Mohamed Bouazizi will, one day, be known throughout the world as a Hero. He sparked the ‘Arab Spring’. A street vendor, tired of being harassed and humiliated by an “official”, set himself on fire to protest the injustice he and his fellow citizens were experiencing. If only he were alive to see that he changed the world.
Shermika Moffitt, age 20, has also caught our attention. Initially, it was reported that she was set on fire by three men. ‘KKK’ and ‘Nigger’ were written on the hood of her vehicle. And, she is in critical condition with burns over 60% of her body.
Yesterday, the story changed. Authorities are reporting that Ms. Moffitt “set herself on fire”. The evidence of this? They found, “only her fingertips” on the tube of toothpaste that wrote the letters “KKK” and “Nigger”. The only fact that remains the same of these two stories is that she is in critical condition and she has burns over 60% of her body.
As I prepare myself for a very significant stage of development for my first feature film, I am trying to stop myself from hopping on a plane to learn more about Ms. Moffitt. I want to hear and share her story, her family’s story. As an Artist, self-expression is what I do, some would say, to survive. I would argue against that and say it is simply who I am. I speak up. My family created that possibility for me. But, I recognize that that is not the case for many women (in the world).
Whenever someone commits an act of violence (assuming that Ms. Moffitt set herself aflame. It’s highly likely that perpetrators could have held a gun to her head and forced her to take all of these actions), I always wonder, what was the last movie or TV show they watched? Obviously, I’d be most interested in their ‘image’ diet. But, I am always curious about the last thing they watched. And, in Ms. Moffitt’s case, I wonder, what was the last movie or TV show she saw that centered around a black female? Was it the ‘Steel Magnolia’ remake? Was it ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’? Was it ‘Middle of Nowhere’? Did she watch a music video? It’s an odd curiosity of mine. What did it feel like, for her, to be a black woman in America?
How are we seen? How do we see ourselves? The actions of Mohamed Bouazizi were, clearly, a cry to end injustice. Can we make the same case for Shermika Moffitt? Or, will she be painted as a mentally ill woman who tricked all of us into buying her madness? Will she become a target for outrage? Her actions were very specific. It was as if her inner dialogue reached the surface. An act of self-immolation for a Tunisian male was a cry to end injustice. An act of self-immolation by a black american woman appears to be an implosion. The dialogue that exists in the culture. The extreme hatred that is being leveled at our first Black President. The coded language, the racism. These things have consequences. And, although many of us write about it and rail about it, most people are ingesting a steady stream of it without an outlet.
Perhaps, this was Ms. Moffitt’s cry to end the agonizing, coded racist chatter. Perhaps, it was her trying to quiet the noise, get relief from the cloud hanging over America that is dripping racism on all of us, daily, as we march toward Election day. Perhaps, she was confronting demons that swirl around her state of Louisiana; the marginalization, the poverty, the hopelessness, the statistical reality of her life that is imperiled by race.
I remember walking around Zucotti Park when ‘Occupy Wall Street’ had just begun. My friend and I were walking around wondering if it would stick, if it would last and make a difference. We wondered if these activists would invite the plight of being in black skin, in America, into their rallying cry. And, my friend, referencing Bouazizi said, “will we have to start setting fire to ourselves in order to be heard in this country?”
As a filmmaker, I tend to look for the hero story in the underdogs, in the marginalized. And, no, I am not ready to lay that label on Ms. Moffitt. But, I do want us to look at her experience with a nuanced eye. Not a judgmental, finger waving eye that the media may place on her. It takes a lot of pain to bring a human being to the point of self-immolation. And, I can say, Ms. Moffitt had more than enough disregard to choose from. Since Whitney Houston’s death, I think of Black women often. I wonder how we’re doing, if we are getting what we need to be kind to ourselves. I wonder if our relationships (romantic, friendships and familial) have love and support at the center. I wonder if media, on a larger scale, will ever portray us as complete, unencumbered women.
I can’t wait for Election Day. I will be voting, again, for the man that, openly, loves his black wife. Honestly, it’s the only media representation we have of that model. And, yes, I support him for more than that. He gets it. Most of his significant policies benefit women. But, most people miss that because it’s in the details. ‘The Affordable Healthcare Act’, ‘The Lilly Ledbetter Act’, my President is a Feminist. And, he understands that women suffer in ways that go unnoticed. He’s throwing out lifelines to make our lives a little easier.
Shermika Moffitt will not go down in history as a Martyr. She will not be labeled a Hero. She will not even have her story parsed out in a fair and balanced way. That can be said for most stories written about Black women in America. But, you know, we have Toni Morrison to help us understand who and why we are. Ms. Morrison wrote “No one ever talks about the moment you found that you were white. Or the moment you found out you were black. That’s a profound revelation. The minute you find that out, something happens. You have to renegotiate everything.“
Ms Moffitt, may you, finally, receive the understanding and compassion that you cried out for, no matter what happened, on that Sunday night, in the wilderness of America.