Oppressing the Oppressors

Would the Oppressed become the Oppressor if given the chance?

this is one i think is better to listen to than to read, if for no other reason but to hear Maya angelou’s voice.

The history of the world is filled with stories of individuals and groups beaten down by injustice and oppression. The caste system cruelly labeled individuals as untouchables. Whites bought, sold, and enslaved black human beings The Germans fought to eradicate the Jews. Rwandan genocide. Salem witch trials. Haun’s Mill massacre. Moments after tragic moment, human beings justified their shameful tyranny.

Headlines today expose the potent power of hatred. A pandemic spreading with its alarmingly contagious virus of self-claimed superiority. Emerging from the rubble and destruction left in the wake of its disgusting indulgence emerges pain that few are courageous enough to truly see.

Inequality is fueled by fear. Fear of differences. Fear of the unfamiliar. But it’s also perpetuated by emotional atrophy.  

The Blacks, a play written by Jean Genet, opened May 4th, 1961 at the St. Marks Playhouse in New York City. It became the longest-running off-Broadway of the decade with 1,408 performances. Among the 12 original black cast members was Maya Angelou who played the White Queen, however initially Maya Angelou refused to take part in the play. 

After Maya’s third reading of the manuscript, the meaning of the play came into focus. Maya recalls, “Genet suggested that colonialism would crumble from the weight of its ignorance, its arrogance and greed, and that the oppressed would take over the positions of their former masters. They would be no better, no more courageous and no more merciful (p.212-213).” After coming to an understanding of what Genet was suggesting through his play, she tossed the manuscript into her closet declaring that she was “finished with Genet and his narrow little conclusions (p.214).” The disgustful aftertaste of the message of the play was still in her mouth a couple of days later when, to her surprise, she received an offer to be in the play. She had no interest in participating in a play with ideas that she did not agree with. She turned the offer down.

Maya Angelou’s husband at the time, Vusumzi Make, a South African civil rights activist, became curious in Maya’s decision to not accept a role in the play and asked to read the manuscript. With the manuscript in hand, he sat down and read, then re-read, then read again. It was very late when he finished his thorough and thoughtful investigation. After he finished, he woke up Maya who gone to bed hours before.

“This play is great. If they still want you, you must do this play.”

“I don’t agree with the conclusion. Black people are not going to become like whites. Never.”

Maya argued, “The play says given the chance, black people will act as cruel as whites. I don’t believe it.”

“Maya, that is a very real possibility and one we must vigilantly guard against. You see, my dear wife, most black revolutionaries, most black radicals, most black activists, do not really want change. They want exchange. This play points to that likelihood. And our people need to face this temptation (Maya Angelou, The Heart of a Woman, p. 216).”

Inequality and injustice have to be confronted, but medicating injustice with injustice is an exchange that complicates a system that is already in critical condition.  It is not a success if the oppressed simply become the oppressors, even if, for a time, some well-deserved consequences cripple the tyrants. This type of exchange creates an exhausting arms race battle with far too many casualties that will never dismantle oppression.