On Oscars and presidents and me

I’ve been thinking about the Oscars and presidential claims, and mostly about my own journey toward becoming the person I long ago chose to become. And while I know what I want to say, the words come hard: the impulse to parse and truss and calibrate is strong. Twice, I thought not to write at all.

And yet.

The thing is: the desire to be enlightened comes before the enlightenment itself. At 55, I still face my own misconceptions. I give myself credit: I’m willing to believe they’re there. I know that finding them requires personal risk. And I give myself no credit, because why the hell is it that hard?

Last night, I watched the winner of the Oscar for best documentary: OJ Simpson: Made in America. I’d been avoiding it, because all these years later, that case still thrums a line of rage through me. For myself, someone who had worked at the New Haven Project for Battered Women for two years, and was the director of the Spokane Domestic Violence Shelter for one, OJ Simpson’s acquittal was simply proof that a man could kill his wife if he were rich enough to hire the right lawyers. To this day, I never see Alan Dershowitz’ name without an instant of fury, without hearing my mother’s voice: to whom much is given, much is expected. How could someone with all those gifts and all that opportunity use them to exonerate a man who had killed his children’s mother?

I remember a black friend telling me that her family had celebrated the OJ verdict. I’ll admit: I was astonished. And somehow, I hadn’t known. I didn’t have the courage to tell my friend I was surprised, because I knew how much pain was behind her family’s celebration; I knew that her case for injustice might be greater than mine.

And yet.

The documentary places the OJ Simpson case in the context of a southern California where four police officers had been acquitted for beating Rodney King a few years earlier. And there’s a moment in the film in which a woman tells the story of fifteen-year-old Latasha Harlins, who was killed just weeks after King was beaten. Latasha was shot in the back of the head by a storeowner who believed, erroneously, that she was trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. The owner was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, and sentenced to . . . probation. And the woman in the documentary, the woman remembering that incident, says something like, “I couldn’t get over that. Hell, I’m not over it now.” And that was the moment of revelation for me. Of course she couldn’t get over it. It’s unbearable. A child died.

I don’t have a grand wrap-up here. I haven’t said anything new. I just share that these moments of revelation come over and over, long after one might claim the I am not a racist prize. OJ Simpson killed his wife, and my rage that he was declared innocent was not misplaced. And those who celebrated that verdict responded from a deep place, a deep hurt. I’m grateful for that woman who shared her feelings about Latasha Harlins’ death, and for a film that allowed me to see that moment in time through her eyes. I’m grateful to teach in a diverse community college that gives me similar opportunities, as I am grateful for all the books – novels and memoirs in particular – that have done the same. Peace Latasha. Peace to those who loved you.

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