I was listening to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon the other day, and marveling at her ability to tell such full, rich stories interspersed with moments of pain as well as moments of humor.
I came to a line that beckoned me to pause, rewind, and listen again. Pilate – a character who has become rather nomadic from necessity, as she is rejected time and again by different communities, both for reasons she can control and for those she can’t, is described as staring at people. The kind of staring that Black people only accept from children and “certain kinds of outlaws.”
I mulled that line over for a while. And even after resuming the novel and continuing about my daily routines, the words stuck with me.
It seems to me that making the kind of sustained eye contact that only children and certain kinds of outlaws are expected to make must come from a sense of audacity and self assurance. The kinds of qualities that as we grow up and learn social norms and cultural customs, we reduce and diminish within ourselves – making ourselves smaller in order to accommodate the people around us, not realizing that insodoing we forget a part of our truest selves.
Song of Solomon’s Pilate, shunned for so much of her life, didn’t receive the social conditioning that would have instructed her to question her worth or stamina enough to look down or away.
So she looked straight on.
And it’s got me wondering, y’all, if the folks in our lives who jar us most are the ones who refuse to look away.
When I stared directly at the racially insensitive comic my publisher posted, refusing to shrink back or turn my head, was it a sense on the publisher’s end that I must be a certain kind of outlaw that resulted in the dissolution of our personal and professional relationship?
Candice Benbow, Jo Luehmann, Sesali Bowen, Ebony Janice, and a chorus of melanated womanist voices collectively refused to look away from Jennifer Buck’s digital blackface and atrocious attempt to claim for herself the work Black women have already been doing. Had these scholars chosen to look down or away – whether from shock, social custom, self-preservation, or something else entirely – would the publisher have been shamed into pulling the book from publication?
Would we even know the names of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriett Tubman if they had not stayed in their bodies and looked fully into the face of their enslavers, refusing to accept the subhuman status that race-based chattel slavery had thrust upon them?
And what of the penitent thief on the cross next to Jesus? Did he not look fully into the face of God and thereby gain the promise of paradise?
I confess I have struggled to look up.
These last few months have been difficult, and holding my head up to look straight into an uncertain future has been challenging and discouraging.
But I am heartened as always by Morrison’s work. In Pilate, she beckons me to keep my gaze steady and my feet rooted.
This Good Friday and always, I hope you will carry with you the message of remaining present.
Look into the eyes of those who wish earnestly for you to look away so they don’t have to acknowledge your dignity.
Whether you are experiencing times of sorrow or joy, plenty or want, making eye contact with your present circumstances is the truest way to navigate through your life.
We won’t get to liberation by refusing to make eye contact with lament.
Stay in your body.
Look up, like Pilate, children, and certain kinds of outlaws.