So my grandfather told me when I was a little girl, "If you say a word often enough, it becomes you." And having grown up in a segregated city, Baltimore, Maryland, I sort of use that idea to go around America with a tape recorder — thank God for technology — to interview people, thinking that if I walked in their words — which is also why I don't wear shoes when I perform — if I walked in their words, that I could sort of absorb America. I was also inspired by Walt Whitman, who wanted to absorb America and have it absorb him.
So these four characters are going to be from that work that I've been doing for many years now, and well over, I don't know, a couple of thousand people I've interviewed. Anybody out here old enough to know Studs Terkel, that old radio man? So I thought he would be the perfect person to go to to ask about a defining moment in American history. You know, he was "born in 1912, the year the Titanic sank, greatest ship every built. Hits the tip of an iceberg, and bam, it went down. It went down and I came up. Wow, some century." (Laughter)
So this is his answer about a defining moment in American history. "Defining moment in American history, I don't think there's one; you can't say Hiroshima, that's a big one — I can't think of any one moment I would say is a defining moment. The gradual slippage — 'slippage' is the word used by the people in Watergate, moral slippage — it's a gradual kind of thing, combination of things. You see, we also have the technology. I say, less and less the human touch.
"Oh, let me kind of tell you a funny little play bit. The Atlanta airport is a modern airport, and they should leave the gate there. These trains that take you out to a concourse and on to a destination. And these trains are smooth, and they're quiet and they're efficient. And there's a voice on the train, you know the voice was a human voice. You see in the old days we had robots, robots imitated humans. Now we have humans imitating robots. So we got this voice on this train: Concourse One: Omaha, Lincoln. Concourse Two: Dallas, Fort Worth. Same voice. Just as a train is about to go, a young couple rush in and they're just about to close the pneumatic doors. And that voice, without losing a beat, says, 'Because of late entry, we're delayed 30 seconds.' Just then, everybody's looking at this couple with hateful eyes and the couple's going like this, you know, shrinking. Well, I'd happened to have had a couple of drinks before boarding — I do that to steel my nerves — and so I imitate a train call, holding my hand on my — 'George Orwell, your time has come,' you see. Well, some of you are laughing. Everybody laughs when I say that, but not on this train. Silence. And so suddenly they're looking at me. So here I am with the couple, the three of us shrinking at the foot of Calvary about to be up, you know.
"Just then I see a baby, a little baby in the lap of a mother. I know it's Hispanic because she's speaking Spanish to her companion. So I'm going to talk to the baby. So I say to the baby, holding my hand over my mouth because my breath must be 100 proof, I say to the baby, 'Sir or Madam, what is your considered opinion of the human species?' And the baby looks, you know, the way babies look at you clearly, starts laughing, starts busting out with this crazy little laugh. I say, 'Thank God for a human reaction, we haven't lost yet.'
"But you see, the human touch, you see, it's disappearing. You know, you see, you've got to question the official truth. You know the thing that was so great about Mark Twain — you know we honor Mark Twain, but we don't read him. We read 'Huck Finn,' of course, we read 'Huck Finn' of course. I mean, Huck, of course, was tremendous. Remember that great scene on the raft, remember what Huck did? You see, here's Huck; he's an illiterate kid; he's had no schooling, but there's something in him. And the official truth, the truth was, the law was, that a black man was a property, was a thing, you see.
And Huck gets on the raft with a property named Jim, a slave, see. And he hears that Jim is going to go and take his wife and kids and steal them from the woman who owns them, and Huck says, 'Ooh, oh my God, ooh, ooh — that woman, that woman never did anybody any harm. Ooh, he's going to steal; he's going to steal; he's going to do a terrible thing.' Just then, two slavers caught up, guys chasing slaves, looking for Jim. 'Anybody up on that raft with you?' Huck says, 'Yeah.' 'Is he black or white?' 'White.' And they go off. And Huck said, 'Oh my God, oh my God, I lied, I lied, ooh, I did a terrible thing, did a terrible thing — why do I feel so good?'
