Steve Harper reflects on the way race impacts his life.
My people didn’t come over on the Mayflower. That fact plays out in my life hundreds of years after that ship sailed. Yes, it’s 2014, and though some imagine that we’re a “post-racial” society, I don’t see it that way.
A few weekends ago I was down south with my partner, to visit his mother. I’m glad we made the trip, and that we got to see her, though being in Tennessee was an experience. He’s white and I’m black and we chose to reign in our usual public displays of affection.
My “favorite” moment of the trip was when we went to pick up dinner from a BBQ place with the word “Dixie” in the name – I didn’t realize until we walked in that Dixie meant Dixie – there was at least one confederate flag on prominent display. The waitress seemed really unfriendly and there were no other people of color eating there. The only thing I could think of to do in the awkward silence while waiting for our to-go order was to take a photo of the flag.
To be fair, there were positive things about the trip and the people. I missed my flight heading back to L.A. partly because of traffic and partly because of slow service at the ticket counter. I was surprised to be soothed by airport personnel sincerely inquiring with a sweet southern lilt: “How you doing?”
Still, the race “thing” is part of our culture and part of my life.
Months ago I saw a story on the news about a middle-school teacher who was having students re-enact battles from the Civil War. The reporter interviewed a young white girl in a soldier’s uniform who talked about how tough it was to imagine her classmates being killed.
To my mind, that’s not the way to teach the Civil War. Separate the girls out and the people of color out, and let the white boys re-enact the battles. Let the segregation be part of the lesson.
With all that in mind, I created a short story called SEND ME, about a black woman who has the power to send black people back in time to slavery. It’s not a punishment. They want to go – to explore their blackness, their history, to connect to who they are.
It takes place now, in 2014, and it involves time travel. Candidates apply for the chance to take the trip. Those who want to go are trying to find out who they are now based on who their ancestors were.
Readers have been intrigued by the idea. Every time I talk about the story, it leads to a deep conversation about race in America and how we relate to it – or how we don’t. In my life, some version of this dialogue plays out every day.
In my Los Angeles apartment building, if I’m getting in the elevator with a white woman, I’ll usually push the button for my floor first, so she doesn’t think I’m following her. If I don’t, the woman will usually ask me what floor before she presses any of the elevator buttons.
I’m aware that the way I speak figures into this. I have immaculate diction – which is partly from having gone to drama school. I’m also aware that men who look like me are often beaten and attacked by police; I want to be understood. I want to be clear that I’m not a thug or a criminal.
Years ago, I would jokingly toss around the sentence “Lincoln freed me” as a humorous strike against any white person who told me what to do. These were my friends, but still, I would play the “my people were slaves” card. Because they were and it still resonates for me.
Recently, I turned my short story into a script for a web series. We plan to shoot SEND ME in 2015 and we’re raising money on Indiegogo starting October 10th. Find the project on Indiegogo or find out more on: www.sendmebacktoslavery.com
My hope is to foster further discussion about how connected we are to the past and how it affects the present and the future.
What’s your take?