Challenging Racial Beliefs
Janet Langhart Cohen Finds New Ways to Talk
At 5 feet 7 inches, she is poised and authoritative. Everything about her is regal, from her carefully pinned tresses to her slightly elevated chin. Janet Langhart Cohen commands respect.
But when she talks about racial hatred, her eloquent speech doesn’t soften the topic.
In fact, Cohen tackles racial bigotry in an unconventional way through her new one-act play, “Anne & Emmett,— which has been staged so far
in Washington, D.C.; Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.; and Atlanta and is scheduled for production in more than 10 other cities. The play features a fictitious conversation between Nazi victim Anne Frank and Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy who was brutally murdered in 1955 for whistling at a white woman.
The play draws parallels between America’s treatment of African-Americans and the German occupation of the Netherlands in the 1940s that eventually was followed by the genocide of more than 6 million European Jews. One reporter reviewing the play said the two characters “raise the ghosts of injustice.—
Cohen said she first got the idea for the play when she attended a luncheon while writing her book, “From Rage to Reason: My Life in Two Americas.— A colleague thought that it was “unbecoming— of her to “play the victim— by saying that she lived in two Americas — one an apartheid America and the other an America of promise.
Cohen said that statement offended her because the woman was Jewish and society is taught to remember the history of the Jews or even “George Washington crossing the Delaware,— but not the injustices of black people.
Cohen wrote “Anne & Emmett— as a call to action and a way to show not only racial hatred, but to uncover the dark side of human nature. “We want to control anything that we hate. We either want to destroy it or dominate it,— she said.
Cohen knows firsthand the racial divide in the United States. What she learned at an early age would fashion her convictions and ultimately lead to a life of activism.
She grew up in the 1940s in a household of meager means where both parents were mixed race. Indianapolis, according to Cohen, was home to a “kinder, gentler racist, in that they would just ignore you and treat you like you were invisible.—
Cohen remembers going to a downtown Indianapolis restaurant at 7 years old with her mother and hoisting herself onto a seat in the waiting area. Suddenly, she realized that people were coming in and getting served but she and her mother were just sitting there. It was a “restricted— establishment, which meant that blacks were not welcome, Cohen said.
“I remembered that look … on the face of a 24-year-old woman having to tell her black child a story that the reason we were not served is because you’re colored,— Cohen said. Cohen was introduced to racism that day.
“My mother told me that I must not hate other people,— Cohen said. “I must promise her that I wouldn’t judge other people by something they can’t help.—
Anne & Emmett
That attempt to reconcile the complicated history of racism led her to write “Anne & Emmett.— “It was to show the commonalities of humanity— and “the inhumanity of humanity,— she said. The stories of the main characters were similar in many ways. Cohen explained how the Jews had to step off the sidewalk when a German walked by, just as blacks had to with whites. The Jews couldn’t look the Nazis in the eye, and neither could a black person look a white person in the eye.
“The way they demoralized and criminalized the Jews is the same as they did the blacks,— Cohen said. She also compared the use of concentration camps and work camps to modern-day prisons. Cohen says many of the racial injustices of the judicial system are another “way of re-enslaving— blacks.
But the play is not the first time Cohen has addressed racism. In fact, Cohen interweaves several projects into a larger theme: justice and equality for all and the need for open dialogue among the races. In the summer of 2008, Cohen and her husband, former Secretary of Defense and Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine), hosted a race summit. The conference was later transcribed in the recently released book, “Race & Reconciliation in America.—
The goal of the conference, she said, was to create a place where both whites and blacks could have a forum to speak freely to each other. Otherwise, “we are just singing to the choir,— she said. Cohen said whites know how blacks feel about them and vice versa. “But until we both get at the table … they need to leave their shame at the door and we need to leave our blame at the door.—
Cohen said, “Since we know how white people are so uncomfortable with racism, we need to create an environment where they can talk and not feel like they have to be politically correct.—
Learning From King
Cohen learned these lessons from some of the greats, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahalia Jackson. Cohen remembers literally running into King while attempting to meet Sidney Poitier at a freedom rally in Chicago.
As she barreled her way through the crowd, someone accidently bumped the soda in Cohen’s hand onto an unsuspecting participant. The man doused with soda was King. “I was stunned and embarrassed all at once,— Cohen said. “I said, Oh I’m so sorry.’ And he said, That’s OK, child. That’s OK.’—
For the last two years of his life, King would prove to be a mentor for Cohen. Nevertheless, King wouldn’t allow her to march with him. The day King was hit in the head with a brick at one of his marches in Chicago, he returned to Jackson’s house, where he often went for dinner.
Revved up over what just happened to King and the racial tension that ensued, Cohen said to King, “I want to march with you.— According to Cohen, King sat back in his chair and said, “If they call you nigger, what are you going to do?— She responded, “I’ll call them peckerwoods.— King said, “If they spit on you, what would you do?— She said, “I’d spit back.— He said, “If they throw urine on you, what would you do?— And she said, “I’d fight.— King then said, “You can’t march with us.—
King’s words of wisdom — “We are going to love them into their decency, we are going to shame them into their humanity— — echoed those of her mother’s. Through King’s tutelage, Cohen said, she learned “there are all kinds of ways to win a war and it’s not always with violence.—
Today, Cohen is working on a new project, “Shades,— based on the racism that African-Americans use against each other. The premise of the work is that of the “plantation mentality— that slave owners used to control their slaves by creating divisions based on the degree of pigment of their skin — light-skinned blacks versus dark-skinned blacks.
“Physically we are off the plantation, but mentally and psychologically we are not,— Cohen said. “Shades— will begin as an open forum discussion with women of color about how they feel about each other, Cohen said. “Are we still color conscious? Do we still believe lighter is better?—
With topics like this, Cohen’s work is ongoing. “I was brought up to believe I could do anything,— Cohen said. “My mother always told me to reach for the stars even if you have to fall to the treetops.—