"But it's the goodness of Huck, that stuff that Huck's been made of, you see, all been buried; it's all been buried. So the human touch, you see, it's disappearing. So you ask about a defining moment — ain't no defining moment in American history for me. It's an accretion of moments that add up to where we are now, where trivia becomes news. And more and more, less and less awareness of the pain of the other. Huh. You know, I don't know if you could use this or not, but I was quoting Wright Morris, a writer from Nebraska, who says, 'We're more and more into communications and less and less into communication.' Okay, kids, I got to scram, got to go see my cardiologist." And that's Studs Terkel. (Applause)
So, talk about risk taking. I'm going to do somebody that nobody likes. You know, most actors want to do characters that are likeable — well, not always, but the notion, especially at a conference like this, I like to inspire people. But since this was called "risk taking," I'm doing somebody who I never do, because she's so unlikeable that one person actually came backstage and told me to take her out of the show she was in. And I'm doing her because I think we think of risk, at a conference like this, as a good thing.
But there are certain other connotations to the word "risk," and the same thing about the word "nature." What is nature? Maxine Greene, who's a wonderful philosopher who's as old as Studs, and was the head of a philosophy — great, big philosophy kind of an organization — I went to her and asked her what are the two things that she doesn't know, that she still wants to know. And she said, "Well, personally, I still feel like I have to curtsey when I see the president of my university. And I still feel as though I've got to get coffee for my male colleagues, even though I've outlived most of them." And she said, "And then intellectually, I don't know enough about the negative imagination. And September 11th certainly taught us that that's a whole area we don't investigate."
So this piece is about a negative imagination. It raises questions about what nature is, what Mother Nature is, and about what a risk can be. And I got this in the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women. Everything I do is word for word off a tape. And I title things because I think people speak in organic poems, and this is called "A Mirror to Her Mouth." And this is an inmate named Paulette Jenkins.
"I began to learn how to cover it up, because I didn't want nobody to know that this was happening in my home. I want everybody to think we were a normal family. I mean we had all the materialistic things, but that didn't make my children pain any less; that didn't make their fears subside. I ran out of excuses about how we got black eyes and busted lips and bruises. I didn't had no more excuses. And he beat me too. But that didn't change the fact that it was a nightmare for my family; it was a nightmare. And I failed them dramatically, because I allowed it to go on and on and on.
"But the night that Myesha got killed — and the intensity just grew and grew and grew, until one night we came home from getting drugs, and he got angry with Myesha, and he started beating her, and he put her in a bathtub. Oh, he would use a belt. He had a belt because he had this warped perverted thing that Myesha was having sex with her little brother and they was fondling each other — that would be his reason. I'm just talking about the particular night that she died. And so he put her in the bathtub, and I was in the bedroom with the baby.
"And four months before this happened, four months before Myesha died, I thought I could really fix this man. So I had a baby by him — insane — thinking that if I gave him his own kid, he would leave mine alone. And it didn't work, didn't work. And I ended up with three children, Houston, Myesha and Dominic, who was four months old when I came to jail.
"And I was in the bedroom. Like I said, he had her in the bathroom and he — he — every time he hit her, she would fall. And she would hit her head on the tub. It happened continuously, repeatedly. I could hear it, but I dared not to move. I didn't move. I didn't even go and see what was happening. I just sat there and listened. And then he put her in the hallway. He told her, just set there. And so she set there for about four or five hours. And then he told her, get up. And when she got up, she says she couldn't see. Her face was bruised. She had a black eye. All around her head was just swollen; her head was about two sizes of its own size. I told him, 'Let her go to sleep.' He let her go to sleep.
"The next morning she was dead. He went in to check on her for school, and he got very excited. He says, 'She won't breathe.' I knew immediately that she was dead. I didn't even want to accept the fact that she was dead, so I went in and I put a mirror to her mouth — there was no thing, nothing, coming out of her mouth. He said, he said, he said, 'We can't, we can't let nobody find out about this.' He say, 'You've got to help me.' I agree. I agree.
