The Wrong Tape
On June days like this one, there is a particular way to make lemonade. You use a wooden spatula to swirl in so many of the sugar granules that the liquid starts to act like a solid. It gives your mouth a coat for the razor of sour to slide down. My friend and I fill our tiny Dixie cups from a large glass container that looks like a beehive. Next to it sits a kind older lady in an apron and a speckled summer dress. She offers this ambrosia on the house.
The lemonade table is one among many. This is the yearly block sale where every family brings out their card tables to the edge of the gently slopped street. They pack the tables with junk that neighbors and strangers pick over like buzzards.
It makes for kindness. This perfect, 75-degree June day is one of the few where neighbors are happy to see each other. The rest of the year we peer between our curtains and appraise from a distance like suburban white people are supposed to do. We observe the person who packs his lawn with conservative religious sandwich boards. He’s always rejecting something in favor of Jesus. We watch the other neighbor find an excuse to cut his grass every single summer day, making our dogs go ballistic for hours. We roll our eyes at the neighbor who polishes her plastic lawn ornaments with Windex while looking at our house and glaring back. All of this is really judging, but we suburban white people are too polite to call it that.
None of that quiet disdain is on display today. The street is blocked off so that small children can laugh and scream as they discover hiding places behind fat honeysuckle bushes that threaten even the most Claritin-protected allergies. Their mood is infectious, and everyone appears friendly and happy to see each other.
My friend Leslie grabs my arm and pulls me across the street, leaving the lemonade stand in our dust. Her urgency is immediately obvious to me. We have been watching movies this summer, and this lawn features several pillars of VHS tapes. We rummage around the assortment of brightly colored or plain black vinyl boxes. It’s a perfect treasure chest for two preteen kids hunting for recycled entertainment. We each buy several of the films in brightly colored and plain vinyl boxes.
A few weeks later, we push one of our findings into the VHS player. It makes its familiar mechanical clicks and groans. But despite the advertising on the package, it’s immediately obvious that we are not watching The Little Mermaid. Rather, this is a silent film with words printed on the screen. We watch a few minutes more before ejecting it, perplexed.
Leslie’s father, who had entered the room without our knowing, takes the film and its package. “It’s not The Little Mermaid,” Leslie says.
“I know,” says her dad. “You guys can’t watch this.”
“Why?” we ask.
But he doesn’t answer. Instead, in the shadows of that dark room, he pauses to look at us. And then he walks away, closing the tape inside of the box. The conversation comes to an abrupt end and we are left in the dark.
It is not until my first semester of college that I learn why. I am taking Introduction to Black World Studies and we are discussing racist depictions in films. The professor plays a clip. Immediately I recognize it as the same one my friend and I had seen all those years ago.
The film is The Birth of a Nation. It portrays the Ku Klux Klan as the white-hooded heroes of the American story. They are the ones who keep order and protect the peace. It wildly distorts the truth of history that the KKK is a terrorist organization with a long history of murdering people of color. The professor says that it is considered both a momentous contribution to the genre of silent film as well as despicable racist propaganda. The film critic Roger Ebert says that it “argues for evil.”
I never did learn why that tape was hidden inside a Disney box at a block sale. But there is something both very wrong and very apropos about what happened. Wrong because it disrupts the presumed neutrality and innocence of white suburbia. Apropos because so many messages about race are disguised and passed on in just such an innocent context.
Polite and innocent coding allows white people to avoid the sort of judgement we do with each other across our lawns. We can simultaneously appear as innocent as a Disney VHS box (“I don’t see color”) while at the same time sending contrary messages. My guess is that most people on my street would never have copped to overt racism. I know my parents told us to treat people equally, not to be prejudiced.
But I also grew up in a Midwestern suburb that had plenty of subtle racist messages. There were jokes that white people would say only in each other’s presence. There were euphemisms that a friend’s parents would utter—”super predators,” “welfare queens”—which everyone understood as racial but which few made explicit. We lived in a neighborhood and I went to an elementary school considered “good,” a term premised on the absence of people of color. Of course, no one would say those truths out loud. The messages came in innocent packaging.
Leslie’s father walks out of the room with the tape in hand. The two of us are ready to watch something else, or perhaps to put the tapes aside and ride bikes. The incident drifts into the haze of another summer day.
Now, so many years later, I wonder. What if Leslie’s father had not simply absconded with the tape, but rather had a conversation with us about it? About what was cruel in it? About what patterns and histories it represents in our culture and how we have to challenge those? What if we recommitted to learning all that we could about white supremacy, so that we could identify it and challenge it rather than hide it? It is well known that African Americans have to have “the talk” about racism with their children. What if white people started having a talk too, with our children and with each other, about what it means to be committed to antiracism and undoing white supremacy?
It’s another warm summer day.
It feels like something new is possible.
Let’s commit to getting the message right.
—Based on a sermon delivered at North Shore Unitarian Church in Deerfield, IL, on June 21, 2020.
The Rev. Lucas Hergert is the minister of North Shore Unitarian Church in Deerfield, IL. He holds an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Miami University, a Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School, and a Doctor of Ministry from the Pacific School of Religion.