An Audience Member Presents His Views on Breaking White Silence

Universal Child: A Path to Universal Involvement
Bruce Watson

Universal Child, the Story of Emmett Till, a recent opera by Librettist Clare Coss and composer Mary Watkins, tells the story of Emmett Till’s lynching through various perspectives, both white and Black. On the white side, two of the perspectives—those of Roy and Carolyn Bryant—are familiar tropes. Roy is the classic racist southern man, tall and fair, thick of neck and body, determined to protect the flower of southern womanhood from every perceived threat—even that of a playful Black child from the north. Carolyn is that flower—young, pretty, condescending, and willing to provide an alibi for her murdering husband.

The third white character, Roanne Taylor, is where the characterizations—and the opera—depart from the classic script. A schoolteacher in her mid-forties, Taylor begins the story as an almost-interchangeable white woman who blandly accepts the racist values of her society. By the end, she is irrevocably changed, transformed by a devastating awareness of the horror underlying her storybook society. What happens in between is where the story speaks not only to the galvanizing influence of Till’s lynching, but also to the evolving process of white awareness—a process that continues to this day. A process in which the opera itself takes part.

The key moment occurs toward the end of the first act. Taylor is witness to Till’s lynching when she overhears his screams. Unable to stop the horror unfolding before her—and unable to reconcile it with the vision she previously had of her society—she cannot control her reaction, and eventually explodes outward, screaming “Stop! Stop! This boy is calling for his mama!”

It’s a feral, terrifying sound. As performed by Abigail Wright during a March 23 performance at the Gerald Lynch theater, the impact of that cry on the audience—particularly on its many white members—was electrifying. In it, many of them recognized a frantic terror that was far too familiar.

On the surface, Taylor’s wails are an outpouring of shocked outrage at the lynching happening before her eyes, but on a deeper level they are the pained shrieks of a woman who is forcibly having the scales ripped from her eyes. In that moment, Taylor watches not only the death of a fourteen year old boy, but also the death of the society that she thought she knew.

Of all the many forms of white privilege, the most insidious—and most powerful—may be ignorance. For white people, it has historically been easy to remain ignorant of the struggles and suffering of Black people. In many cases, it may actually be harder to learn about the struggle than to ignore it—learning requires effort, research, and a willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone. Ignorance, on the other hand, only requires that one accept the status quo.

Not surprisingly, many white people are not only ignorant about the struggle, but ignorant about their own ignorance; they exist in a soft cocoon, comforted by the notion that they already know about American racism, and that it isn’t relevant to them. They are able to dismiss it as the exaggerations of a segment of society that they rarely interact with, or—on the opposite side—as the crimes of fellow white Americans who they dismiss as uneducated, uncaring, and less than human. In either case, racism is something that doesn’t touch them, and for which they bear no culpability.

A big part of this ignorance is based in a lack of exposure: With few notable exceptions, scenes of Black misery and suffering have remained absent from mainstream “white” media. Historically, lynchings, beatings, and other forms of systemic violence often occurred at night or in secluded locations, and on the rare occasions that they were recorded for posterity, the photos rarely made it mainstream media, much less to the front page. In fact, it’s worth noting that the photos of Emmett Till’s battered body were published in Jet, a magazine targeted to the Black community that was rarely viewed by whites.

When schoolbooks address the Black struggle, the reportage tends to be clinical, rendering the existence of lynching and intimidation in cold data and statistics that show the rise and reduction of incidents over time. In the classroom, as in other predominantly white spaces, America’s campaign of terror against its Black citizens is rarely presented in emotional terms. White children may learn that violence against Black people exists and existed, but they almost never are given the tools to imagine an America in which one’s body, freedom, and life may be automatically forfeit to the whims of institutional America.

The classroom doesn’t teach students about the performed deference that Black Americans have had to construct for decades in order to navigate society with a modicum of safety. Those lessons, when they occur, happen around the dinner table, where many Black children learn about Till—and about Daunte Wright, Andre Hill, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, and a host of others—from friends and family members. And, unlike the white classroom, the information these children receive isn’t cold and clinical, but fresh, vital, and pragmatic. These aren’t historical lessons, they’re object lessons—examples of the very real danger that Black people must deal with every day in America.

