Thursday, March 16, 2017

Dare We Dream #6

Here's Dare We Dream #6! The final chapter in my serialized short story for the Kansas Newspapers for Education. Enjoy!

Chapter Six
            “What did you think?” Frankie asked as she and Susan rose from their seats and joined the crowd flowing toward the lobby.
            “It was…” Susan bit her lip. “It was wonderful. And awful.”
            “Exactly,” Frankie exclaimed. “And now I don’t know what to think. About whether it should be banned or not, I mean.”
            “I know,” Susan said. “Before I thought every movie should be available to everyone, but after seeing something so cruel and untruthful…I’m not so sure.”
            They walked out onto the street and paused as the crowd spilled out around them.
            “Do you see a clock anywhere?” Susan asked, using her hand as a visor.
            “I think there’s one on a bank nearby,” Frankie said, scanning the crowd, but then she met the gaze of a Negro girl about her age who was coming out of the movie palace behind them with her mother. Time stilled as the knowledge of what they’d both just seen flowed between them, and Frankie froze, held captive by the pain in the other girl’s eyes. There was fear there too, and also something Frankie had never seen. She could only describe the emotion as what she imagined a scream might look like. It was desperate, aching, and full – like a dam about to burst – and then suddenly, she realized what it was.
            It was a story.
            This girl had a story inside her, a story that hadn’t ever been told. They’d both just witnessed a story about her people and her past, but neither she nor her people had told that story – white men had. The story wasn’t hers, and that’s what was screaming – her untold story – and Frankie now understood the true problem with The Birth of a Nation, and – in fact – the problem with the whole country and maybe the world.
Everyone had a story, but not everyone got to tell it. The stories of the powerless either got twisted and skewed by the people in power or silenced and stamped out completely. The Birth of a Nation was terrible, but not as terrible as the crime of oppressing people’s stories, and it seemed to Frankie the argument over whether or not to ban The Birth of a Nation wasn’t the issue. Banning stories wouldn’t solve the problem; only allowing the silenced to finally tell their stories would.
            “There’s the clock. It’s after five,” Susan said, and Frankie turned back to her. “We’d better get to the station. If we catch the six o’clock train, we’ll make it back before Mamma for sure.”
            They took the next trolley and did arrive at Union Station in time. The sun began to set as they neared Lawrence an hour later, rocking along in their seats with the rhythm of the car.
            “Are you glad we went?” Frankie asked, as Susan had been quieter than usual since the film. She blinked, waking from thoughts Frankie couldn’t read on her face, but then she smiled and took her hand.
            “Yes, I’m glad,” she said. “I had a wonderful day with you.”
            Frankie smiled back. “Me too.”
No matter what disturbing things she’d seen or learned that day, she was happy and grateful to have done it all with her sister.
            “I almost laughed at that final scene,” Susan said after a moment.
            “The one with the giant Jesus?”
            “Yes.” She chuckled. “It was so strange.”
            The final scene of The Birth of a Nation showed a group of angelic-looking people – all white, of course – wearing flowers and flowing robes and dancing before a giant, superimposed image of Christ. The title card before it had read, Dare we dream of a golden day when bestial war shall rule no more.
            “You’re right. It was strange,” Frankie agreed. “The people in those robes looked like they were drunk. And also in Greece.”

            Susan snorted and Frankie laughed too and rested her head on her shoulder. They continued on to Lawrence as the sun set over the plains, and after a while, Frankie found herself “daring to dream.” Not of drunken Greeks, but of a day when every person had the power to tell their own story. That would be the real birth of a just and equal nation.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Dare We Dream #5

Here's Dare We Dream #5! The fifth chapter in my serialized short story, running Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Kansas Newspapers for Education. Enjoy!

Chapter Five
            Frankie’s heart pounded as she and Susan sat down in the plush, velvet seats of the movie palace. The downtown Kansas City theater was crowded, even the upper balcony reserved for the Negro patrons. The segregation itself was no particular surprise; though most of Lawrence was integrated, Liberty Hall – where movies were shown – also had a separate balcony for colored people. The thing that surprised Frankie was the fact that so many black people wanted to see The Birth of a Nation, especially since the NAACP had called for a boycott. But then, she and Susan had been forbidden to see it as well, and it only made sense that Negroes would want to see it for the same reasons, that they would also be curious and want to think for themselves.
            The house lights dimmed, a hush spread through the crowd, and Frankie’s heart stopped. When they’d boarded the train in Lawrence, Susan had said there was no turning back, but Frankie knew that this was really the point of no return. They’d planned so long and come so far to see what their parents and state had deemed to dangerous to see, and after they watched this film, Frankie knew they could never un-see it.
A light flickered and then spread out across the massive screen, and Frankie took Susan’s hand. Susan squeezed her fingers back as the opening credits rolled and the movie palace’s organist began the sweeping score. At Liberty Hall, the music was played on a tinny, upright piano, and more than ever before Frankie found herself overwhelmed by the bellowing depth of the palace organ. After what seemed like forever, the credits finally came to an end, and the opening title card flashed up on the screen:
            The bringing of the African to America planted the first seed of disunion.
            Frankie tightened her grip on Susan’s hand.
No going back now.
***
            When the screen went dark and the house lights came up, Frankie had one thought.
Everyone on all sides of the argument had been right.
 In a way, The Birth of a Nation was everything everyone said. The film was the most advanced and breathtaking thing she’d ever seen. It was also, without a doubt, unrepentantly racially biased.
Movies had made Frankie laugh before, but they’d never made her cry, and she’d cried when two characters – former friends – met on opposite sides of a battle and died in each other’s arms. In the past, fake buildings and outlandish getups had made movies seem artificial, but The Birth of a Nation’s sweeping landscapes, intricate costumes, and thrilling special effects had convinced her every scene before her was actually real. And not only real, but connected to her – the way the camera had often narrowed and closed in on the actors’ faces had made her feel their pain and longing as if it were her own.
But at the same time, the movie’s story made her stomach turn. All the Negro characters – most of whom weren’t Negros at all but white actors in blackface – were portrayed as either stupid children or violent animals. They were happy as slaves and once they were freed they became like wild dogs – forcing white people out of voting booths at gunpoint, taking over every seat in the government, and marauding barefoot through the streets while drinking, destroying property, and hunting for white women. Frankie knew her parents and history teacher would have laughed, and at times she would have laughed herself if the idea that all Negroes were beasts – or that the Ku Klux Klan was a righteous band of heroes – wasn’t also sickening and terrifyingly wrong.
            But she still wasn’t sure who was right about banning the film. The movie was incorrect and immoral, but was it dangerous? Was it something the public shouldn’t see, or that shouldn’t exist at all? Everyone was always talking about the American right to free speech. Did the people who made the film have the right to say whatever they wanted, or could there be some stories too wrong and hateful to be told?

