I slept in really late today so I decided to actually do something productive to counteract that, plus I've been putting this off for a minute. Like 2 weeks ago I watched a short film on seedandspark.com called Across The Tracks, I watched it like 3 times because there's so much to this movie. So many layers that I wanna dissect like a frog in biology class. Across The Tracks tells the story of two sisters growing up in the south during the 60s as one decides to live a different life and pass as white.
The film opens up showing Ella, the lighter skinned sister who made the life-changing decision to abandon her blackness in favor of whiteness as a child. She's looking slightly haggard while doing laundry in the backyard of what's presumed to be her mother's home back in Georgia where she was born and raised as her voiceover in the background retells how whiteness shaped her identity and childhood. "When I was little, the best thing you could be was a white person. You didn't have a care in the world. You could go anywhere, do anything. No one could stop you. It's just the way it was. But you don't stay little forever and the world has a way of changing real fast..."
It was interesting to see Ella's physical appearance as an adult compared to her as a child. When she was younger, she was extremely pale and had very long and coarse strawberry blondish hair. It seems as she got older she sort of grew into her Blackness in a physical sense. You know how most Black babies are born super light and grow up to be dark skinned? I feel like that's sort of what happened with Ella. As an adult, she was still light but not quite as light as she was when she was a kid and her hair was darker, almost black. So to me, she was slightly more visibly black which I think played into what she said about the world changing. As she got older I don't think people saw her potentially as a white woman anymore, just a very light skinned black woman. And that ultimately took away the privilege she once aimed for.
As Ella talks about the world changing, the scene switches to her working as a custodian at an unknown establishment. It's quite interesting and ironic to see this, seeing as though Ella chose the path of identifying as white so that she could have more privilege and an easier life but the opposite happened. It's almost as if to say whiteness really won't save you. On the other side of the coin there's Tara, her older and darker skinned sister who's living a completely different life. She has a well-paying job, a nice home, and a nice car. Meanwhile Ella still lives in the south and works as a janitor by day and a caretaker for their mother by night.
The premise of the film is Ella and Tara's mother passing away, so they're forced to reunite and reconcile eventually. Upon seeing each other, it's clear that there's tension between the two, lots of unresolved feelings that have gone ignored over so many years. There's resentment and jealousy on both ends. Resentment coming from Tara towards Ella because of the fact that Ella betrayed her and ultimately ruined the bond and sisterhood they had with each other. There's jealousy on Ella's end towards Tara because Tara is living the life Ella thought she would have, but she doesn't. The roles are completely reversed now and Ella still doesn't know how to come to terms with it, so instead she projects bouts of insecurities and jealousy whenever she interacts with Tara.
Upon Tara's arrival, Ella's greeting is immediately laced with passive aggression and vindictiveness. "What you doin' down here? That big city job of yours don't need you no more?" It's clear that she's projecting because they both know why Tara is back home; their mother is dead and a funeral needs to be planned and attended. It has nothing to do with Tara's job but Ella brought it up anyway because she's a hater, simply put.
When they were kids, things were very different between them in both good and bad ways. In a good way because they were close, they did everything together everyday. Bad because with Ella being pretty much white-passing (though it's sort of subjective), she had a completely different outlook on the world and sought out different things despite Tara knowing better than that, and telling Ella to stop being so naive. That social difference eventually caused a great divide between the two of them.
It seems that as a child Ella liked to push those boundaries of whiteness, she liked to walk the fine line between blackness and whiteness. She happily swam in that grey area any chance she could get just so she could test the waters and see if she really could exist in this world as a white person. It's like every morning she woke up and was like, "Hmm how can I try to be something I'm not and do what white folks do without getting caught?" Her first instance of doing that was when she decided to ignore the sign on the tree telling her not to go any further in order to avoid the white people in that area and Tara tells her the same thing.
She retorts by saying, "Daddy says we got a bit of white in us anyways from way back." It's funny too because she's the only person in their small family of 4 who's that pale, everyone else is dark skinned. So either somebody been cheating or she has a recessive gene cause she looks borderline albino.