"I mean, I've been keeping a secret for years and years and years, so it just seemed like second hand to me, just to keep on keeping it a secret. So we went to the mall and we told a police that we had, like, lost her, that she was missing. We told a security guard that she was missing, though she wasn't missing. And we told the security guard what we had put on her and we went home and we dressed her in exactly the same thing that we had told the security guard that we had put on her.
"And then we got the baby and my other child, and we drove out to, like, I-95. I was so petrified and so numb, all I could look was in the rear-view mirror. And he just laid her right on the shoulder of the highway. My own child, I let that happen to." So that's an investigation of the negative imagination. (Applause)
When I started this project called "On the Road: A Search For an American Character" with my tape recorder, I thought that I was going to go around America and find it in all its aspects — bull riders, cowboys, pig farmers, drum majorettes — but I sort of got tripped on race relations, because my first big show was a show about a race riot. And so I went to both — two race riots, one of which was the Los Angeles riot. And this next piece is from that. Because this is what I would say I've learned the most about race relations, from this piece. It's a kind of an aria, I would say, and in many tapes that I have.
Everybody knows that the Los Angeles riots happened because four cops beat up a black man named Rodney King. It was captured on videotape — technology — and it was played all over the world. Everybody thought the four cops would go to jail. They did not, so there were riots. And what a lot of people forget, is there was a second trial, ordered by George Bush, Sr. And that trial came back with two cops going to jail and two cops declared innocent. I was at that trial. And I mean, the people just danced in the streets because they were afraid there was going to be another riot. Explosion of joy that this verdict had come back this way.
So there was a community that didn't — the Korean-Americans, whose stores had been burned to the ground. And so this woman, Mrs. Young-Soon Han, I suppose will have taught me the most that I have learned about race. And she asks also a question that Studs talks about: this notion of the "official truth," to question the "official truth." So what she's questioning here, she's taking a chance and questioning what justice is in society. And this is called, "Swallowing the Bitterness."
"I used to believe America was the best. I watched in Korea many luxurious Hollywood lifestyle movie. I never saw any poor man, any black. Until 1992, I used to believe America was the best — I still do; I don't deny that because I am a victim. But at the end of '92, when we were in such turmoil, and having all the financial problems, and all the mental problems, I began to really realize that Koreans are completely left out of this society and we are nothing. Why? Why do we have to be left out? We didn't qualify for medical treatment, no food stamp, no GR,
no welfare, anything. Many African-Americans who never work got minimum amount of money to survive. We didn't get any because we have a car and a house. And we are high taxpayer. Where do I find justice? "OK. OK? OK. OK. Many African-Americans probably think that they won by the trial. I was sitting here watching them the morning after the verdict, and all the day they were having a party, they celebrated, all of South Central, all the churches. And they say, 'Well, finally justice has been done in this society.' Well, what about victims' rights? They got their rights by destroying innocent Korean merchants. They have a lot of respect, as I do, for Dr. Martin King. He is the only model for black community; I don't care Jesse Jackson. He is the model of non-violence, non-violence — and they would all like to be in his spirit.
"But what about 1992? They destroyed innocent people. And I wonder if that is really justice for them, to get their rights in that way. I was swallowing the bitterness, sitting here alone and watching them. They became so hilarious, but I was happy for them. I was glad for them. At least they got something back, OK. Let's just forget about Korean victims and other victims who were destroyed by them. They fought for their rights for over two centuries, and maybe because they sacrifice other minorities, Hispanic, Asian, we would suffer more in the mainstream. That's why I understand; that's why I have a mixed feeling about the verdict.
"But I wish that, I wish that, I wish that I could be part of the enjoyment. I wish that I could live together with black people. But after the riot, it's too much difference. The fire is still there. How do you say it? [Unclear]. Igniting, igniting, igniting fire. Igniting fire. It's still there; it can burst out anytime." Mrs. Young-Soon Han. (Applause)
The other reason that I don't wear shoes is just in case I really feel like I have to cuddle up and get into the feet of somebody, walking really in somebody else's shoes. And I told you that in — you know, I didn't give you the year, but in '79 I thought that I was going to go around and find bull riders and pig farmers and people like that, and I got sidetracked on race relations.
