In Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin’s brilliant play, Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe , Trudy the Bag Lady has been giving a tour of New York to a group of intergalactic visitors. She began by showing them a picture of Andy Warhol’s iconic Campell’s Soup can, and a picture of an actual can, and challenging them to tell the difference between soup and art. Near the end of the play, she returns to that theme in this fun moment:
“Did I tell you what happened at the play? We were at the back of the theater, standing there in the dark, all of a sudden I feel one of ’em tug my sleeve, whispers, “Trudy, look.” I said, “Yeah, goose bumps. You definitely got goose bumps. You really like the play that much?” They said it wasn’t gave ’em goose bumps, it was the audience.
I forgot to tell ’em to watch the play; they’d been watching the audience!
Yeah, to see a group of strangers sitting together in the dark, laughing and crying about the same things…that just knocked ’em out. They said, “Trudy, the play was soup…the audience…art.”
It’s easy and fun to focus on Paula Deen and her recent controversy, but not surprisingly, she’s the soup.
Instead focus on the art, the audience, and our collective role in the issues the controversy evokes.
When asked if she’s used the “N” word, Paula Deen famously answered “Of course.” The implication was clear – she was saying of course she had, and of course we knew she had. Her moment of moral obliviousness was actually a powerful accusation against the audience – “you’ve known or certainly suspected this about me and yet you didn’t care!”
What does that say about us?
The same point was made in June of 2010 when she participated in a New York Times forum. Putting aside her Fractured Fairy Tales view of history, how did the audience sit through her calling out a black colleague, asking him to step away from a black backdrop so that he could be seen, and then dragging him up on stage to acknowledge the Missus? We can’t lay this off on the South. This was a supposedly sophisticated New York audience that sat through it, and then applauded.
Of course they did.
As a nation we tolerate without even noticing a sustained undercurrent of racism.
We tolerate a public education system that fails to graduate close to 1 out of every 3 black kids, and in some states its 1 of every 2. When the education system produces those same results year in and year out, it suggests not that the system is failing, but rather that the system is designed to fail those students.
We tolerate the televised spectacle of a black man hauled into the public square and required to display his papers to prove his citizenship. That it happened in the Briefing Room of the White House to the President of the United States is morally irrelevant. That we tolerated it is morally indefensible.
We’ve tolerated a growing sophistication in voter suppression of African Americans across the country. The Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act opens the floodgates to more widespread and systematic denial of the franchise to African Americans and Latinos. Yet the moral outrage last week was rather muted.
We’ve been paying a lot of attention to the soup. But that’s missing the point. If we turned our attention to the art, the audience, ourselves, then wouldn’t we be forced to grapple with our own racism, our own complicity?