Would the Oppressed become the Oppressor if given the chance?
The history of the world is filled with stories of individuals and groups confronting injustice and oppression. The caste system cruelly labeled individuals as untouchables. White Americans enslaved black Americans. The Germans’ fought to eradicate the Jews. The Rwandan genocide. Salem witch trials. Haun’s Mill massacre. Moments after tragic moment of human beings justifying their shameful tyranny.
Headlines today expose the potent power of hatred. A pandemic spreading with its alarmingly contagious virus of self claimed superiority. Emerging from the rubble and destruction left in the wake of it’s disgusting indulgence emerges pain that few are courageous enough to truly see.
Inequality is fueled by fear. Fear of differences. Fear of the unfamiliar. But it’s also perpetuated by emotional atrophy.
The Blacks, a play written by Jean Genet, opened on May 4th of 1961 at the St. Marks Playhouse in New York City. It became the longest running off Broadway of the decade with 1,408 performances. Among the 12 original black cast members was Maya Angelou who played the White Queen.
After Maya’s third reading of the manuscript, the meaning of the play came into focus. Maya recalls, “Genet suggested that colonialism would crumble from the weight of its ignorance, its arrogance and greed, and that the oppressed would take over the positions of their former masters. They would be no better, no more courageous and no more merciful (p.212-213).” She tossed the manuscript into her closet declaring that she was “finished with Genet and his narrow little conclusions (p.214).” A couple days later she received an offer to be in the play. She had no interest in participating in a play with ideas that she did not agree with. She turned the offer down.
Maya Angelou’s husband at the time, Vusumzi Make, a South African civil rights activist, became curious in Maya’s decision to not accept a role in the play and asked to read the manuscript. He read through the script late into the night. After a thorough and thoughtful investigation, he woke up Maya who gone to bed hours before.
“This play is great. If they still want you, you must do this play.”
“I don’t agree with the conclusion. Black people are not going to become like whites. Never.”
“We are people. The root cause of racism and its primary result is that white refuse to see us simply as people.”
Maya argued, “But the play says given the chance, black people will act as cruel as whites. I don’t believe it.”
“Maya, that is a very real possibility and one we must vigilantly guard against. You see, my dear wife, most black revolutionaries, most black radicals, most black activist, do not really want change. They want exchange. This play points to that likelihood. And our people need to face this temptation (Maya Angelou, The Heart of a Woman, p. 216).”
Inequality and injustice have to be confronted, but confronting injustice with injustice is exchange not change. Switching positions and giving the oppressed power to become the oppressor creates an exhausting arms race battle with far too many casualties. Oppression needs to be dismantled.
June 8, 2020
Time writing: 2 hours
Total time writing on this blog: 245 hours