In our elite white corner of Chicago’s Black Belt, Peele’s “Get Out” is screened
At my age, I don’t go in much for horror films. Is it because the genre seems tailor-made for teenage dating? No man is too old to remember how, when the shock came, she gripped our hand tighter and welcomed our strong embrace. It was our modern urban proxy for walking in the woods.
In fact, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” is not strictly a horror film. That wrapper is a clever conceit to freight in the much deeper problem of American black-white relations that Peele has been exploring for years in his satire. His idea of funny is actually a fat onion of anger, the raw kind, nearly impossible to peel with mere words, and not easy to peel with feelings and actions. I will not go into the details of the director’s career or really into any study of the film’s plot. This is about the wrapper inside the wrapper – about what happened during Universal Pictures’ free preview of the film at the University of Chicago campus during Black History Month 2017. Peele’s film, in this place and time, unwittingly offered up a perfect test-tube case study on the continuing segregation in 21st-century America.
This disturbing film – at its full depth, and parallel to the events of the evening – is really about how white America has mastered its relationship with black America. Within all of the interracial tension is the white American’s strange envy of the grim determination, melancholy humor, and creative strength of the black race. And this is why white America can be fascinated by the film. But Peele’s irony is that white America will continue to do what it does despite these truths, and, sadly, so must black America remain hypnotized. Inside the film are ideas as important as those explored in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” In Lee’s case, America got it and, predictably, forgot it. In Peele’s case, it may be too subtle even for America’s future white leadership.
If University of Chicago undergrads want a truly “gripping” horror show, they need go no further than to step across Cottage Grove Avenue into the Black Belt. Hyde Park is surrounded by black in ways that make the Columbia-Harlem relationship seem trivial. The Black Belt here has scarcely changed, except for the worse, since it was the cradle of the migration. Many of Chicago’s great sociologists and economists cut their teeth on these neighborhoods and their datapoints. It is what gave the “Chicago schools” in both disciplines much of their study value. The Negro in Chicago – Charles Spurgeon Johnson’s seminal 1922 report on the Black Belt’s formative demographics and on the race riots – as well as Allan H. Spear’s 1967 bestseller Black Chicago were published by this college’s press.
My history has been inadvertently tied to this university since 1947, for three generations of my family. The circumstances behind the promotion of the movie bothered me. But it enabled me to see how the puzzle piece of the movie fits tightly together with the real life hypocrisy of white America.
Just across Cottage Grove are the homes and lives depicted in A Raisin in the Sun and Native Son. I do not mean this figuratively. The homestead of Lorraine Hansberry’s play still stands right there at the south end of Washington Park, and Native Son is actually set in the same neighborhood, as well as in parts of Hyde Park and Kenwood. Emmett Till’s boyhood home also still stands, not quite a three-minute walk from the old Hansberry house. That night in 1955 when they brought Emmett back to Chicago, Mr. Rayner, the undertaker, dressed his mangled form as Mamie Till declared she would let “all the world see what they did to my boy.” Few people know that Rayner’s little funeral home occupied part of the now-empty lot at 4141 S. Cottage Grove. But the place is just north of the Kenwood mansions where the fictitious Bigger Thomas carried out his murder.
A short stroll to the west is where Captain Walter Dyett taught jazz music and cultivated famous jazz musicians. Jazz and its older brother, the Blues, permeated Hyde Park and surrounding neighborhoods, until men from the university moved the industry out to the affluent white North Side, where it has thrived as a tourist attraction ever since. The Harlem Globetrotters did not get their start in Harlem: they began in Chicago’s Black Belt. Saul Alinsky’s community organizing for the Civil Rights Movement came substantially out of Woodlawn, immediately south. And there is so much more that one could see and say on the history if one could only walk through there without fear.
But the Black Belt is all more than history, because in social and economic terms it has all remained essentially where it was 75 years ago. The latent hope that it once promised is gone, and only poverty and deprivation remain. Englewood and surrounding areas are rife with boy-on-boy shootings. Yes, a large portion of the history of the death and life of black America is literally just across the street from the University of Chicago.
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According to the Facebook event page, for the free preview promoting “Get Out” over 3,600 people had expressed interest and 1,300 had planned to attend. But the university’s Max Palevsky theater only seats 475. I watched with growing interest as the rules gradually changed. The printed Universal Pictures invitation that I’d received actually deviated from their norm for these college screenings. Perhaps in a nod to equity, it did not state that seating would be restricted to the school’s students. Later, the staff posted changes on Facebook, saying “only students with valid ID” would be admitted. People began responding with loud complaints, some (including me) alluding to the demographics. Soon after that, but only an hour before the show, the staff finally responded that any student with a valid ID from any school would be put in a priority line, and there would be a second line for non-students, to be admitted only after all students were seated. They were trying very hard to respond to our complaints and serve everyone as fairly as they knew how, but built into this was that the deck would have to be stacked to favor elite whites, no matter what they did, and each change they made only aggravated the situation for black people.
As a Ph.D. student, I was able to get into the student line at 103rd position. I would be guaranteed a seat. But I observed the two growing lines and confirmed what I’d feared would happen. By a rough estimate, the “student” line was about 80% white. Of the 20 or so students I polled, all were from U of C. The “non student” line, on the other hand, was about 80% black. And so the plan had turned into “a hot mess,” as one Facebook poster observed.
