During the fall semester, a student told me about on of her classes where the professor was using Lila Quintero Weaver’s Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White in the course. The student told me about Weaver’s book, and I immediately became interested in reading it. Finally, I picked up a copy and read it. In Darkroom, Weaver details her family’s experiences during the Civil Right Movement on Marion, Alabama centering on the events of 1965. As well, she chronicles her family’s immigration from Argentina to the United States, and she explores themes such as western ideas of beauty, fear of losing one’s culture, fear of cultural exchange, xenophobia, and more. All of these coalesce in an examination of whiteness, specifically Eurocentric whiteness. Today, I want to look at a couple of sections that highlight this theme in Darkroom.
After detailing the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson, Weaver discusses Bloody Sunday and the way that the news of the event traveled the globe. In this moment, news crews caught the violence against those who marched from Selma to Montgomery. To represent this, Weaver shows two pages. On the left is Edmund Pettus Bridge and the violence enacted upon that bridge. On the right, she shows the globe with newspapers flying around it. Each paper carries a headline about the event, and Weaver’s narration simply reads, “At last, the world saw.”
Weaver ends this chapter with one more image, a two-page spread of a blossoming tree with the narration, “The third attempt to march to Montgomery succeeded. By now, it was almost April, and the Civil Rights Act of 1965 was on its way to becoming law.” Ending the chapter with this image, Weaver highlights the hopeful nature of the moment, the hope of progress, the hope of a more equitable society. However, the next chapter, “Know Alabama,” undercuts that hope because it exposes the deep rooted racism embedded within the narcissistic belief in the superiority of whiteness. For this chapter, which is titled after Alabama’s 4th grade history book during the period, Weaver depicts a tattered Confederate battle flag, a fitting image for the idyllic narratives of plantation life and the heroic narratives of the Klan that Weaver depicts verbatim in the chapter.
On one page, Weaver tells the story of reading an article about the Klan in a national magazine that her family subscribed to. At the top left, Weaver shows the image of, dressed in Klan robes, posing for a portrait. Underneath, she narrates, “This mild-looking family ran counter to all my previously held notions about who wore Klan robes.” This statement leads Weaver to trace her perceptions, depicting a rough looking white man, arms folded, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, as the quintessential member. In the adjoining image, Weaver shows three well-dressed white kids singing in church as she narrates, “But judging by their faces, the Klan couple wasn’t villainous. They blended in with the rural, bible belt Alabama population I knew well.” Weaver concludes the page with an image of a rural church and the statement, “It was another puzzle piece in the enigmatic South.”
Throughout Darkroom, Weaver presents moments that show the racism of the white citizens of Marion. Even though she does not say anything about them being in the Klan, these moments reassert her statements about the newspaper. One such scene occurs the day after Jackson’s murder. Weaver states that no one said anything about it at school the next day, but she depicts overhearing two teachers as she drinks from the water fountain. One of the teachers tells the other, “That colored bout that got shot threw a bottle at that state trooper, you know.” The other teachers replies, “In that case, he got exactly what he deserved.” Weaver ends the page with the historical facts that the officer held to that story for over forty years until convicted, in 2007, of second-degree manslaughter.
This exchange between the teachers highlights the racial views that the teachers hold. Even though they may not be affiliated with the Klan, they express the same ideas of Jackson being villainous and the state trooper being justified, no matter the facts of the matter. The facts, as we know, indicate that the citizens and law enforcement violently attacked the marchers and murdered Jackson. Weaver depicts this. Yet, the deep root narrative of whiteness that the teachers and other citizens have imbibed does not allow them to see these facts. Instead, they only see what they want to see, disembodying themselves from reality and engaging in myth.
After seeing the Klan story in the magazine, Weaver highlights incidents of whiteness on full display at school. Discussing her 8th grade year, in 1969, Weaver points recalls the integration of Marion schools. She talks about the black teachers, the fashion, the athletics, and other items. However, these were not all positive moments. As she states, “It didn’t take long for ingrained biases to emerge.” These ingrained biases never went away, they were rooted deep inside, causing the white students to view themselves as superior. Two girls say see a black student drinking out of the water fountain and say they won’t drink out of the fountain ever again.
As a black male student sharpens his pencil, Weaver waits patiently behind him. When finished, he turns and tells her, “Your turn.” Weaver simply responds, “Thanks.” The panel shows the male student on the left looking at Weaver and Weaver on the right looking at her peer. In the background, we see the faces of white students. One boy looks mad, and a girl holds her hand over her mouth. Weaver narrates, “All we did was exchange small talk.” This moment marks Weaver because of her kindness, treating the male student as an equal, as a peer.
However, her classmates do not agree. Instead, they give her an “icy reaction” because she “had defied the code.” I’ve written about “the code” before when I’ve talked about the unwritten rules in Ernest Gaines’ work. These rules ordered society, segregated society. Weaver, by her mere kindness, broke the rules. Other incidents occur throughout Weaver’s memoir of students reacting to her interactions with black students, and each of these moments highlight the deeply ingrained racism that exists within the self-absorbed whiteness that strangles one from the inside.
In the next post, I want to look a little more at Darkroom. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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