Finally, I did find a bull rider, two years ago. And I've been going to the rodeos with him, and we've bonded. And he's the lead in an op-ed I did about the Republican Convention. He's a Republican — I won't say anything about my party affiliation, but anyway — so this is my dear, dear Brent Williams, and this is on toughness, in case anybody needs to know about being tough for the work that you do. I think there's a real lesson in this. And this is called "Toughness."
"Well, I'm an optimist. I mean basically I'm an optimist. I mean, you know, I mean, it's like my wife, Jolene, her family's always saying, you know, you ever think he's just a born loser? It seems like he has so much bad luck, you know. But then when that bull stepped on my kidney, you know, I didn't lose my kidney — I could have lost my kidney, I kept my kidney, so I don't think I'm a born loser. I think that's good luck. (Laughter)
"And, I mean, funny things like this happen. I was in a doctor's office last CAT scan, and there was a Reader's Digest, October 2002. It was like, 'seven ways to get lucky.' And it says if you want to get lucky, you know, you've got to be around positive people. I mean, like even when I told my wife that you want to come out here and talk to me, she's like, 'She's just talking; she's just being nice to you. She's not going to do that.'
"And then you called me up and you said you wanted to come out here and interview me and she went and looked you up on the Internet. She said, 'Look who she is. You're not even going to be able to answer her questions.' (Laughter) And she was saying you're going to make me look like an idiot because I've never been to college, and I wouldn't be talking professional or anything. I said, 'Well look, the woman talked to me for four hours. You know, if I wasn't talking — you know, like, you know, she wanted me to talk, I don't think she would even come out here.'
"Confidence? Well, I think I ride more out of determination than confidence. I mean, confidence is like, you know, you've been on that bull before; you know you can ride him. I mean, confidence is kind of like being cocky, but in a good way. But determination, you know, it's like just, you know, 'Fuck the form, get the horn.' (Laughter) That's Tuff Hedeman, in the movie '8 Seconds.' I mean, like, Pat O'Mealey always said when I was a boy, he say, 'You know, you got more try than any kid I ever seen.' And try and determination is the same thing. Determination is, like, you're going to hang on that bull, even if you're riding upside down. Determination's like, you're going to ride till your head hits the back of the dirt.
"Freedom? It would have to be the rodeo.
"Beauty? I don't think I know what beauty is. Well, you know, I guess that'd have to be the rodeo too. I mean, look how we are, the roughy family, palling around and shaking hands and wrestling around me. It's like, you know, racking up our credit cards on entry fees and gas. We ride together, we, you know, we, we eat together and we sleep together. I mean, I can't even imagine what it's going to be like the last day I rodeo. I mean, I'll be alright. I mean, I have my ranch and everything, but I actually don't even want to think the day that comes. I mean, I guess it just be like — I guess it be like the day my brother died.
"Toughness? Well, we was in West Jordan, Utah, and this bull shoved my face right through the metal shoots in a — you know, busted my face all up and had to go to the hospital. And they had to sew me up and straighten my nose out. And I had to go and ride in the rodeo that night, so I didn't want them to put me under anesthesia, or whatever you call it. And so they sewed my face up. And then they had to straighten out my nose, and they took these rods and shoved them up my nose and went up through my brains and felt like it was coming out the top of my head, and everybody said that it should have killed me, but it didn't, because I guess I have a high tolerance for pain. (Laughter) But the good thing was, once they shoved those rods up there and straightened my nose out, I could breathe, and I hadn't been able to breathe since I broke my nose in the high school rodeo."
Thank you. (Applause)
Writer and actor Anna Deavere Smith gives life to author Studs Terkel, convict Paulette Jenkins, a Korean shopkeeper and a bull rider, excerpts from her solo show "On the Road: A Search for American Character."
Anna Deavere Smith's ground-breaking solo shows blur the lines between theater and journalism, using text from real-life encounters to create gripping portraits.
Anna Deavere Smith's ground-breaking solo shows blur the lines between theater and journalism, using text from real-life encounters to create gripping portraits.