But anyway, it was clear in that scene that Ella was willing to take whatever she had and knew, and roll with it. She took that saying to heart and with her pale skin? Of course she became enamored with the idea of being a white person. It meant more opportunities and access to privilege. No more having to walk the long way to school, using the "Blacks Only" bathroom that didn't have soap, being bullied, no more having to constantly walk on eggshells 24/7 out of fear of being treated differently for her blackness. Ella wanted a carefree life where she didn't have to worry about race or being held back from it, and she believed identifying as white would bring her that ease. I feel like she also thought that identifying as white would bring her an easy and ideal life economically speaking that she wouldn't have to work towards like Tara did, it's like she thought whiteness was the key to success. The end all be all.
Ella pushed those boundaries again by using a "Whites Only" bathroom thinking no one would see her, but she got caught by a bunch of Bubble Bass, piglet looking white girls. Then her and Tara got harassed and bullied in public for it, and Tara was fed up. She immediately reminded Ella that she's not white and they will never see her as such, which was clearly indicated by the incident that had just happened. But Ella didn't listen because she was determined to make her all American dream happen, with or without her sister by her side.
After the girls switched to an all-white school, that's when everything went left. Ella was so desperate to fit in that she told her peers she was white and she made friends instantly because of it. That last scene on the tracks where Ella and her friends confronted Tara was probably the most important scene in that movie to me. To see Ella literally get in between her sister and her friends, then push her sister away said a million words. Not only did Ella injure her sister and leave her with a scar that will be a reminder for years to come about how her little sister chose whiteness over her own flesh and blood, but that scene was a literal signifier of how Ella nailed their relationship in the coffin. That day their bond was completely broken beyond repair and the only one to blame for that is Ella.
That scene was honestly a lot, it made me wanna cry. Seeing Ella join in with her racist hillbilly friends, throwing rocks at her own sister and calling her a nigger. Hard R. It was also scary too because it shows you just how much of a violent and infectious disease whiteness is. Ella got a taste of white privilege and it was like crack for her, she was willing to do anything to keep it including commit hate crimes towards her own sister only for her to end up as a janitor. It was all for naught.
"Seeing Tara again, the way it was don't really cut it no more. Then you're forced to reconcile with past transgressions." Years and years later Ella realized her light skinned/white passing privilege wasn't worth it cause she didn't get anywhere in life. She ruined the only relationship she had left with her closest relative and didn't get to live out the dreams she'd hoped for. She placed entirely too much hope in and importance on whiteness, thinking it would be her golden ticket to a good life when that's just not how it works sometimes. And may I remind you that it was 1964 at the time that Ella decided to completely abandon her blackness to put it into perspective.
It was a time when the Civil Rights Movement was still taking place, their father had actually died while participating. They were still very young and this was when change really began to happen. Ella's decision to pass as white would only help her for so long, probably only for a few years before society did a complete 180. At that point you didn't have to be just white or light anymore to get ahead, you had a chance if you weren't one of those things. The playing field was a bit more leveled now and you weren't completely constrained because of whiteness. I don't think Ella really thought ahead about her future based on how much emphasis she placed on presenting as white. Tara on the other hand, went to college up North as soon as she got the chance and didn't look back. And to be real, it's not like she had much of a choice either as a dark skinned black woman. We aren't really afforded that luxury of being able to wing life and hope for the best, we always have to work twice as hard with a concrete plan because our skin alone still holds us back.
I think this film was ultimately a lesson on how aspiring to whiteness isn't the key to life.. Abandoning your Blackness and the essence of who you are will only do you a disservice in the end. Sometimes cooning can pan out well and get you higher up, but what goes up must come down and that downfall is inevitable and never pretty. I know people still think that you have to play the game to win but sometimes people go too far and forget who they are in the process and it has terrible consequences. You become broken inside and lose yourself as well as those around you, you're disconnected because you're trying to be something you're not and never will be. I want you all to continue to work towards loving your Blackness and being 100% comfortable in it, not ever turning it down and diluting it for anyone or anything. It's never worth it. Ain't nothing better than making it and being able to say you stayed true to yourself and kept it a bean, you feel me? Cool.