What About Us?

I recently saw the movie Us. I’m a huge sci-fi/horror buff and so I was excited about this film for various reasons. In addition to being scary as heck, Us was quirky in the best ways (spoiler alert). The overall premise - a family being terrorized by their doppelgängers - was both sobering and terrifying. I saw the cliffhanger coming a mile away, but that did not minimize the movie’s intensity. Us is definitely the kind of movie that had me thinking days later. This was an accomplishment because, although I watch lots of movies, most are usually forgotten in a few hours. Of course my sociological lens was in full effect while viewing Us. Despite several troubling dynamics (i.e., the stark violence perpetrated by a black female or the docile black male who seems to abandon the fight for his family’s lives to his wife), the strengths of Us outweigh its weaknesses. In addition to the singular, thought-provoking writing and directing of Jordan Peele, this movie is groundbreaking for the following reasons.

It was great to see a horror movie focused on a black family. Many movies include a black family “next door” or the proverbial black “sidekick” who is often killed off in an early scene or retained for comic relief. By centering a black family, Peele normalizes them. Although black, this family experiences challenges like any other family - teens tethered to cell phones, older siblings who show disdain toward younger ones, concerns about keeping up with the Joneses, and tensions while making time for family vacations. Most importantly, the terror the Wilson’s experience could have befallen any family regardless of race or ethnicity. Moreover, I was excited by the way blackness was depicted. When blacks are included in many movies they are often light-skinned or mixed-race persons with flowing hair and phenotypically white features. It was refreshing to see black characters of darker hues and natural hair on the big screen. The Wilson’s were clearly middle-class, which added another nuanced dimension to the story by presenting the intersection of race, class, and gender in a pronounced way.

Next, although some viewers may have been troubled by the violence met out by the female lead, Adelaide, for me she harkened to the reality of the many black women who are required to “handle their business” to protect their families, especially their children, from interlopers. These same women make great sacrifices to this end. Even if you disagree with the way the black female lead was presented, I enjoyed seeing a black female lead, in general, as well as witnessing yet another example of the exceptional acting acumen of Lupita Nyong’o. Additionally, the film reminded me of the vulnerability of children. Much of my research focuses on marginalized groups, yet society often forgets that children, regardless of their demographic profile, are the most vulnerable population in the world. Even the pluckiest child is still dependent on adults and is thus susceptible to the foils and foibles of persons responsible for their care. The message was clear that a few moments outside vigilant parental eyes can irrevocably alter the life of a child.

Lastly, the “Us versus Them” dichotomy was not lost on me. When I partner with poor and working-class people during research, their challenges are usually tethered to those of their more economically stable peers. Similar statements can be made about minority groups such as women, racial, ethnic and immigrant groups, the LGBTQIA community, and the physically and mentally challenged. I wonder how often the “Us” in the world concertedly think about the “Them” and, more importantly, commit to the work of dismantling negative structural forces that perpetuate such dichotomies. In so many instances in our history, the successes of Us were built on the backs of Them. It is a difficult and complex conversation to have, but one that is required if we ever hope to make significant strides in illuminating and undoing the dynamics that create and perpetuate marginalization and oppression. This reality is further complicated because so many individuals can be part of multiple Us and Them groups simultaneously based on our varied profiles! But our diverse experiences can make it easier for us to empathize with other diverse groups and commit ourselves to helping make change. I remind my students that as a society and world, we have the resources and mechanisms to eliminate social problems like poverty and “isms.” Yet we don’t, partly because it takes time and energy to understand such problems as well as cause systemic change - and because these fractures benefit certain groups.

The movie Us presented other important themes and narratives that I’m sure many people will be discussing for a long time to come - including myself. The best movies do. More importantly, I hope that this movie encourages more people to think about the experiences of swaths of society that have been ignored, left out, or forgotten and to begin to actively do their part to foster equity and inclusion in tangible, permanent ways.

sandra.l.barnes@vanderbilt.edu
5/1/19

Sandra Barnes
Listen to HER
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Few days go by without reading or hearing advice about how we should live our lives. You can throw a proverbial rock and hit someone with an opinion about what we should believe and how we should behave. Social media has made it even easier to give and get unsolicited advice and, just as often, recriminations. To whom should we listen? What information can inform and/or enhance our lives? Decades ago, a mentor in seminary shared an acronym to respond to this potential dilemma that I still apply today in my life’s work to advance social justice. The advice was simple. Listen to HER. This counsel may prove beneficial to readers here.

H stands for history. The past is full of examples and knowledge, both positive and negative, from which we can learn. Trials and triumphs alike can be instructive. The Holocaust, slavery in America, the genocide of the Moriori in New Zealand and the Tutsi in Rwanda, gendercide during periods of war and conquest, The Trail of Tears, the Tulsa race riot, as well as Jim and Juan Crow laws - are just a few historical examples of systematic oppression and disenfranchisement. However, the Red and Black Power Movements, Stonewall activists, and the Gray Panthers pushed to empower the marginalized. Other counter-narratives include: Mississippi domestic and philanthropist, Oseola McCarty; Oskar Schindler; Cesar Chavez; Grace Lee Boggs; Judy Wood; and, Bayard Rustin who all illustrate how ordinary people can do extraordinary things. And Freedom Summer martyrs James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner remind us that many have died in the pursuit of justice. A plethora of lesser-known episodes, groups, and individuals from the past challenge us to remember tragedies as well as instances when our best selves were evident and prevailed. Yet history is often framed by the powerful. And there are still historical events to be unearthed. However, the past provides evidence for guidance, retrospection, and action to do and be better. And to quote philosopher George Santayana, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

