“Like an angel that shed the heaviness of an earthly body, the blindfold removed, I rise and see only one thing, answer to one thing… His face.”― Debra Harris Johnson
Debra Johnson, Keynote Speaker & Freelance Writer – Back in the day, I was called “mixed,” a term meaning different races and or heritage. Can you imagine what that was like growing up in the ’50s and ’60s in the south? I am black, white, French, Native American. Never belonging to any one race or heritage wreaked havoc and confusion on my spirit, in my mind and touched my soul.
The black and white images from our television always filled me with questions about who I was, and horror as to what would happen to me.
Native Americans served an integral role in popular Western shows and movies. Most Westerns, unfortunately, depicted Indians as the “bad” guys, enemies to a civilized life; savages without a soul. What was just entertainment to most became a brainwashing that diminished self-worth in a lot of vulnerable non-white children.
The sixties heralded in new kinds of images that frightened me in a different way. It was the civil rights era, the brutalization of young people attacked by snarling angry dogs fed the news cycle. Every night, there was a different image – a different nightmare. Lynchings, bombings, and beatings infiltrated my mind – and I wished that part of me, the black part, could vanish away and I could feel safe. At least I prayed so nightly.
Nothing planted the self-hatred seed worse than the segregation so vividly broadcasted, the way the television did. There were none, absolutely no minorities on TV. There were minor exceptions as I became older – a glimpse of an African American entertainer here and there but nothing substantial. Commercials only used white actors and actresses.
So how did I turn all those millions of negative images into positive pictures? I attended college and met my first Native American sister. Sandra Blackbear and I became fast friends and one weekend she invited me to my first Pow Wow in Oklahoma. I hadn’t seen that on television. Something amazing happened. I totally blended in. As long as that southern drawl stayed put, and I kept my mouth shut, I was just another face. It felt better than good, it felt natural.
For the first time, I decided to explore my diversity. A couple of years after my Pow Wow experience I dyed my hair platinum blonde and donned green contacts. Another discovery ensued. I could go unnoticed in the white race, even if some took a second glance at me. What exactly is race then? I began to wonder if someone like me could morph in and out of a race why is it important? How could television portray the definitive role of such undefined characteristics as ethnicity? The propaganda is a double-edged sword. Some stories stereotype a race or ethnic group, as bad, while simultaneously, send out messages that exalt other races. Both are lies. There are good and bad people period! It has absolutely nothing to do with race.
I am now sixty-six years old and I’ve walked in many countries with ALL peoples of the world and I blend in. I caught my reflection in a pool of water in Abu Dhabi and I knelt down to touch the headscarf-wrapped image. From my touch, a number of ripples came forth. It reminded me how each of us is many people in one person.
I believe everyone who sees one sun in the day, and one moon at night, are ALL the same humanity. I believe we must band together to demand decency in entertainment, especially movies and music. If it tears down a person’s gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion it’s not a “freedom,” it’s an incitement to violate humanity. I believe we can channel positive energy worldwide if we just stand up to hate. I believe peace can be obtained in this lifetime through truths, ideas, manifested by words, theater, media, performance, and music. I believe in the eradication of boxes that ask: black, white, Asian, Hispanic, for we are ALL “other.”
We must do this for ourselves, for the children for the earth….for humanity.
“Color may sometimes be optional; humanity is not.”
Debra Harris Johnson