Let’s Listen

“Racism is when you have laws set up, systematically put in a way to keep people from advancing, to stop the advancement of a people. Black people have never had the power to enforce racism, and so this is something that white America is going to have to work out themselves. If they decide they want to stop it, curtail it, or to do the right thing … then it will be done, but not until then.” —Spike Lee Ladies and Gentlemen, your MLK Day All-School-Meeting Speaker, Mr. Spike Lee! Using the above quote to contextualize another Spike Lee quote: “Black folks can’t be racist. White folks invented that s***,” I completely agree. Black folks cannot be racist. White folks did invent that s***. Before you can say it: I am not driven by white guilt to write in response to the article by Billy Fowkes ’10 published in this paper last week. My interest is in clearing up some of that article’s ignorance and misinformation and addressing a troubling manner in which we approach some All-School guest speakers. In the latter quote used to preface Mr. Fowkes’ article, the word ‘racist’ was misconstrued. In the multicultural dialogue of race relations, racism goes beyond the concept of ‘prejudice’ against someone of a different color than yours, and refers to the codification and institutionalization of an unbalanced power dynamic based on racial difference. If Spike Lee said that black folks can’t be prejudiced or bigoted because white folks invented that s***, then that would be a very different statement and sentiment. No, ‘racist’ is not an interchangeable word here. Yes, if Mr. Lee meant something different, he would have said something different. Later in the article, another quote from Mr. Lee is taken out of context. Where Mr. Fowkes’s article says Spike Lee called out Clint Eastwood for featuring no black soldiers in Flags of Our Fathers, Mr. Lee was actually additionally talking about Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima and was referring to the two works as a combined portrayal of the Battle of Iwo Jima. He continued by saying, “There’s no way I know why [Eastwood] did that — that was his vision, not mine.” Mr. Lee was not suggesting that one of the factually white seven men who iconically raised the American flag at Iwo Jima be portrayed by, say, Denzel Washington. None of these misrepresentations of Spike Lee’s views are what troubled me most about this article: it was the complete dismissal of what Spike Lee has to teach our community. Mr. Fowkes tiredly drones over and over in his article that he cannot (and advocates that you should not) take Mr. Lee seriously. What does a student dedicated to learning have to gain from such an attitude? What does such a student have to lose from just hearing a speaker out and acquiring some cultural literacy? Spike Lee has directed everything from satires to heists, documentaries to love stories, biopics to music videos. He has helped launch the careers of black Hollywood mainstays like Samuel L. Jackson and Halle Berry. He has indisputably broken ground by making a place for race relations at the table of discourse-through-film. Spike Lee is a culturally relevant thinker to be taken seriously because he has had such a hand in shaping our American culture, a culture that is fundamentally built on so many other cultures, including black American culture. This Martin Luther King Day is a rare opportunity that I promise you will eventually regret missing if you don’t walk into the Chapel with the right attitude. Just showing up for this All-School Meeting won’t mean you were truly there. We are much smarter than to dismiss an icon who has something lasting and valuable to tell us about the world around us because of some ignorant commentary we read in our school newspaper when we were teenagers. No matter what color you are, listen to what Spike Lee has to say with an open mind and at least evaluate the merits of words that actually come from his mouth. As the man himself once said, “I’d like to state that Spike Lee is not saying that African American culture is just for black people alone to enjoy and cherish. Culture is for everybody.” Dominic DeJesus is a four-year Senior from Lowell, MA.