I normally like feeling conflicted at the end of a movie.
I love it when the movie ends differently than I expect. I enjoy not knowing who to pull for. I appreciate films that stick in my head for days. I like a good twist.
But last night I watched Harriet with my wife. (It’s a biopic about Harriet Tubman. I highly recommend it. You can find it at Redbox). I certainly felt conflicted and, this time, I hated the feeling.
This was a different kind of conflicted feeling. I wasn’t a detached, impartial viewer who enjoys a good plot twist or a searching question. Rather, I watched as a daddy to an almost four year old, biracial boy whom I love more than I ever imagined possible.
It’s been almost four years since I’ve watched a film that depicted American slavery or the civil rights movement. I hadn’t really thought about why. I mean, as a baseball fan, I loved 42. As a history buff, I appreciated 12 Years a Slave and Selma. I found films like these to be important and impactful. And I always felt sad while I watched them, because I hate seeing people abused or mistreated.
But in the first scene of Harriet, I realized why I had subconsciously avoided films like this since my son was born. It hurts.
It hurts more and differently than ever before.
I will always remember one scene from Hotel Rwanda. When news of the genocide finally made it to American televisions, the protagonist, Paul Rusesabagina turned to his American cameraman friend, Jack, and asked, “How can they not intervene when they witness such atrocities?” And Jack gave the saddest and truest response: “I think if people see this footage they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible,’ and then go on eating their dinners.”
I’m ashamed to admit that this has always been similar to my response to films depicting human oppression and abuse.
But things are different now. I’m a white, American, middle-class man raising a beautiful, sweet, funny, and brilliant boy who is half black and half white. It wasn’t until I sat and thought that this could have been my son’s story that it truly disturbed me. This history has now found its way into my home.
Where it should have been all along.
I turned to my wife a few minutes into Harriet with tears in my eyes and said, “I don’t know if I can watch this.” But we did.
– – –
Before I continue, let me ask, is this a safe place? The internet? Certainly not. I can almost hear my white brothers and sisters with their (hopefully) well-intentioned objections, defenses, and reasonings. And I can almost see my black brothers and sisters roll their eyes as I self-indulgently try to process emotions they’ve been feeling their whole lives.
Let me ask for grace and understanding. I’m learning. I wish we all would listen and learn. Read to the end and, if I’m wrong or tone deaf, please help me.
– – –
So, why was I feeling conflicted as I watched Harriet?
Because my first instinct was a desire to shield and protect my son from the history of atrocities committed against the people with whom he shares a heritage.
And I felt conflicted because I know that would be a terrible thing to do for my son.
He needs to understand where he comes from. He needs to know history. He needs to celebrate his heritage and appreciate who God made him to be. But I wish I could keep him from feeling the way that so many of my friends have felt their entire lives.
Please don’t misread me. I don’t understand what it is like to grow up in a black household. I don’t understand what it feels like for this history to really apply to me. I don’t understand the anger, suspicion, and ostracism that much of America feels on a daily basis.
But for the first time, I started to get it. Maybe like half a percent.
I could barely breathe through the entirety of the film.
I felt indignation as I watched people claim ownership of other people.
I felt rage as I watched people mistreat other people who were made in God’s image.
I felt sorrow as I watched people treated like property.
I felt a desire for justice against the slaveholders.
I felt despair when I saw separated families and scarred backs.
I felt grief as I pondered, if I were raised in the 1800s, whether I would have been an abolitionist. (Dear Lord, I would hope so. But I know so many people were deceived).
I felt gratitude and admiration for Harriet Tubman, who risked her life countless times that others may be free.
I thanked God for Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and William Still repeatedly.
I felt hope as I watched the steadfast trust many of the slaves placed in the Lord.
I felt joy that, one day, when the Lord brings us all home, we will enjoy harmony with God and each other for eternity.
I felt a desire to never watch a movie like this again, but a simultaneous responsibility to read and study and pray so that I can teach my son that he is strong and beautiful and brave because it’s in his blood.
I felt proud that my son is half black and half white.
I felt a desperate hope that my son would never resent me and/or his family.
I felt remorse for not truly endeavoring to understand my brothers and sisters who do not look like me and have not experienced the world the same way I have.
I felt relief that we live in 2020, but I also felt a tinge of grief because things are still not as they should be.
I felt a deep love for my son.
– – –
Thanks for letting me process.
I’m not about to just “go on eating my dinner.” I think I’ll pick up my copy of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and actually read it instead.