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IMG01372-20100929-1139 Me and My Shadow

Fans of the Rat Pack and their 1960s version of “Me and My Shadow” still argue about whether the friendship of the Hollywood stars was a resistance to racism or recapitulation of it.

You can watch a short video of the song performed by Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra here. The way the two men move back and forth, one is the “shadow” and then the other, suggest a kind of shared power and subjectivity that seems to challenge the assumptions of race and white privilege. However, I can’t ignore the discomfort I feel when I watch it either. The opening banter is troublesome, no matter what follows. Just the title of the song and suggestion that one person is the “me,” the subject, while another person might be only a shadow, and the rhetorical connections to light and dark, worry me that embedded in the song and the performance of it on the video are vestiges of racism that can’t be shaken off, any more than I can escape my own shadow while walking down a street.

The complicated thing about a cultural artifact of pop culture, such as this visual recording of the song by Davis and Sinatra, is that it is both. On one hand it represents a challenge to overt racism of the 1950s and 60s. Two men move back and forth sharing the role of subject and shadow, singing in unison, demonstrating the closeness of friendship and partnership as artists. They undo the assumptions about power and privilege which were still unquestioned by most white folks of the time and completely clear in their injustice to most people of color in that same era. On the other hand, the residuals of the differences in power, and the inequality and injustice of those differentials, are also reproduced in this performance. The subtleties are hard to see for some of us who are white and oblivious to our own privileges. But watching closely reveals manifestations of internalized racism in things like the ownership of space, the ways people carry their bodies, the small gestures of deference which pass between people, the everyday performances and practices of race that are present in facial expressions, feelings, and postures.

This week I attended a conversation about racism and white privilege with colleagues and students. As I listened and spoke up I thought about the ways that I’ve tried to confront this issue in myself, in my communities and relationships, in my teaching, scholarship and writing. And I thought about how miserably I continue to reproduce the problem even while trying to confront it. I suffer from the disease of privilege and oblivion. And endemic to the disease is the capacity to ignore it. Yet I can’t escape it any more than my own shadow. It is a shadow in me and most all of the white folks I know, which we can’t afford to ignore. Especially if we say we want our communities, congregations, families and neighborhoods to be places of justice.

I’ll have more to say about this in the weeks ahead. Today as I whistle this song, I’m going to notice my own complicity and pray for God’s mercy and forgiveness.