the young man dancing alone under the overpass may be high on something other than life, and where too many forlorn-looking houses offer only a glimpse of the lives lived inside. The street that takes us to the back of the school has three churches in close proximity. To me it’s a reminder that when hope is in short supply, people survive on faith. That’s true not only for the poor. But as I drive along this down-on-its heels street to a school filled with children I’ve grown to love, it does feel like hope is in short supply because of the long-lingering effects of slavery.
It wasn’t until three years ago when I became involved with the St. Simon’s Afterschool Program (a tax-exempt non-profit) that I fully woke up to the fact that Dallas was ranked #1 among major U.S. cities for the highest percentage of children living in poverty. (It’s since moved down to tie for #3.) In the twenty years I’ve lived here, the large number of beautiful neighborhoods in all different price ranges continues to astonish me. The economy is thriving and Dallas residents give generously to charities and the arts. How is it, then, that Dallas is near the top of a list that no city would ever want to be on? St. Simon’s provides free afterschool care for students of working parents. In some cases there’s only one parent, but that parent must have a job to qualify. A few teachers are paid to supervise. Some schools have volunteers; many don’t. This year the program is in 11 schools–down from previous years–but it’s worth noting that the Dallas Independent School District has 152 elementary schools.
My first day to volunteer was Laura’s 17th year at the school, and it went something like this: As we enter through the back door, students are filing out to be picked up by parents, grandparents, friends or older siblings. Many (but not all) of these students don’t qualify for St. Simon’s, and I’m later told by Laura and a couple of teachers that these are the children they worry about the most. When we enter the cafeteria, the children greet Laura like a returning hero and beloved friend. Hugs and kisses all around. All the faces I’ve seen (and will continue to see) are African-American and some have the kind of familiar American names I’ve heard throughout my life, but most of the 75 children in the program have more exotic names that seem to speak of Africa. Laura introduces me, and the children regard me shyly. Or warily. When I return the following week, I am greeted like a returning hero and beloved friend. “You came back,” they shout. Hugs and kisses all around. Laura has recruited other volunteers over the years, but none have stayed for very long. I’d like to think I would have stayed regardless–to help with homework, to listen and to cheer them on–but the Book Club is what sucked me in and hasn’t let me go. The Book Club–Laura and I reckon–was born of necessity. On my very first day three years ago, we discovered that the library was “Closed Until Further Notice.”
From time to time, I hear somebody make the argument that slavery is part of almost every nation’s history dating back to the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. Therefore, they suggest, America isn’t really to blame for importing slaves from Africa because Africans willingly sold their own people into slavery. I’d like to counter with this analogy: if somebody kidnaps me out of my house, is it fair to blame me because I left my back door unlocked? If I were to escape, would it be fair to shoot me dead or incarcerate me for life for getting abducted in the first place? Slavery in this country began in 1619. Officially it ended with the Civil War in 1865, even though history acknowledges the tragic backlash that followed Reconstruction–almost 4,000 lynchings; Jim Crow laws that segregated ex-slaves and kept them from voting or holding office. (The KKK, by the way, was founded on Christmas Eve, 1865, in a small town in Tennessee.) Officially, though, slavery lasted for 246 years; freedom is still working hard to catch up–153 years and counting. And, as you and I know, freedom from being owned–like cattle–did not mean free to be and do and vote. It’s been only 53 years since the Civil Rights and Voting Acts were written into federal law.
Slavery’s legacy. I see it in the run-down neighborhood with the barred windows; I see it in the exhausted face of the single mother who stops us in the school parking lot. Can we come down more often and personally help her daughter with her reading? The mom tries to read with her at night but she works three jobs and usually falls asleep before they make it through a single page. I see its lingering effects when I learn that many of the students’ parents grew up in this neighborhood and attended this same elementary school. Which means they never moved out and up into more prosperous, safer neighborhoods. This, by the way, is no reflection on the school. It’s one of the highest performing elementary schools in the district, with dedicated teachers who’ve been there for many years. Their remarkable principal had hoped to retire there; because of her achievements, this year she was asked to take the reins of another school so troubled that the district had considered closing it.