I was going to try to give my ticket up to a black person, and, perhaps foolishly, I felt I should also try to persuade others to do likewise. I asked someone to save my place, then stepped up onto a landing and in a loud voice got the attention of around 150 students below me. I gave a very brief history of the campus’ racial issues, the segregation of the two lines, and my intent to give my seat away. But these kids were so smart, or my talk was so boring, that before 30 or 40 seconds had elapsed they were already smirking and looking at each other and saying “what the fuck?” and had little by little returned to talking to one another and gazing into their phones. I was told by staff that I would not be allowed to give my seat to anyone.
The staff worked hard and claimed that all but about 10 visitors had been seated, but the full picture suggests that hundreds were no doubt disappointed. The two lines snaked through the large lobby and stretched out of both building entrances, perhaps well exceeding twice what the theater could hold. A young staffer was “counting” the two lines and openly reporting how many seats were left, which no doubt was being texted out to others. I had seen people walking away in frustration, and many others saying things like “hot mess” on Facebook. It stands to reason that a lot of people who had come from off campus must have left at some point, and many online (posters and non-posters alike) simply grew tired of the confusion and did not come, or, worse, turned back towards home in mid-travel.
At minimum, no white University of Chicago student was denied a free seat, while many more black men and women, being segregated into a separate category, enjoyed no such security. At maximum, hundreds of African-Americans were given a bait-and-switch favoring wealthy white American boys and girls, who got carte blanche to view an important new movie about black culture.
To be fair, there were black faces in the audience, but they were in the minority. It is a minor thing in the large scheme, but it came from the cryptic racial hypocrisy of our age, and the sum of the day-to-day effects of that hypocrisy is no minor thing.
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Jesse Owens’ superhuman ability, and the white envy that it inflamed, anchor Peele’s diabolical plotline. Owens first saw true fame in 1933 in his debut at a national track meet. There, he astonished the world by winning the long jump, breaking the world record in the 220-yard dash, and tying the world record in the 100-yard dash. In fact, Owens accomplished these miracles at the University of Chicago’s own Stagg Field, less than a two-minute run (for him, at least) from where some of us were enjoying Peele’s film.
Where the astonishing mystique of black talent in 20th-century America actually came from no one can say for certain, but at least some of it no doubt came from struggle. Peele explains this in his devious anecdote. For all of the supposed genius on this campus, I fear that Peele’s deeper message was completely lost on the University of Chicago youth. This school is one of the top 10 learning institutions worldwide. A recent study by the Equality of Opportunity Project showed that more students from the wealthiest 1% of the population attend Ivy League colleges than those in the entire bottom 60%. The Black Belt, as we know, is still filled with this lower demographic. In Hyde Park, thanks to the University of Chicago, in 2000 about 18 in 20 residents age 25 and over had bachelors degrees, and around 6 in 10 finished graduate school. In the adjoining census tract, where Emmett Till grew up, only about 1 in 20 even finished college. In the 2000 census, the mean income around the campus was $90,625; just over the southwest border of campus it was $12,036. University of Chicago students have good socioeconomic reasons to be oblivious to these stark contrasts in their own backyard.
University of Chicago students are spoon-fed the core of dead white male history – the canon of justice of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Locke and Rousseau and Nietzsche and Durkheim, and on through the white male Chicago-school economists and sociologists. They can use this canon either to justify or to question a perpetuation of the order that supports them. But nobody in this batch were nodding their heads at me about the hypocrisy. By the time I was 30 seconds into my argument, they thought they’d got it, thought they’d got me. Many of them were giggling about what I was saying, and returning to their phones. They never even stopped to examine the truth.
It’s conceivable that I simply delivered my argument poorly. But presumably this campus is a place where ideas are respected and examined, not jeered at. Whatever the case, I was probably one of only a few to take the relationship between these black and white universes fully in the context of the film into real life. This may explain Peele’s use of Jesse Owens in the movie: the idea that it is a grave offense to steal the accomplishments of an individual from that individual. Yet, despite this, white America has often tried to congratulate itself for much of what black America has created, in spite of America’s centuries of continuing cruelty to that population. This applies to the skills of Jesse Owens and of other sports heroes; to the jazz and blues and house and rap and slams that they airlifted out of these neighborhoods; to the cotton empire, the cotton that Peele’s dusky hero rediscovered and used to his advantage.
And yet voicing problems like these is also why white America (and a lot of black America) stops listening whenever Ta-Nehisi Coates begins moving his lips, and why they may never see anything in Peele’s product but an amusing horror flick written by a rather special black man.
Perhaps it also explains in a kind of shorthand the motivations of Jabari Dean. In 2015, Dean – a black West Side college student angered by the police shooting of Laquan McDonald – threatened violence against whites on this campus. He was tracked down by the FBI, arrested, and branded a public fool. Dean’s mere words disturbed the peace at the University of Chicago, and he vanished without apparent incident, though perhaps with even less hope of finishing college. There is something about the University of Chicago in particular that seems obvious to many in the black community in this regard of stunning contradictions, but equally nonobvious to its white population.
I suppose that simply writing about an event like this can’t do much. Perhaps we can’t hope to chide these young elite thinkers into taking a harder look at race in America, rather than taking the easy road, arguing as people often do that at least things are gradually improving. For most black Americans, things are still unacceptably bad. In fact, things may be even worse than 80 years ago, when hope for a better life out of the South was at least able to help drive talent. Nobody white would let their children anywhere near this kind of life. The situation should have been treated decades ago, by our grandparents’ generation. These elite, they have the power to fix this. Will there ever be a generation that stands up and solves a problem like this?