Scrolling through the news recently, I came across a picture of a man at a town hall meeting. He was in the audience, but turned away from the speaker so that he could shout at an unseen person behind him. You could tell he was shouting because his mouth was open wide, as were his eyes and even his nostrils: everything about his posture screamed anger. The caption simply read, “Man shouts ‘whore’ at town hall.”
What immediately struck me about this picture was how eerily similar it was to a picture I had grown up seeing in history books: that of Hazel Bryan screaming at Elizabeth Eckford as Elizabeth is escorted away from Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas. Elizabeth was one of the Little Rock Nine, the group of students who first integrated Central High in 1957. Hazel was also a student there. They were both very young, although in the picture they both look much older, a combination of the seriousness of the situation and the fact that they are dressed very nicely. In that picture, Hazel is frozen in time. We look at the 1950s fashions and we assume, correctly, that everyone else in the photo has grown and changed—some have even died, given that the picture will be sixty years old come this September—but as for Hazel, she stays the same in our minds. S he is the embodiment of an evil, repressive system. Cold. Unfeeling. Unchanging.
It’s not true, of course. She was only fifteen at the time, and within five years she would go behind her family’s back to track down Elizabeth and apologize to her, but that apology wasn’t recorded the way the insult was: it disappeared as soon as the words were said. The photograph still outranks it, and always will. And that is something that Hazel will always have to live with.
As will the man in the town hall photo.
I wonder, sometimes, about the people who are caught out like that, whether in a photograph or a screen shot of hateful comments they’ve spewed via text or social media. I’d like to think that those moments represented them at their very worst, and, like Hazel, they will spend the rest of their lives trying to atone. But then again, I’d like to believe that people, by nature, are basically good.
And maybe they are. Maybe that man yelling “Whore!” so loudly that you could almost feel the spittle was just letting the local brothel keeper (a lovely lady whose name slipped his mind at that moment) know that it was her turn to speak on the issue of local businesses donating to the yearly holiday decorations budget. Or maybe he has Tourette’s.
Or maybe he was just using the word he knew best, the word that has been historically used to silence women when they have had the temerity to speak out, especially when they speak out for themselves. The same way that Hazel was using the word she knew best to silence Elizabeth.
Are the two situations really that similar? Intersectionality would suggest that they both are, and are not (a sort of of a Schrodinger’s Cat of discrimination). And anyway, the point is not so much how much the victims suffered, but rather how much damage the perpetrators ended up doing to themselves.
When they were younger I tried to impress upon my children that a word spoken could never be recalled: “You can’t unring a bell,” I’d tell them. That even if the person you offend ends up forgiving you, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll ever manage to forgive yourself. Some weapons hurt the wielder more than the intended victim. And sometimes, the scars they leave are permanent.
Just ask Hazel Bryan.