Like in ‘Green Book’ movie, Hollywood tends to water racism down – award-winning author
The Oscar winning drama ‘Green Book’ has brought racism in America back into the spotlight. Is this problem a thing of the past, or is it still alive? We asked Calvin Alexander Ramsay, award-winning author and playwright, who has traveled across the country collecting memories of the Jim Crow era.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Calvin Alexander Ramsay award winning writer and playwright, welcome to the show, it's really great to have you with us today, Mr. Ramsey. Now, you have been digging into the Green Book for a long time, the travel guide for African-Americans during the Jim Crow laws that helped them avoid painful discriminations in the segregated South. Jim Crow may be a thing of the past, but, for instance, film director Spike Lee believes racism is ingrained in the DNA of the United States. Do you think it will ever be overcome completely?
Calvin A. Ramsay: Well, it's going to take a long time, because, you know, with the development of the, I guess, the country, with the Native Americans and with the many-many years of bondage by Africans who were brought here, and then you had the Black Codes after that, then you had Jim Crow, then you had Reconstruction. So, you know, it's a lot, it's a lot, and... But I will say that it has gotten better during my lifetime. I've seen changes, but they came about because people worked to bring those changes, black people, white people and people of the same mind. So it wasn't easy. The strides that have been made, there were hard fought.
SS: You know, I've heard that there are special projects and local directories like New Orleans Black Book or Black Friendly Flag project that comprise black businesses, making it easier for black customers to get certain services. Is this kind of the same thing as the Green Book?Or am I misinterpreting it?
CR: Well, the Green… Well, it is similar in a minor way. It's, I guess, spending dollars with people of your same race and maybe mindset. But the Green Book was totally different, Green Book was a... it wasn't a luxury where you could just decide who you could spend money with, or where you want to sleep or stay. The Green Book was really all you had, because you could not belong on Triple A. You can not belong to any car clubs or hotel clubs, that was just forbidden. Not just in the South, but throughout the whole country. So the Green Book was not a luxury, it was a necessity, and it was really started by just two people. A letter carrier, Victor Hugo Green, and his wife Alma Green, African-American people living in Harlem and working together. They didn't have any children, so this was like their baby. And by Victor Green being a mailman, he was able to get other mailmen through his union, the National Association of Postal and Federal employees. So his network of federal workers throughout the country would ask people on their routes, whether would they not mind being listed in this guide. And really it was the black homemaker, because back then, a lot of black women work in their home. They didn't work outside, like today. So when you look at the Green Book, the listings in the Green Book is never Mr. So-and-so's home that's listed as, it’s always Mrs. Brown, and Mrs. Smith, or Mrs. So-and-so, and that’s how the listings appeared. And there were no phone numbers. You would just show up.
SS: But I know you're working on a documentary about the Green Book. Do you feel like movies like that could actually help defuse the current racial tension in the United States?
AR: Well, every little bit helps, every little bit helps. You know. I meet people all the time. I have a children's book, Ruth and Green Book, and I do a lot of school visits, and I talk to kids as young as the second grade to the fifth grade. And they are exploring the history, and they're learning things that they had no idea existed. This is way after, you know, way before their time, and sometimes before their parents time that this was an issue in traveling. A lot of people of black and white who were born after 1964 feel as though the roads were always open, they could always stay wherever they wanted to stay, eat where they want to eat, and they just take it for granted. But it was a hard fight. Dr. King and others, but mostly Dr. King. You know, Thurgood Marshall was fighting in the courts. So everyone played a role, but I think Dr. King, by putting people in the streets, I think that put pressure. I really think that made a big difference, and I think his movement was a personal movement for him, but it was also a spiritual movement for him. You know, I think the movement today, the Black Lives Matter, is this generation's turn to push forward for more equality.
SS: Let me ask you something. President Obama's presidency was a landmark moment for the African-American community. But we now see the pendulum, sort of, swinging back, and all the racism troubles are still here, and maybe getting worse. Do you think Obama's win was a one off? That there is no lasting impact of it right now for the African-Americans in America?
CR: I think he was a positive thing. I think there is some pushback. There was some backlash because of that. I think some people were afraid that it was a major changing tide, and I think some people became very frightened. And I think there were others who have taken advantage of that fear, and that has expanded, people reacting the way they are reacting. But from my travels and my experience, I think there, you know, I always felt this, that people, that there are more good people around than people who may be misguided, or confused, or frightened. I think some of the white backlash is people feeling as though they were losing their country, that the blacks, and the brown, and the yellows, and the gays are taking over, and there's no place for them. So I think somewhere inside them, they feel as though they're fighting for their lives, they're fighting for their children and their grandchildren. So I think they see it as a turf battle.