            She’d finally seen the movie, but she still didn’t have her answer.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Dare We Dream #4

Here's Dare We Dream #4! The fourth chapter in my serialized short story, running Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Kansas Newspapers for Education. Enjoy!

Chapter Four
            The Kansas City Union Station was enormous, elegant, and – as usual – filled with people. The building had been completed only one year earlier, and it still seemed to sparkle with a sort of freshness as Frankie and Susan joined the crowd streaming beneath its arched ceilings and glimmering chandeliers. The six-foot diameter face of the Grand Hall clock read twelve thirty-five, so they hurried out the front entrance and caught a trolley to downtown KC. They weren’t exactly sure what times the movie was showing that day, and they needed to see the earliest show in order to make it back to Lawrence before their mother that night.
            The downtown movie palace, where they had often come with their parents and uncle, was also a new, lavish building that soared up into to the sky. The schedule on the ticket window listed the first showing of The Birth of a Nation at two, so since they were both hungry and had nearly an hour to kill, they hurried across the street to get some lunch at the Automat, dodging pedestrians, horses, and even a few Model Ts on their way.
             Frankie loved the Automat. The restaurant chain wasn’t exactly a restaurant; instead of ordering from a waiter, people put coins into food-dispensing machines that lined the building’s walls and offered everything from Salisbury steak to creamed spinach to cherry pie. Once she and Susan stepped inside, they walked through the rows of tables and chairs to a booth where the cashier, or “nickel-thrower,” was sitting. Susan exchanged two dimes for four nickels, handed two to Frankie, and they headed toward the machines. Frankie selected a compartment with a hot, ham sandwich inside, dropped one nickel into the slot, turned the knob, lifted the hinged, glass window, and pulled out the plate. She spent her other nickel on a glass of chocolate milk, and then she joined Susan, who had selected scrambled eggs and coffee, and the two of them sat down across from each other at one of the tables.
            “I feel too jittery to drink coffee right now,” Frankie said after a bite of her sandwich, which was cheesy and delicious. “I’m so excited I’m practically shaking.”
            Susan swallowed a forkful of eggs. “You shouldn’t drink it at your age anyway. It will stunt your growth.”
            Frankie rolled her eyes. “Of course. And removing the hair from strange parts of my body will make me a ‘modern woman.’”
            “You only think it’s strange because you live in a small town and don’t know what they do in big cities.”
            “You live in the same town I do. And we’re in a big city now, but do you see any women wearing sleeveless dresses? I don’t think so.”
            Susan glanced around. “Well,” she admitted. “It’s not like the Automat is the height of fashion. Women in New York do. Women in Hollywood certainly do. I bet Lillian Gish wears them all the time, and shaves her underarms.”
            “Well, we won’t be able to tell in the movie,” Frankie said, as the fair-haired, doe-eyed actress was the star of The Birth of a Nation. “It’s set during the Civil War, and women covered up even more fifty years ago than they do now.”
            Susan took a sip of her coffee. Then, still looking down at her cup, she asked, “Do you think it’s as bad as they say? The part about the movie being prejudiced against Negroes?”
            Frankie froze mid-chew. She and Susan had been planning this secret adventure for months, but in all that time they’d only discussed how much they wanted to see the film, not why it was banned in the first place. After a moment, she swallowed and spoke.
            “We can’t know unless we see it for ourselves.”
            Susan nodded, her gaze still fixed on her coffee. “I think you’re right.”
            Frankie’s eyes widened. “What?”
            “Oh, shut up,” Susan said, but her lips curled into a smile.
            “Did you just say I was right?”
            “I will throw these eggs at you.”
            Frankie laughed. “I guess this really is a day of firsts.”

            “Speaking of which, hurry and finish your sandwich,” Susan said. “If there is a crowd at the movie palace, I want us to be first in line.”