E stands for experiences. In today's age of mansplaining, racesplaining, and “fill in the blank”-splaining, each of us has our own unique experiences from which to draw. Even if we understand and describe them in varied ways, they happen. They are real. They should be acknowledged. And we can learn from them. No one knows your experiences better than you. This is an endless source of knowledge and, if used properly, wisdom and guidance. I also believe that we are destined to repeat certain experiences until we learn and grow from them. Other people’s experiences are also invaluable. Listening to the experiences of others can help avoid that slippery slope of “my pain is greater than yours.” Even if we haven’t walked in their shoes, an empathetic ear can build genuine relationships and provide insights to navigate life’s quagmires and challenges. Equally important, sharing our stories gives us voice and can empower us to move forward in positive ways. In this way, acknowledging and honoring our experiences and those of others can build community and reduce divisiveness.

R stands for research. This third source of information and potential knowledge and wisdom may be unexpected, but is crucial. Research helps minimize the tendency to assume that our experience is the experience. It can foster objectivity as we learn about other people. Moreover, research can reduce the tendency to use our own standards to evaluate other people, as we are exposed to diverse values, beliefs, cultures, and traditions. Sound scholarship documents trends and patterns across time, groups, and settings. For example, work by W.E.B. DuBois, Patricia Hill Collins, Joe Feagin, and Donna Haraway illumined issues of oppression and resistance that inform my attitudes and actions about equity, diversity, and inclusion. The more I read, the more I learn, question, and grow. When used prudently, research can open our eyes to facets of the human experience that we might miss otherwise. However, we must consider who is performing the research and be comfortable questioning results, especially unsubstantiated anecdotes and theories that seem logical, but fly in the face of multiple, replicated studies by diverse scholars. Equally important, scholarship can inform policies, community action, and how we live our daily lives. But this means that more research must be shared outside the ivory tower in a way that is relevant to the broader society.

Times may change, but to me, there is nothing new under the sun. Taken together, history, experiences, and research can be transformative, as society, people, and we each unfold in new and exciting ways. So many years ago, I was challenged to Listen to HER. Doing so has enhanced multiple facets of my life. May it do the same for you.

Sandra Barnes
The Bird Box and Jim Crow
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It was reported that at least 45 million people watched the 2018 Netflix movie “Bird Box” in its first week. I was one of them (spoiler alert). The film focuses on a dystopian society in which a woman (played by Sandra Bullock) attempts to travel down a river and through a forest with two young children (simply called, Boy and Girl) in tow. No problem. Right? Wrong. They must make the trek blindfolded lest they glimpse an invisible force that causes insanity and suicide. Bullock’s character has watched a motley group of survivors dwindle to three. She is now the sole protector/provider. I liked this film. It had a good mix of suspense, horror, science fiction, and romance and justified eating a bag of buttered popcorn.

But I am a sociologist, so a movie is never just a movie. Moreover, I had just submitted the page proofs for my upcoming book, The Kings of Mississippi: Race, Religious Education, and the Making of a Middle-Class Black Family in the Segregated South about a rural, black farming family, so my thoughts about dystopian spaces were fresh. By definition, a dystopia is a society or community characterized by negative, violent, frightening situations that tend to dehumanize people. “Bird Box” is a movie, but the parallels between it and The Kings of Mississippi are stark.

The Kings of Mississippi documents the experiences and challenges of a black family navigating segregation. Most dystopian stories are set in the future. In contrast, the King’s story takes place in the past. Jim Crow laws were passed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and were enforced until about 1965. And its specter loomed large, resulting in the systematic political, economic, and social oppression of blacks. Like the Kings and the people in the movie, how do you fight something you can’t see, but that can cause your death? How do you maintain your sanity and some semblance of normalcy in a society largely devoid of these features for you and yours? Paralleling the movie, the apocalyptic effects of Jim Crow meant watching people you love die literally and figuratively, others go insane, some sacrifice themselves for you, and still others steer you to safety.

For the Kings and many blacks like them, daily life in the South meant symbolically “blindfolding” themselves to avoid the direct onslaught of Jim Crow – and adaptively living through the fallout. The enemy wasn’t an invisible force, but flesh and blood people and processes linked to racial stratification. Boys or girls – regardless of their names – were often nurtured by mothers, fathers, Other Mothers, and other fictive kin based on a village mentality. And just as chirps unexpectedly provided safeguard in the film, an unassuming matriarch, Irma, fostered the King’s successes. My research across seven generations, including family narratives and census data, show how the Kings parlayed religion, education, ties to a homestead, strategic migrations, a linked fate mentality, and faith in God and themselves, into the middle class. They, like the movie’s family, were fighting for security, stability, and safety.

“Bird Box” is just entertainment. Alien invasions are not real. Similarly, Jim Crowism as it played out in the U.S. South no longer exists. Yet art often imitates life. Movies can serve as escapism. The Kings and Jim Crow were real and serve as a source of education about trials and triumphs that are an indelible part of our history.

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Sandra Barnes