Man on Fire
Last night was the third time in the past few weeks I have heard the term “Sundown Town.”
The first time I heard the term was when my mother told me the town in which I grew up, Springdale, Arkansas, used to be referred to in this way. She said when she grew up in the 1950s-60s, there was a sign at the city limits that warned black people to not be caught there after dark. She never quite told me what exactly would happen, but my imagination filled in the rest. Mostly, I mused, it was probably just an urban legend. My mother is known for her storytelling.
Watching “Man on Fire” brought it all back to the forefront of my memory.
When I attended Springdale High School in 1987, it was pretty much an all white school. There may have been some Hispanic students, perhaps, but probably at least 95% of us were white kids. I do remember the day we had a black student enroll. It was all anyone talked about. It’s been a while, you understand, but I do remember one thing clearly: the student didn’t stay. Nobody was really surprised. There were whispers of KKK involvement. I don’t know if this is true or not.
Our nearby rival, Fayetteville High School, had a larger black population. One night, before the Springdale/Fayetteville game, somebody broke into their football stadium and hung a dummy, lynching style. The message was clear. I remember feeling horrified and sickened.
My parents taught by example, by commentary and racist remarks, that we should be afraid of black people, mistrustful. Otherwise hard-working people who loved Arkansas and their neighbors, racism was their Achilles’ heel. They could not move past their own backgrounds. I grew up hearing racist jokes (black people, Mexican people, Asian people…really anyone who wasn’t white) on a regular basis. In every joke, the white man was the only smart one, the hero.
Springdale has come a long way. It is now a rich, multicultural town. Thankfully, it has changed enough that other races have moved in and settled, and it has become so diverse. I still follow friends who are teachers at Springdale High School, and they cannot keep from gushing about how much they love their students… all their students. Some of my defining influences are teachers from this school. Being a part of the Springdale High School Band changed my self-image and directly impacted who I am (and who my children are) today. As a result of being a part of the Springdale Band Program, both my daughters are middle school/high school band/choir directors.
Recently, my friend Marjay Hignite, one of those teachers I spoke of, wrote a response to a highly controversial happening (so controversial Buzzfeed picked it up and ran with it) at SHS, and she mentioned the term “Sundown Town.” Just reading those two words brought it all back. The racial tensions posed daily in a small Arkansas town is not something easily forgotten.
The second time I heard the term “Sundown Town” was at the movies last weekend. My husband and I went to see Green Book. I highly recommend it. I may show clips of it to my own students when I introduce the Jim Crow laws during my “Fences” unit next time.
The last time I heard “Sundown Town” was in a brand new documentary that debuted on PBS last night, called “Man on Fire.”
“Man on Fire”, recently debuting on PBS, chronicles the journey of Reverend Charles Moore, who ended his life by kneeling in a Dollar Store parking lot, dousing himself with gasoline, and setting himself on fire. A complex and deeply religious man, Rev. Moore is portrayed as a bold civil rights advocate in a tiny east Texan town where many couldn’t quite understand the need. Using personal correspondence Rev. Moore left behind, “Man on Fire” explores Buddhist notions of self-immolation as a form of protest. The film alternates between personal interviews from friends and family, local clergy, citizens, and witnesses to the tragedy and a creative reenactment of Rev. Moore’s last few hours. The camera shots are simultaneously disturbing and bordering on voyeuristic, as well as hauntingly beautiful.
My friend, James Chase Sanchez, PhD., produced the film, and his personal connection to Grand Saline and the events that transpired in the town, is evident with each scene. I met Dr. Sanchez in graduate school where we were both trying to just survive our literature courses and working on our master’s degrees. We drank lukewarm coffee at the Writing Center where we tutored, and I frequently heard him talk about his childhood in Grand Saline, both the joy and the heartache.
His work with cultural rhetorics and race theory is not only fascinating, but could not be more relevant in our current times. Watching “Man on Fire” seemed akin to viewing a close friend’s newborn baby: magical and poignant. I felt privileged to witness this culmination of years of painstaking research combined with naked beauty and authenticity. “Man on Fire” doesn’t tell you what to think, it simply shows you the kaleidoscope of theories and viewpoints the citizens of Grand Saline hold about Reverend Moore’s suicide, and lets you decide. In an era where race dynamics are seen in the daily headlines, this film digs deeply into the fabric of Southern racism, painfully exposing racism at its ugly roots.
If you haven’t seen “Man on Fire,” I urge you to take a look. It truly is a life-changing film. Dr. Sanchez, Chase, I am so proud to know you, and I will always remember you with a frosty mug of beer, bullshitting about rhetoric.
Again, well done, friend!