We Are Promissory Notes

In GREATER GOOD, Isa, a Black teacher, is assigned to serve on the gala committee. During her conversation with the parents who run the committee, she pushes back against their insistence on fancy centerpieces and fingerbowls, asking them instead to consider the true mission and purpose of a school. In doing so, she invokes the image of the “promissory note” — similarly to the way Martin Luther King Jr deploys it in his “I Have a Dream” speech.

The thing is.
The thing is.
We do not.
We don’t.
Make anything.
Schools do not make anything.
We are promissory notes.
Who trusts a promissory note?

— “Our Fathers’ Parlors,” GREATER GOOD

Writing for The Grio, professor Alvin Tillery notes that “Dr. King stated that African-Americans and their allies had come to Washington to cash a ‘promissory note,’ written by the framers of the Constitution to all Americans, at the ‘bank of justice.’ In using this language, King was drawing on a long tradition in black political thought that highlighted the reality that African-Americans had been largely excluded from the American Dream despite the fact that they had been model citizens of the republic since the founding. In this same verse, King demands that America replace the bounced checks — ‘marked with insufficient funds’— that it had issued to its black citizens for more than 300 years with ‘a check that will give [blacks] upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.’”

And here is a relevant excerpt from “I Have a Dream” (1963):

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

Contextualizing Whiteness

Lina posted a great resource earlier today that detailed some components that comprise “white supremacy culture.”

Last night in rehearsal, we spent more than an hour discussing how the conditions and systems of whiteness manifest themselves — in the school, amongst the council, in governance, in interpersonal relationships between characters, and in the world outside the play.

Some observations that came from that conversation are listed below. The comments have been anonymized.

• “Whiteness has been constructed in the play to be as loomingly present as it is in reality.”
• “Isa’s line about how ‘you can’t have your pet pony black person go on a rampage’ — to be on the school’s parent council, do you have to be a certain kind of black person?”
• “I’m interested in how whiteness is associated with obliviousness — permission to be oblivious. For Gordon, as the cis white head of school, only someone with his status can behave the way he does.”
• “Is part of the way Gordon keeps his position, and how everyone takes care of him, waiting on him, making allowances for him — is it because the POC on the council actually need a white guy as the figurehead?”
• “White people are able to tap out of situations/conversations/the work when it gets tough. This feels connected to Gordon’s desire to ‘just drift’ and basically walk away from this school whose mission is about access and citizenry.”
• “Thinking about ‘code-switching’ in these scenes. In life, there are metaphorical ‘front spaces’ where marginalized people need to perform, and ‘back spaces’ where marginalized people feel more comfortable to be themselves. How do POC interact during the scene with the cocktail party, where there are no white people, but they are still surrounded by the overwhelming presence of whiteness? On top of which, economics, rather than race, becomes a sorting factor with regards to characters’ status.”
• “I read recently Domination and the Arts of Resistance — it touches on front space vs back space. People in positions of power have the ability to be more casual in spaces of performance. In the cocktail party scene, Kim comes out and almost says that they need Christine to substitute for Ann on the council because they don’t want the composition of the council to shift to become more white.”
• “Whiteness as an ideology exists outside of bodies, even in a place with a plurality of black and brown people.”
• “Black people are hyper visible in some spaces while being simultaneously invisible in those same spaces. Like the way that Val presumes Christine isn’t a member of the parents council, and instead is a stranger who got lost on the way to CVS. Then, at the same time, Christine is featured in the fundraising videos as the diverse face to represent the school.”
• “There are some POC characters who are aware they’re in white spaces, and play differently to that.”
• “Marginalized people in white spaces are often called on to leverage their identity as a selling point. Like Christine is asked to do as a black woman of a lower economic status, or like Kyle has probably been asked to do with regards to their black trans identity.”
• “Wealth and whiteness are often linked, but that does not hold true in this play. Money is all over this play all the time, and the some of the wealthiest characters are POC. The most economically disadvantaged character is white, but has positional power as the Vice-Prolocutor of the council.”
• “Kirsten is looking at the issue of substitution — how white culture looks to simply substitute people of color for one another, such as we see with Ann and Christine.”

White Supremacy Culture

Built by dismantlingracism.org who offered organizations support in creating anti-racist movements in their environments.
Through their years of doing this work they created a list of characteristics of white supremacy that show up in our culture and harm us.

Highly recommend reading the whole document.

White Supremacy Culture
The above link has details on the following characteristics as well as their “antidotes”
– Perfectionism
– Sense of Urgency
– Defensiveness
– Quantity Over Quality
– Worship of the Written Word
– Paternalism
– Either/Or Thinking
– Power Hoarding
– Fear of Open Conflict
– Individualism
– Progress is Bigger, More
– Objectivity
– Right to Comfort

Think about these different characteristics and how we are harmed or helped by these characteristics.