Daily Stream: Reflecting on I Am Not Your Negro with Melissa Crum

Melissa Crum, Dionne Custer Edwards & Melissa Starker

Jun 04, 2020

African American protesters face off against police during the Civil Rights Movement in an archive image from the documentary I Am Not Your Negro

In February 2017, the Wex presented several public screenings of Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary portrait of writer and activist James Baldwin. One of them was presented in conjunction with the Wexner Center for the Arts Shumate Council and included a post-film workshop led by Melissa Crum, a member of the council and founder of Mosaic Education Network. The exercise, which asked the audience to consider the questions, "What does it mean to be equal?" and "What role does white supremacy play in preventing us from living us in the country the think we live in?", yielded some thoughtful, revealing responses about racism in America.

With the call for understanding rises to a scream across the US through protests in small towns and large cities following the murder of George Floyd, we're sharing the audio from this workshop below with ways to access the Oscar-nominated film online, including links to view for free with an Amazon Prime membership or via Kanopy with your Columbus Metropolitan or Ohio State Library card.

If you're not a target of racism, the workshop offers a simple path to begin having tough conversations with friends or family about the subject, as well as firsthand perspectives on the day-to-day impact of racial inequality.

In lieu of a screening or workshop fee, we ask that you make a donation to the Columbus Freedom Fund, to assist those arrested for exercising their First Amendment rights with related expenses.

Below the audio stream, you'll find a transcript of the workshop.


James Baldwin, seen in the documentary I Am Not Your Negro

Images above and at top of page from I Am Not Your Negro, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Melissa Crum: Hello, everybody! So, if we could try to come a little closer. Come together, friends, and maybe try to sit near someone you don’t know, if possible.

As we’re moving around, just a little bit of context. I’m Melissa Crum, and I host various conversations around Columbus, around the country and other countries, conversations around similar things as in this film. Often times, those conversations can be difficult, but almost always revealing, and can be really helpful if we allow it to be.

I’m going to be honest kind of about where I’m, where my mind is right now, and how relevant it is not just to this country but to Columbus, and [James Baldwin] says, he talks about Birmingham and how Birmingham felt very distant to many folks. But what we may not be realizing is that we have our own Birmingham here in Columbus. For example, Linden is our Birmingham, if you will. I do a lot of work in Linden; it goes back to his quote about knowing where we are. So when I do work in Linden; for example, we had a project and we had to push the project back. Oftentimes, you know, you’re working with schools, you’re working with teachers, and it wasn’t pushed back because we couldn’t get books or something. It was because a child was shot, and then a teacher, who just happened to be a nurse, was able to revive that child, and then they all had to go back to school the next day. And really thinking about how trauma is living in our city—not just the people being harmed, but around harm. I’m thinking about how Linden has the highest in the state and almost the top in the country. That means specifically, not just children but black children are dying at one of the highest rates in the United States, in our own backyard. 

We did another work in Linden based on environmental justice, and as we started thinking about kind of simple things like picking up trash, and students began to understand redlining, and when they interviewed the EPA they were told it’s actually legal to pollute in your community. It just is. And then trying to understand why, when I live on this side of the street I was fine but now on this side, I have asthma, my family has respiratory attacks, there’s a higher prostate cancer rate in that area.

Now all these things might seem very disparate, very separate, but what’s underlying all of that is really thinking about what is the state of our country that allows certain things to happen in certain communities for certain groups of people. And that the underlying theme of not only Baldwin but what we’re thinking about today is, what is that thing at the foundation. 

So today we’re going to have small group discussions around two questions. Now, the first one we’ll spend a little bit of time on. The last one, we’ll spend a little more time on. What I want you to do is get your paper, try to get into something that looks like groups of four or five…

Participant 1 (man): Ma’am, I’m in my 80th year on this planet, and there’s one thing that’s very clear. It doesn’t take a lot of hem-hawing about it. White male education is at the root of the problem, and those who want to talk about the lack of education in the Constitution don’t want to come to grips with, had women been at the table, you can’t tell me that women wouldn’t want to educate their kids. I’m saying, white male education does not talk about the other groups, and everyone comes through that funnel. There should be no baffling about that. Now if you want to talk about some immediate Band-Aid approach, then you can continue that hem-hawing, but the death of a thousand cuts gets to be very, very, very irritating.