SS: You know, lately we're seeing the movie industry tackling racism a lot, with pictures like BlacKkKlansman or, obviously, The Green Book that won the Oscar. Not everyone was happy about the latter, however. I was very surprised, because I loved the film, but most of my African-American friends from New York, they’re were furious, and they're saying, like, it's one big cliché. And at the end of the day, it's about a white savior that makes a black man's life better. In your opinion, does Hollywood really understand racism, or is it just doubling down to whatever brings money?
CR: You know, I haven't seen the film yet. I plan to see it. It seemed like the major problem, from what I hear from people who do not like the film, is the fact that the black actor who's portraying Dr. Don Shirley was not the lead character or the lead actor in the film. But the Italian character in the play, I mean the movie, his son wrote the screenplay, wrote the book, did the research. It’s his homage to his father. So he's coming from a different point of view, and he's Italian with roots in the Bronx, and Italian people were also maligned, and still are. They have stereotypes about them being, you know, in various illegal activities, and they are smeared with that. So... But I think he, I can't speak for him, but I think his overall intention was on his father, and I think, and also, in his own way, to talk about this relationship between these two guys that he felt was a friendship.
SS: But do you feel like in general, in general, Hollywood doesn't really understand racism?Maybe not particularly with this film, because you haven't seen it, it's hard to say. I mean, I like the film. But, like, in general, because you know the issue from inside, do you feel like it misinterprets racism and really goes for what makes the money?
CR: Well, you know, they have to. Yeah, I think it's watered down, because they're playing to the whole country, they’re playing to the whole world. I mean, Hollywood is a worldwide business, so it's not just the minority community. So it depends on who makes the movie, who writes the history, who tells a story. I think it's hard for someone else to tell someone else's story. It really is. It's, you can do your best, but you're going to fall short. But I think he would have done better, the screenwriter, the producer, the director, if they had reached out maybe to Shirley's family. But in general, I think they missed the mark more than they hit the mark. And I think that's a legitimate concern. But most people I've... I've talked to a lot of people as well who liked the film, black and whites. So it's... But it seems like the ones who dislike the film are more vocal. So it seems like it's more not liking the film than liking the film. But the film has done well and won pretty much every major award that's out there. So it's almost like there's two… It’s almost like there’s two countries watching the same film and coming away with two different, you know, impressions. And I don't know if these guys could have ever gotten it right. Not this particular creative team.
SS: So Mr. Ramsey, I feel like this is something we have to bring up for fairness sake - the case of Jussie Smollett, the black actor who staged a fake racial attack on himself. Now the police are saying that he may have staged the attack to get more media attention to himself to further his career. Is this normal that someone expects to profit off of being a victim of a hate crime?
CR: Well, you know, it has happened before. You know, it's what has happened with the whites saying that they were attacked by blacks. There was a famous case in South Carolina where a woman killed her children and she drove it into a lake. And she said, you know, a black man kidnapped her and made her do it, and it found out that that wasn't the case at all. I think she's still serving time for that. So unfortunately it happens. He was... I've never seen that show Empire but I'd say it’s very popular and people like it. And I think they liked his character. If it's true that he staged this, I think, that was, you know, all you can say that he's young and you hope he can bounce back from this - if that's what he actually did. So he's still saying that he was attacked. So I don't know... It was either way around, it's just a real sad situation for him and his family and supporters.
SS: In the meantime the number of actual hate crimes are on the rise in the United States for three years in a row now and that's according to FBI. And race is the main driving factor. But we see America becoming polarised between left and right and white people are just as happy to shout at each other about Trump as there are to shout at black people. Are racially motivated hate crimes just a part of a larger cultural war that America is waging upon itself?
CR: Well, it seems like it's always been right under the boiling point. It's also a lot more crimes against the Jewish community than ever before. There's more hate crimes against the gay community. Things are being reported fairly accurate more so now than ever. And I wouldn't be surprised if there's now more, you know, violence towards women. So it seems as though this current administration, whether knowingly or unknowingly, has given people in their estimation permission to go to those elements within themselves that are based on fear and resentment and not liking anyone that's different. And these same people, I wouldn't be surprised, if you go to their home, you’ll see that their home life is not very good either. So it is a sad commentary I think overall but I still think that there are more good folks out there who are not doing these things than those who are doing these things. The other group is more vocal and more visible. They’re definitely doing it. I think it's scaring a lot of people. But I'm of a certain age where I grew up, you know, in the Jim Crow South and I've seen this before and my parents and grandparents had seen worse. So it’s got to keep organising and fighting and educating and listening to each other and just see where it's going to go because it is very disturbing to most people. And it looks like it's on a daily uptick.