This dissonance between Black and white education carries through to all aspects of the struggle. Even today, 67 years after Till’s murder and 54 years after Martin Luther King’s assassination, marches and protests are still largely invisible to white America, only making the front page when they take place in notable locations or are disrupted by notable outbreaks of violence. More common scenes of the struggle, like false arrests and acts of police violence toward Blacks, remained almost invisible until recently, when the advent of smartphones made it possible for almost anyone to record and distribute scenes of systemic violence.

For many white Americans—including me—smartphones and body cams heralded an unexpected baptism into the contemporary horrors of Black life in America. I’d seen depictions of systemic violence against Black people in the pages of novels or old black and white photos from LIFE magazine, but there is a world of difference between reading James Baldwin and seeing a white policeman dragging a teenaged Black girl out of a classroom by her hair. There is no comparison between a blurry archival photo of Black protesters being assaulted with a fire hose and a dash cam video of an unarmed Black motorist being shot by a cop. One can be dismissed as history or literature, an artistic or archival rendering of the America that once was. The other is irrefutable evidence of the America that still is. One evokes regret, the other evokes existential horror as—like Roanne Taylor—white American viewers realize that our country is still not what we thought it was.

As endless Black activists have discovered, this isn’t a lesson that can be taught to white people. Think about it: teaching white people about racism in America involves forcing them to acknowledge that the America they were raised to believe in—the land of the free, the home of the brave, the place where everyone competes on a level platform—is truly an American dream, not an American reality. It requires overcoming over two centuries of propaganda that has been force-fed to white Americans from childhood. It asks them to trade their privileged, comfortable ignorance for a savage awareness of a blood-soaked reality.

Needless to say, white America tends to resist this awakening.

Beyond the almost insurmountable difficulty of teaching white America lies the fundamental cruelty of asking Black America to shoulder this burden. It is not enough that they be forced to carry the weight of multi-generational violence. It is not enough that they be required to teach their children the cruel lessons of dealing with unjust authority—be respectful, keep your hands in plain sight, talk softly, don’t run away from an armed policeman. Now they must also convince the very society that oppresses them that they are in fact being oppressed. They must persuade the pre-lynching Roanne Taylor that the world she thinks she knows is a thin candy layer atop a roiling pot of institutional violence.

Little wonder that “It’s not my job to educate you” has become a popular meme.

But if it’s clear that white America needs to be educated, and it’s equally clear that Black America shouldn’t be forced to carry that burden, then the question remains: whose job is it to teach America’s most privileged citizens that they are in fact privileged—and that they need to deal with that privilege in a productive way?

YouTube, Twitter, and a host of other publishing platforms have shouldered part of the burden, but their lessons are scattershot, poorly contextualized and sometimes unreliable. Ultimately, the responsibility comes down to the people who have already gone through Roanne Taylor’s transformation: white Americans teaching other white Americans that their world is not what they thought it was. In this context, Clare Coss joins a long line of writers and educators who have taken up the struggle of teaching white America about itself.

In recent memory, perhaps the most prominent example of this is Harper Lee. In 2015, her novel Go Set a Watchman was published amid a stream of attacks and criticism. Many of these centered around the question of Lee’s willingness to publish the work, but many also focused on the novel’s deconstruction of Atticus Finch.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus is a strong, loving father and skilled lawyer who dedicates himself to freeing a Black man unjustly accused of rape. As such, he represents as an ideal for white liberal America—particularly, white male liberals. He is a man who does what is right, regardless of race or societal pressure. For his daughter Jean Louise, aka Scout, he represents even more: a near-biblical figure of absolute righteousness, a moral North Star. In Watchman, Lee puts it like this:

She did not stand alone, but what stood behind her, the most potent moral force in her life, was the love of her father. She never questioned it, never thought about it, never even realized that before she made any decision of importance the reflex, “What would Atticus do?” passed through her unconscious; she never realized what made her dig in her feet and stand firm whenever she did was her father; that whatever decent and of good report in her character was put there by her father; she did not know that she worshiped him.