It’s hard for me to imagine a school library closed for a whole semester. The librarian left? Hire a new one. I’m sure the school wanted to, but for whatever the reason, the new librarian didn’t start until the following semester. But the library is where we hold Book Club. The school happily unlocked the door for St. Simon’s. Each semester it’s a chapter book for the older students and many different Picture Books for the Pre-K & Up crowd. Award-winning books that capture their imaginations, get them to think, and hopefully hook them on reading. Meanwhile, we restocked the Portable Library in the cafeteria with a treasure trove of “Wish List” books donated by generous individuals and organizations.
One February afternoon after Book Club, a third grade girl asked me, why did the white people hate us so much? It was Black History Month and I knew slavery was on her mind. That’s a tough question to answer. Truth is important, and so is the way a child views herself and her forebears. The first Americans on her family tree probably arrived in this country four hundred years ago. Mine caught a ship a little later. The big difference is that hers arrived as slaves; mine as immigrants.
At the end of BLACKkKLANSMAN, as a coda linking the past to the present, Spike Lee shows real footage of the car ramming pedestrians in Charlottesville–the incident that killed Heather Heyer. There’s a clip from David Duke in Charlottesville praising the President’s comments, that there was “blame on both sides.” David Duke is no longer the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, as he was during the 1970s, but he’s still spewing hate. The kind of hate that could instill fear in young African-American children and their parents. And not just the poor ones. In the film, Ron Stallworth has a couple of phone conversations with David Duke, who takes an immediate liking to Ron. Duke tells Ron he can identify a Negro just by the sound of his voice and the way he pronounces certain words. Clearly Duke is mistaken, and Ron plays him like a fool. Those conversations did happen. The screenwriters fictionalized parts of Ron’s memoir for the movie, as screenwriters often do: The specifics of the Klan’s terrorist plot. The love interest. Deciding to make Ron’s white partner Jewish. But nothing that changes the basic truth about the Klan or Ron’s daring achievement.
The Ku Klux Klan, from what I’ve read, isn’t dead, but it’s been largely replaced by the broader White Supremacist Movement. And the Neo-Nazis. And the Alt-Right. Earlier this year the Southern Poverty Law Center reported there are a total of 954 active hate groups in the U.S., an increase of 4% over the prior year. Where does hate get us as a country?
Book Club is a joyful time. It’s optional, but most kids choose to come. As soon as we walk through the door, the kids take whatever we’re carrying–boxes, book bags, purses, treats–and bring them to the library. They want to lighten our load. We wish we could lighten theirs. They want to share their snacks with us. Instead, we listen when they want to tell us things. My daddy broke his leg. He was jumping over a fence and somebody shot him. The pre-K crowd often goes off-topic when discussing their Picture Book. (Come to think of it, so does my adult one.) I live in a shelter, and I feel safe there, says one sweet, very smart little girl. We’re stunned. When we give her a book to take home–to keep–she regards it with wonder. I’m going to sleep with it so nobody can steal it.
Some Book Club days go better than others. The older kids take turns reading the middle grade novel, and everyone wants to read. Even the kids who struggle to read want their turn. Little by little they get better. Some kids are already excellent readers or become avid readers, but we wish there were more. A good education is still the best way to move up in the world, isn’t it? When I ask Laura how she’s managed on her own here for so many years, she says, “How do you give up on the children?”
Bobby (not his real name) wants to play in the NBA when he grows up. He’s tall and lean and carries himself with a quiet dignity, even though he’s one of a few “at risk” boys being mentored by a young man who’s a former student at this elementary school. For fifth grade graduation we give him a copy of the novel Crossover by Kwame Alexander, a moving story about two brothers who are high school basketball stars, and it’s told in verse. He reads a third of the novel during the end-of-the-year party and tells us he wants to read the prequel when he’s finished.
It’s certainly true that not all of the Dallas children living in poverty are African-American, but a few things seem pretty clear to me. Unless we can give more helping hands to struggling African-American families–the descendants of Americans we once enslaved–the Great Divide between the Haves and Have-Nots will grow even wider. More and more kids like the ones at ‘my’ black elementary school could end up in trouble: having babies far too young; not going to college or learning a valuable trade; falling into drug use or the drug trade; ending up in prison or dead. A wider Great Divide would only ratchet up the Fear Factor, and where there’s fear there’s hate. And I think I know where the Hate Groups would cast all the blame.
What did hate ever solve? It’s not even a temporary fix. It’s destructive and it degrades us all.