"Linden is our Birmingham... Black children are dying at one of the highest rates in the United States in our backyard.""
Melissa Crum
Mosaic Education Network founder Melissa Crum leads a diversity training workshop at the Wexner Center for the Arts

Melissa Crum leads a 2018 diversity training workshop for Wexner Center staff; photo: Brooke LaValley

MC: And I think what you’re saying, sir, is incredibly important. Absolutely. What we want to do is take a moment to piece through what we’re all thinking, how we’re all digesting, how we’re all processing this film and what that process looks like, OK?

So we’re in our groups. Our first question I want us to think about and what we’re going to do is at the end, when I say time, someone from your group is going to tell us two interesting points that came from your group. You guys will decide what that is—something you want to share with the rest of us.

The first question is, what does it mean to be equal. For a minute, we could go over some definitions. We could talk about equal versus equity, we could say that there are some people who believe once we do equity we can get to equality. Some people believe you do equality and then you can get to equity. There’s a lot of talk around those things, right? But we’re going to focus on the word “equal” and you can pick through that definition in your groups. 

One last thing I want us to keep in mind: when I do these conversations I don’t believe in “safe space.” I don’t think that really exists, because that means that no one in the conversation will get their feelings hurt, that no one will say something offensive, that no one will be harmed in some kind of way. What I do believe in is brave space. What is required of brave space is a level of forgiveness, which means you say something offensive and someone may say something offensive to you but that means you must call them out on that in a way that we can all understand why that wasn’t the best choice of words. So keep in mind that we’re in a brave space, right? And the question is, what does it mean to be equal. I will give us about 10 minutes to talk. Go ahead.

(Brief crowd noise)

Alright. Lot of great conversations? What group would like to go first to share their two items, preferably in less than three sentences. (laughs) 

Participant 2 (man): First only because we have a seven o’clock engagement…

MC: Oh, it’s alright.

Participant 2: The term “equal” is problematic and challenging. Conceptually, equality for me, senses sameness, that what you do for this group you do for that group, and it requires quite a juxtapositioning trying to get them equal and some sense of balance. I prefer your question to be, what about fairness in justice? That’s kind of what my little group here is talking about. I see some movement that might suggest that this can be provided, that there’s an opportunity I can be treated really differently than this person, but my treatment is fair, my treatment is just. There’s opportunity to make the touchdown. As opposed to equality which, in my narrow thinking maybe, almost means sameness, almost absolutist. It’s almost a state of perfection.

MC: We have a hand right there.

Participant 3 (woman): I’m just going to summarize quickly because there’s a lot of us. The starting point of what we talked about was that you can’t really get to equality without freedom, that they seem impossible to sort of pull apart, so if people don’t have freedom that’s going to be an incredible impediment to groups of people ever being equal. 

We talked about, you know, in terms of fostering equality, that there’s sort of these two poles: one is this question of access, which is sort of systemic, structural, but also this aspect of choice, which is very individual, so this idea you can’t be equal if you don’t have access, but also the freedom of choice. 

We talked about the metaphor of the level playing field, sort of that being this idea people can wrap their heads around when it came to equality. 

We came down to the same questions about sameness. Two people may not be the same race, or the same gender, or the same age, but that question of what is it that makes two people who may be radically different in many ways, significant ways, things like age and “age and wisdom” et cetera, but still, to come back to those two people being equal. And that’s sort of where our conversation ended.

MC: Thank you.

Participant 4 (woman): So my group, we figured that equality—like, we talked about equality for all but after you guys it’s kind of awkward. I’m going to share that we pretty much said the same thing, but that’s OK. Like the level playing field, but also being honest about how the playing field isn’t equal and like, how it came about, and to actually face ourselves like James Baldwin said, and without being dismissed as well. So when we’re facing these challenges and when we’re talking about, like, how free labor made more white people get economically stable than black people, when we talk about the word equality we have to talk about that, too.

MC: Thank you. Well, what is the next question…

Participant 5 (woman): Well, very quickly, but the gentleman left, and he wanted to say that we started by discussing equal did not have to mean erasing differences. And so I think we can continue to talk about equality without saying everybody has to be the same. Other than opportunity, of course, which has already been covered.

Participant 6 (man): So, we came at that whole question from a systems perspective, that it’s hard to have equality in a system that is fundamentally inequitable, so maybe we rethink the system. And then, you know, we talked about it as kind of a three-step process. You have to fundamentally believe in equality, which hopefully moves you to equity, which hopefully moves you to egalitarianism. Unless we’re thinking really systematically about how we make changes, the conversation’s great, but we’re going to have it again in 20 years.