However, as Watchman reveals, the Atticus of Scout’s childhood is only half the story. Originally conceived as a much longer novel that encompassed the story in To Kill a Mockingbird, Watchman would have juxtaposed the honorable Atticus of yore with the person he became in the 1960’s—a scared white man trying to bar Black people from full membership in the body politic.

It’s not a total transformation—Watchman’s Atticus still maintains some aspects of the respectful southern liberal of Mockingbird. For example, his justifications for racism don’t rely on notions of inherent, genetic inferiority, per se. Rather, he sees Black people as, in his words, “still in their childhood as a people.” And, like children, he sees them as unprepared—unworthy? of accepting the responsibilities of full membership in American politics. As he tells his daughter:

“Jean Louise, have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?…What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state governments run by people who don’t know how to run ’em?”

For Jean Louise, Atticus’ fall from the pedestal on which she set him is immediate and visceral, not dissimilar to Roanne Taylor’s. Jean Louise, after observing her father’s racist justifications from the balcony where she had once watched him defend an innocent black defendant, flees the courtroom and almost immediately vomits.

Jean Louise, like Roanne Taylor, has watched her worldview, the bedrock on which she built her self-image, crumble. Both works capture that crumbling, that moment where you discover that Santa isn’t real, that Grandpa isn’t coming home from the hospital. Or, put another way, when you realize that your government is torturing people in Abu Ghraib or putting Latinx children in concentration camps in Texas.

Because the story takes place in the 1960’s, Jean Louise is spared the next step in the process, the brutal moment when she realizes that she is part of the problem. For her, that moment may have occurred in the seventies, when she might have opposed busing, or the eighties, when a friend’s kid might have protested against affirmative action, or the nineties, when mandatory crack cocaine sentencing unjustly targeted low-income Black communities. She was spared that moment, faced by many white people, when they realize that their prejudices run bone-deep and are only kept at bay by constant vigilance.

For that moment, we need only turn to Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides, in which Tom Wingo faces up to his less-than-honorable role as a white man:

This has not been an easy century to endure…I grew up in South Carolina, a white southern male, well trained and gifted in my hatred of blacks when the civil rights movement caught me outside and undefended along the barricades and proved me to be both wicked and wrong…Then I found myself marching in an all-white, all-male ROTC program in college and was spit on by peace demonstrators who were offended by my uniform…I thought I would enter my thirties quietly, a contemplative man, a man whose philosophy was humane and unassailable, when the women’s liberation movement bushwhacked me on the avenues and I found myself on the other side of the barricades once again. I seem to embody everything that is wrong with the twentieth century.

In Emmett Till, Clare Coss performs the uncomfortable job of holding up a mirror to the Tom Wingos in her audience—people whose education and experience have been almost deliberately designed to shield them from the dark, bloody side of their own society. And, like Tom Wingo—or Roanne Taylor—her audience members are faced with a reckoning of their own comforting ignorance. They have to face their willingness to turn away, to allow eloquent justifications—“Don’t all lives matter?,” “But what about the safety of real women in bathrooms?”—blind them to the very real cruelty that underlies their society’s prejudices.

In the case of Universal Child, the medium matches the message. While more operas are being produced by people of color, and many established opera companies are making a much greater effort to reach out to a broader community, the presumed audience for an opera remains older, educated, prosperous, majority-white people who are likely to vote. This is also the exact audience that needs to hear Coss’ message…and pass it on. These are the ones who weren’t taught about racism at the dinner table, who rarely read about it in the newspaper. They’re the ones whose privilege all-too-often allowed them to remain ignorant of their own ignorance. And Clare Coss is their teacher. Faced with the mimetic “It’s not my job to educate you,” Coss offers a clear, unequivocal response: it is my job to educate you…and now it’s your job to educate others.

Bruce Watson


April 2022