There is an article in today’s Oregonian and a radio piece by OPB on a piece of performance art occurring here in Portland, “Panhandling for Slavery Reparations”. I have to keep repeating the phrase “performance art” to myself when I think about it, because this project irritates the hell out of me, and I need to be reminded that one of the functions of art is to stir emotion. In that respect, this piece is a shining success.
The artists sit on the sidewalk and ask white passersby for money specifically in compensation for the slavery of African-Americans. The panhandlers then hand the money over to black passersby. While it may qualify as art, maybe, I think this is a wrong-headed approach to a painful issue.
First, I resent all forms of panhandling. I resent the intrusion, and I resent the implicit assumption that giving my money to a complete stranger is a reasonable request to make. Panhandling artist Damali Ayo says “People act like I can’t see them. I see you. If you put your head down, I can still see you.”
Yes, you can still see us, but that doesn’t give you the right to be included. Your right to sit downtown and ask the people that walk by you for their money does not equate with a right to be heard, or even acknowledged. I decide who I speak to, or even choose to look at.
But my own irritation at panhandling aside, this is a toxic project. It isn’t about healing, or moving beyond the horrors of the past. It’s about assigning and accepting blame. And it’s about putting people in boxes. White face – guilty. Black face – victim. It’s easy to do. Just sit on the sidewalk and watch the people go by. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Victim. Guilty. Guilty.
And isn’t that exactly what we shouldn’t be doing? Making a judgment on someone’s character, or their identity, based simply on the color of their skin? Isn’t that what slavery was about? Human. Human. Subhuman. Human. I thought we were trying to move beyond that kind of knee-jerk morality.
I don’t choose to accept personal responsibility for slavery. I don’t know that any of my ancestors owned slaves (although there might be some that did). But I didn’t. I don’t feel the need to apologize for it.
But for all the times I nervously crossed the street at night to avoid a group of young black men, for all the times I made an assumption when I saw a black face, for all the off-color jokes I may have told, I will take responsibility. I will own up to my misdeeds. There are more than enough to atone for, I don’t need to shoulder the additional sins of my fathers.
And rather than making an empty gesture with a handful of coins, I’d rather spend my energy trying to treat the people I meet fairly, regardless of the color of their skin. That is both more difficult, and more worthwhile, than simply accepting the label of oppressor.