SS: So let me ask you something. The Esquire magazine has put a white teenager on it’s March cover with the headline ‘The American boy’. Now, this sparked a huge controversy as the cover appeared during a period during the Black History Month. Do you see that reaction as justified? I mean, does the U.S. media have to be seen as racist and discriminatory every time it depicts white people as average Americans?
CR: Well, you know, we have to be realistic. This is, you know… The people who are making the rules and are running the show are mostly white people. And if you go to a country where a different group was running the show you’ll see different images. So I'm not surprised that any of this... I lived in countries where the majority of the population was dark or black or brown and if you have the numbers you call the shots. So I don't think people are shocked at these types of things happening because they happen so frequently. So either these people who are running these organisations - and these are young people sometimes doing this, it isn't like their grandfathers and grandmothers, these are people in their 20s and 30s making these things to us. That might seem like a blunder to them. Their consciousness is just not there.
SS: Just earlier this month the Italian luxury brand Gucci was forced to remove a black wool balaclava jumper from its collection over accusations of racism. Katy Perry, the singer, has also faced fierce criticism over a shoe design resembling blackface. I mean this is just clothes don't we read too much into things when it comes to the race issue?
CR: Well, it depends on who you are. If you are from that group that has been criticised and made fun of and humiliated and beaten down for centuries then you are sensitive to that. If you are not part of that then you don't have that sensitivity. So I say again, I'm quite sure her design team are young people. And you have to call these things out. Sometimes people just make mistakes. You know, I agree with that. They’re just not thinking. You know, black people make mistakes, everyone makes mistakes. But it has to be a grown-up somewhere in the room that would say that this could go another way. I think you have to just be somewhat sensitive and when you’re called out you should grow from that. I think Prada also had a situation with that Gucci and Katy Perry and maybe others, it's going to be others. It seems as though no one is learning about how the other person feels. If I say something or write something that's derogatory toward women, you know, I would get called out and I should get called out. I think the sensitivity and the awareness are just not there.
SS: So another blackface incident just tilted the state of Virginia where the governor and attorney general, both Democrats, have been accused of putting it on some 40 years ago. There is now pressure on both to resign. What's your take on this? Should they go?
CR: I think they should go. Not saying that people can't make mistakes and can't grow from things that they did in the past, when they were in college. We've all done things that we would be embarrassed about today. This guy apologised. I think he said it wasn't even him. So I don't know where that stands today. But if you but if you get caught up in this every day you won't get any work done. And I think on some level with this stuff happening and how the media just pushes it out there like it is. Michelangelo said something that I think is very-very true for artists. You know, sometimes people are putting stuff out there constantly to keep you from doing your work. And if you get caught up in this on a daily basis, weekly basis, monthly basis you can't do your work. You have to wonder whether or not it’s done deliberately to keep you off balance, to keep from doing the important thing in your life which is your homework. And so I don't get too bent out of shape about these things but I hear them and I keep moving because I have to.
SS: So let me ask you something. The far-right and white supremacist groups today are saying that they are a reaction to movements like Black Lives Matter to the new, fiery and somewhat radical civil rights activists. Are they BLM to be blamed for the rise of the far-right and white supremacism in the U.S.?
CR: Well, you know, I think it was always there undercurrent and I think these groups have been around forever, you know, with different names: The John Birch Society, Citizen Action Committee... Harry Belafonte said something once that I agree with what he said, you know: it's the same enemies that he had during his time with Dr. King are the same enemies that are out there today. It could be the grandchildren of those people but it's the same people, you know. Just like you have people who have DNA running through them for the social good for everyone, you have people out there whose DNA is to be the way they are. And most of these people really believe what they're doing. They're not faking it. They believe this. They believe they're being attacked and they think they're being replaced. And that fear, you know... I think we will get much further along down the road when we start talking to one another and listening to one another because when I see images and hear things what they're doing I see people who are afraid. When I see these young men and some women in these white supremacist groups I see really scared people, scared that they are losing. And all they have to hold on to is the color of their skin. That's all they have going for themselves is their white skin.
SS: Thank you so much for this interview and thank you for your insight. It was great talking to you. We were talking to Calvin Alexander Ramsey, award-winning author and playwright who traveled around the United States to study the history and legacy of Jim Crow-era America.