Last Friday, some friends at Teachers College put together a #BlackLivesMatter event centered around telling stories. We sat in a large auditorium, in all shapes and sizes and skin colors, and shared our anguish, disappointment, and hope for change. At the beginning of the night, there was a presentation with pictures of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and countless others, alongside the last words of Trayvon Martin and more, expressing in their last moments, their pleas for life. That three minute slideshow nearly brought me to tears, and it was set to the background music of Common and John Legend’s “Glory.” It was visceral, relevant, and heartbreaking.
So, when they performed this song live at the Oscars, it gave me the same chills as the first time I heard it, as the credits rolled in the theater after watching Selma. It brought the audience at the Dolby Theatre to tears, and subsequently, to their feet. There was power in the room, further encapsulated by the strong acceptance speech of the duo after winning the Oscar for Best Original Song.
Common: “Recently, John and I got to go to Selma and perform ‘Glory’ on the same bridge that Dr. King and the people of the civil rights movement marched on 50 years ago … This bridge was built on hope. Welded with compassion. And elevated by love for all human beings.”
John Legend: “Nina Simone said it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live. We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now. We know that the voting rights, the act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you that we are with you, we see you, we love you, and march on.”
I, too, am appalled and ashamed that there was such a lack of diversity in the Oscar nominations this year. It hurts, because like so many other microaggressions and microinvalidations we face every single day, this huge platform became yet another reminder that people like me — women, people of color, gay/lesbian/bi/trans* folks — not only don’t matter, but are rarely represented on screens both small and big.
It hurts because a room full of privileged people in a fancy theater applaud each other, while young people at home watching who experience violence and trauma and discrimination every day, wonder why no one is telling their stories.
It hurts, because we pay to go see these big movies, or sit at home with loved ones and binge-watch TV shows on Netflix, but nothing can compare to seeing our lives and experiences portrayed honestly and truthfully.
It’s why I watch Grey’s Anatomy so past its prime, or find solace in the subtle same-sex love/friendship between the main characters on Rizzoli & Isles. I want to see someone that looks or talks or sees the world the way I do to be reflected in what I watch and read. It means more, it validates me, and it shows the rest of the world that people like me matter.
But I, like so many disappointed in the Oscar nominees, sat down and watched the show on Sunday. And I am glad I did. It was a platform to have lively discussions (on Twitter, mostly) about problematic language and jokes. It was a place to cheer on Patricia Arquette for talking about women’s equality, Graham Moore for telling young people who feel different to stay weird, and Common and John Legend to say that Selma is now.
“Do not seek validation from your oppressors,” — Dr. Thomas Parham
I don’t expect a system that was built to oppress people like me to suddenly validate me. I cannot change the mind of a voting Academy member who thinks a story about an old, washed out superhero is more artistic than a moving true story about a civil right movement forged in Selma.
What I can change, or at least hope to, is the experience of the kid at home who fears for his life because he is told every day — through the media, through films and TV shows, through the words of his teachers and peers and government — that his life is worthless.
If that means using a platform that millions of people around the world are watching, then so be it. It doesn’t make up for the invisibility of seeing people like me on the screen, or the countless ways we continue to struggle, but it sends a message that we are not asleep. We are angry, and hurt, and maybe a little exhausted, but we are here. And we cannot be silenced.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still upset about the Oscar nominations. I want to see immigrant stories, women’s stories, queer and trans* stories in movies and shows and books. And it f*cking sucks not to have that in the mainstream.
But while that would feel validating, it wouldn’t change the fact that trans women of color are being murdered at an alarming rate while the mainstream gay rights movement touts progress because of same-sex marriage laws. While media portrayals and Oscar trophies would be nice, it doesn’t change the fact three Muslim students were assassinated execution style in their own home by a white man and the media tells me that it was over a parking dispute.
I don’t feel the need to defend myself to white people that think we live in a post-racial world, or claim to be color blind. I don’t want to tell them that my life matters, or that my story matters. I know that it does.
What I want to dedicate my life’s work to is uplifting the young people in my communities. To tell them that it’s okay to be different, and to feel invisible sometimes. To help them utilize that anger to build a better life — to break the system that is built against us, to make the world notice us, to change the story that society has already pre-written for us based on what we look like.
“Glory” is stuck in my head. I will inevitably listen to it on repeat for days and weeks to come. It will always remind me of being in that room with my peers at school, as we shared experiences of oppression and visions of change.
It will always remind me of sitting on the couch watching David Oyelowo cry after Common and John Legend sang it live at the Oscars.
It will always remind me that I have the privilege of using my words to share my stories and my experiences — weapons of change I will use until I can’t anymore.
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Born and raised in California, Priya Arora has found a home in New York where she currently attends Teachers College at Columbia University. Follow her on Twitter at @thepriyaarora.