"Unless we're thinking really systematically about how we change this, the conversation's great, but we're going to have it again in 20 years."
Workshop participant

MC: Thank you.

Alright, so we’re going to move to our next question. Now I want to go over a couple of definitions, if you will. One is thinking about power, right? And what does power mean. We think about power as control over systems and institutions, and then adding on that, specifically an adoption of certain ways of being and that allows you access to power. We have to keep that in mind, so let’s keep that in mind as the definition of “power.”

Second, thinking about racism. It’s important for us to think about racism, at least in this context, as race prejudice plus power, OK? So Baldwin generally is critiquing systems of power in connection to race, and the phrase he’s not using is this phrase that we get mixed up with other things, and that term is “white supremacy.” And so oftentimes when we use that phrase and hear that phrase, we think of Aryan Nation, we think of Ku Klux Kan, we think of a lot of different things like that, which, that can be part of it, but that’s way, way, way in the corner. When we think of white supremacy, it’s thinking about who has access to power in institutions in a consistent way, right? Consistent. So that doesn’t mean if someone who’s not of this particular race gets power that means the system is no longer a white supremacist system, right? It’s about consistent access to power and an adoption of certain ways of being.

So I’m going to ask a tough question that I want us to think about that actually Baldwin is asking us to think about: What role does white supremacy play in preventing us from living in the country we think we live in? And how you talk out could be something that was interesting that you may have agreed upon on you may not have agreed upon, that’s alright.

Alright, which group would like to share with us first?

Participant 7 (woman): I wanted to say that the question about white supremacy being tied to a power structure, because like James Baldwin said, it doesn’t matter how much money you have when you’re involved in a power structure, if your color fits that color. Like we were talking about maybe, when my grandmother was a young girl in the South, they would say well, I might be poor and white but I’m not a nigger… Even if you were a prestigious black person, you were still shunned upon because even if I was poor and white, the power structure protects me as a white person. Even if you’re working your way up the ladder, I can still look down on you. And I think the best word we came up with is “cognitive dissonance.” I have to see you not as a human to not be guilty. Like that picture [in the film] of them being hung, if they were to show the entire picture, there are little kids in that picture, and they’re smiling. 

But, I don’t know, (to table mates) what’s her name, the speaker we got that word from?

She gave an example of this same situation with these little girls, they’re smiling as this black man is dying because they don’t see him as human. But if they stomped a puppy they’d go to jail. If I stomped a puppy to death, I’ll go to jail, and everybody feels sorry. So that was what we came up with.

MC: Thank you. Thank you.

Participant 8 (woman): Hello! We briefly discussed when looking at the role of when white supremacy within America and why we can’t get to the land of the free or the home of the brave, it’s because the United States of America as we currently know it to be was created within a power structure to perpetuate white supremacy, so it wasn’t created for a structure where people are equal, given the relationships between Native Americans and then African Americans and white people. The power structure itself was to promote white supremacy so there’s no way you can get to a land of the free and home of the brave if it was not set up to be that way in the first place. So we need a new system.

MC: Thank you.

Participant 9 (woman): In full transparency, I don’t know if we talked about this or I was talking and my group was like… (pause followed by laughter) But one of the things we talked about was the concept of the power to define, and how the power to define is not accessible to everyone. The power to define really lies in whiteness. And one of the things I was talking about in there is that, at times recently when I was talking with folks and I can’t even conceive what it is to be white. I can’t even imagine what the false perception of America is from a white lens because I’m so subtracted from that. I’m a variable in an equation I don’t belong to. So I’m always subjected to whatever this reality is and I’m interplaying in it. So I can’t even imagine what the fake version of America is because that’s not mine either. So I don’t belong to the question at all.

MC: Thank you. Thank you. So, we have extra hands and unfortunately, we are being removed from this space. But before you get up, keep in mind how we can continue to break the facade, or the image that we may have about the country we live in and what that perspective looks like for other people It’s important to hear each other, right? And there’s a reason why we might not be very clear about what’s going on in Linden, or what’s going on in the prison system, or what’s going on in Ferguson, or in our backyard because we have a system that’s set up for us to not have to pay attention. Or care. And that’s the structure we’re talking about. And it’s important to see that structure and not necessarily internalize that as a personal attack, and really think about a series of institutions that we need to be critiquing on a daily basis. 

Thank you, everybody, for coming out. Continue these conversations!