A play offers whites a view of black identity

“The Talk,” a one-man performance, is written and performed by Sonny Kelly.
“The Talk,” a one-man performance, is written and performed by Sonny Kelly. HuthPhoto

Social change comes so fast and furious that many Americans find themselves taking things for granted on Thursday that they’d barely heard of last Tuesday.

Support for gay marriage, transgender rights and the removal of Confederate monuments, for example, moved from the margins to the mainstream with dizzying speed.

I back those developments and have no interest in trying to push back these welcome tides. Still, I’ll note they have occurred so quickly that many people have shifted from knee-jerk rejection to knee-jerk embrace without much consideration about how or why.

I was thinking about this at William G. Enloe High School last Thursday while watching a professional performance of a one man play titled “The Talk.” I bet most readers are familiar with the term, shorthand for the painful conversations in which African-American parents instruct their children about how to respond to the particular dangers they face. I’ll also wager it would have drawn blank stares from most folks who aren’t African-Americans just a few years ago — it was news to me until I taught at a historically black college.

But widespread coverage of the shootings of unarmed black men by police officers and the Black Lives Matter movement have made “the talk” part of our lexicon.

While I could define the term, I didn’t understand it — didn’t feel the meaning of the lived experience those two words symbolize — until I saw Sonny Kelly’s powerful performance before a packed house.

Kelly drew on African-American poetry, prose and history — from his family history to the larger narratives of slavery and Jim Crow, the murder of Emmett Till and Tamir Rice — to describe both the universal power of love that binds families and the peculiar and often heartbreaking challenges many Americans face because they are black.

It’s one thing to know that African-Americans are associated with various stereotypes — some positive (athletic ability, creativity in the arts, tremendous resilience) but many negative (violent, dangerous). It’s another to hear a man describe the pain and frustration of being defined by others.

Kelly — a Stanford graduate pursuing a Ph.D. at UNC-Chapel Hill who has a wife and two sons — has risen above those stereotypes. But that only made his point that he cannot transcend or obliterate them all the more troubling.

Simply put, whites have plenty of challenges, but skin color isn’t one of them. For African Americans, it is inescapable.

Again, I knew this. But hearing, feeling, a gifted communicator say it, was moving. Kelly was not bemoaning his racial fate; his play is a celebration of black culture and identity. But it’s also hard.

As he spoke, I was reminded of a range of scholarly studies and books, including “The War on Cops” by Heather Mac Donald, challenging claims that the police are a racist occupying force in American cities and that our leaders have created a school-to-prison pipeline for young black men.

But I understood why this loving father sees tragedy as an always looming possibility for his black sons. It’s akin to the special worries all parents have for the safety of their daughters.

I took issue with some of Kelly’s points, especially his focus on how African Americans are made hostages to fortune rather than the ways they can be masters of their fate.

But that was beside the point. “The Talk” conjured the same response I had reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ seminal memoir, “Between the World and Me,” which also presented an even more damning vision of American society through the lens of black identity. Their value was not in laying out “the truth,” but inviting me inside their heads, to see the world through their eyes, which is essential for understanding.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.