My friend Andre Henry has a boulder in the back of his car. It’s a large, heavy rock, painted white. It is covered with black writing, words like “police violence, racial profiling, white fragility, and eurocentrism.” It is also covered with hashtags. Lots and lots of hashtags, each one followed by a name. Each name is the name of a Black person killed by police.
Also in the back of Andre’s car is a wagon. He uses the wagon to drag the boulder around his home city of Los Angeles. He has dragged that stone into classrooms, churches, job interviews. It is a heavy, heavy rock. But it doesn’t weigh as much as the fear that he, or one of his best beloveds, could be the next hashtag.
Andre’s boulder project reminds me of another person who decided to lug something heavy around, wherever they went. Emma Sulkowicz is the artist who was sexually assaulted by a fellow student while an undergraduate at Columbia University. When the university decided not to expel the perpetrator, Emma (who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns) created a piece of endurance performance art titled Carry That Weight. From September 2, 2014, until May 27, 2015, Emma carried the dorm room mattress on which the assault occurred, everywhere they went on campus. The art piece includes the “Rules of Engagement,” in which Emma painted on the walls of a studio on campus the rules: that the mattress must be carried at all times when on Emma was campus, that they could not ask for help in carrying it, but that if help were offered they could accept it.
In Emma’s words, "To me, the piece has very much represented [the fact that] a guy did a horrible thing to me and I tried to make something beautiful out of it."
I remember reading about Carry That Weight in the New York Times, while the piece was being performed. I remember being deeply moved by the image of a group of students carrying the mattress together. The mattress weighed fifty pounds- what a relief it must have been when Emma’s fellow students offered assistance!
While art critics hailed the piece as a triumph of “pure radical vulnerability,” Carry That Weight was not without its detractors. Perhaps most notably, the accused perpetrator sued Columbia for allowing the Mattress Performance, claiming it created a hostile environment for him. I do have some sympathy for young men who are navigating college dating life while having been raised on a steady diet of entitlement and toxic masculinity. Young people need to be taught that their bodies are their own, and that when interacting with others, enthusiastic consent is the gold standard. The Columbia students who helped Emma carry the mattress included young men, young men who wanted their campus to be safe for everyone.
I asked Andre if anyone ever offered to help him pull the heavy boulder, and he said no.
I am thinking about all the ways we have been taught that racism and white supremacy is just “the way things are.” How we have absorbed the idea that Black people living in neighborhoods with crumbling schools, instead of the safe and leafy suburbs where so many white Americans live, is somehow the natural order of things. Who taught us this? No one said it explicitly, but haven’t these messages surrounded us anyway?
What would it look like for more white Americans to take on the burden of thinking and talking about race? What would it look like to engage in conversations, and look for opportunities to educate ourselves? What would it look like to advocate for racial justice, to pay reparations, to share resources? What would it mean to take a turn dragging that boulder around?