Simple Things/ Lang Kenneth Haynes
Those Who Went Before
Maybe there is some truth in the saying that a picture is worth one- thousand words. In the process of getting to know family
members I've never known, I have been looking at a lot of photographs of Black folks lately. I'm captivated by something in the
expressions. It doesn't matter if the person being photographed is supposed to be happy, sad, angry or showing some other
emotion; there are parts of the pictures that look as if they are trying to remember something important, but they just can't seem to
wrap their minds around whatever it is. I am talking about my father and the look he had in his eyes. I am talking about other
relatives I vaguely remember and others whom I've never met. The look is mesmerizing. It is similar to the countenance I see in
the bathroom mirror every morning when I shave. It's like trying to scratch an itch that is too deep to touch in the usual way. I don't
understand what the look is about.
The big question is do the people in the photographs know what is going on? Are they consciously thinking about and feeling
suffocated and angry the way their ancestors did a few hundred years ago during the dreaded and feared Middle Passage? Are
their minds and hearts focused on the torturous hulls of slaving ships and how they were free and strong one day and treated and
regarded as less than cattle the next? Do their muscles twitch and ache because — during a time they have no way of
remembering — families were torn apart and unimaginable indignities were heaped upon women?
If you want a taste of what I'm talking about listen to a song called "Bid Em In" by Oscar Brown, Jr. Are the countenances mixed
with more contemporary unfairness that could have been directly experienced hours or minutes before? Anyway you look at it, I
don't need to read the words that accompany the photos on book jackets, family picture albums and other collections of new and
old photographs. A picture is sometimes worth a thousand words.
It is interesting how many of us think that we got to wherever we happen to be exclusively as a result of out own efforts. Many
stories from the City of Madison Police Department fuel this hypothesis. I'll tell you a few: I became a Madison police officer in the
summer of 1982. It was a time of transition. David Couper was chief and my academy class of 20 was pretty much evenly divided
between women and men several of whom were not white women and men. As I recall our class had very little in the way of prior
military experience and none of us wore crew cuts. I'm not slamming that particular style and I mention it only to point out that
there was a time in the not-too-distant past (even in the city of Madison) when just about all cops had very short hair on their
heads, no facial hair and military or law enforcement experience. Those were the days when you only needed one hand to count
the number of Black police officers. There were only a couple of police officers who spoke Spanish and they just happened to
work different shifts (there were four shifts in those days). Centro Hispano was a tiny organization. Say nothing of other so-called
"minority" populations. The world was white wasn't it? Despite growing populations and other information the behavior still
indicated that the world was white. The irony, of course, is that the world was never white and now this reality was starting to
show up in smaller pockets of the world; insulated little pockets like Madison, Middleton, Stoughton, other places in the Midwest
and other places all over the map and it didn't matter much which map you chose to look at.
One commonly used definition of insanity goes something like this: Doing the same thing over and over in essentially the same
way and expecting a different result. An example would be standing in the same place and throwing the same ball at the same
spot on the same wall at pretty close to the same speed. Let's say you've done this one-million times, yet you expect the ball to
return to you at a different speed or somehow in a different way. Another definition might be to act as though the world is a
stagnant place despite very strong and irrefutable evidence to the contrary. For example, maybe 15 years ago it would have been
very strange to see two non-white people walking down a street in Stoughton. Today such an occurrence would be common.
Change is the only constant. Why do human beings invest so much time and energy into trying to ignore the changes that surround
us? Why is it so hard to accept that our views are clearer now because our heads are above the crowd and we gain this vantage
point by standing on the shoulders of those who went before?
We stand on the shoulders of those we celebrate and name streets after and we stand on the shoulders of those whose names we
do not know. We stand on the shoulders of police officers and sanitation workers and doctors and lawyers and all of the non-white
people who were among the first to do whatever it is they did. We stand on the shoulders of those who were prohibited from doing
what they thought they'd be able to do. We stand on the shoulders of those who should have been able to do what they aspired to
do. Please do not forget these things.
And there are many things that continue to plague us. Sometimes these things unfold during our lifetimes. Sometimes they live in
the stories of grandparents. Sometimes these horrible events occurred a long time ago and we carry them without being
consciously aware of them. The Middle Passage is an example. Looking at diagrams of the hulls of slaving ships is not enough.
Knowing that millions of human beings from the African continent were "arranged" in those hulls like tight-packed sardines is not
enough. But terrible memories of that dastardly "trip" remain. The memories do not reside in the part of the brain that holds long-
term memory. The memories are alive and not well in the itch that cannot be scratched, in-between muscles and in the
countenances that are shown in old family photos and book jackets. Maybe a picture is worth one-thousand words.