photographer and writer, Adriana Hammond photographer and writer, Adriana Hammond

By now, many Brookline residents are aware of the incident during last week’s Martin Luther King Day event at the Coolidge Corner Theater. Leslie Epps, a black Brookline business owner interrupted the presentation with an impromptu speech regarding the racial injustice that plagues Brookline. Some attendees expressed frustration with her, but I ask what better day to speak loudly and openly about these issues?

Notably, this week, the New York Times features ‘Rasheeda Speaking,’ an upcoming Off Broadway play that directly confronts the tangled complexities of modern racism. The play’s creator, Joel Drake Johnson, wrote the dark comedy after being hit with the weighty guilt of his own racial bias, which, consequently, resulted one day in the firing of a black receptionist. Johnson admits causing her dismissal was an overreaction not due entirely to her rudeness; he wouldn’t have felt as offended if the grouchy receptionist had been white. To make amends, at least in some way, Johnson’s story in ‘Rasheeda Speaking’ is similar with the Tony award winning actress Tonya Pinkins as the play’s black protagonist. Pinkins makes her own striking and significant admission in the Times’feature, saying that this character forces her to access a part of herself, such as “anger” and “vulnerability,” that she has spent much of her life suppressing. It is, perhaps, the burden of suppression that can make incidents like the interruption of the MLK Day Coolidge celebration so difficult to understand.

I can give my own example. As a biracial Boston transplant from the South, I thought I had left the bigotry below the Mason-Dixon line. Unfortunately, my story is not an isolated incident since living the Brookline area. I choose this one because it stings the most.

Early one evening, I was walking with a friend, who was a Boston University graduate student originally from Canada and carries a vague Indian accent, to pick up laundry. Behind us followed two white men and one white women, late twenties, perhaps early thirties with Boston accents. They asked us if we were for sale, which we ignored. Then, from one of the men, in a derogatory Indian accent to mimic my friend, “Do you unnn-der-stand what I’m say-ing??” We turned around in shock. “What’s your problem?” My friend asked him. A shouting match then ensued between the two of them, her mostly asking him what his problem was and him telling us to “Go back to where we came from, go home.”

“I am home!” She finally shouted as we crossed the street hoping they wouldn’t follow, and yet I had a strange feeling neither of us felt quite at home, especially in that moment.

Again, this incident sticks out in my mind, however, there are moments when there wasn’t shouting. I’ve been followed around suspiciously in multiple Brookline boutiques, and been told by a stranger directly at a Brookline writer’s group in regard to my race, “I thought you were white in your Meetup photo, but looking at you now, I don’t even know what you are.” To clarify, I am a who not a what.

I, like the actress Pinkins, suppress a sadness and anger.

Both my parents are white, my mother and my adopted father, which means my half-brother is white. They are a testament to how the world really could be. When I’m at home, I am just the older sister, the elder child, or the “honorable daughter” as my dad likes to say. Out in the world I am a fill-in-the-blank to each, usually white, person’s discretion. I become the foreigner, perhaps, who is invading a white area, or the stereotype about to steal a necklace or something that is strange and indefinable and somehow it’s appropriate to that person in discomfort to say so. Even with the unconditional love from my white parents, because of the microaggression which is defined as ‘unintended racism’ stemming from latent bias’ living in our social norms, the suspicion while shopping, and other forms of overt discrimination, I have to constantly work at keeping my cool, lest I spend my whole life yelling or in tears.

How do I feel about the incident at the MLK Day Coolidge program? In the true sprit of Martin Luther King Jr., there was no better time to say what needs to be said about the work we still have to do to make Brookline better. If you’ve seen the Oscar nominated film “Selma”, King was anything but convenient and quiet. He spoke in a loud, preachy voice, and his life was cut short for it. A real celebration of his legacy allows safely for some shouting. The anger in these inconvenient voices is the same anger I know well, and it comes from feeling ignored when one needs help, being underrepresented, and marginalized. Of course, King’s oratory perfection is a tough act to follow, but if someone is upset about racism, the best response is, at least at first, to listen.

– Adriana Hammond