In 1968, sanitation workers in Memphis, the majority of whom were black, began a strike that would change the course of American history. By its end, the workers had won guarantees to better wages and union recognition from the city council. But in one of the most ghastly counter-acts of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., who had travelled to the city to show support, was dead, assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.
King’s assassination is widely covered in school history books, but the workers’ struggle that brought King to Memphis — as well as the experience of the average black person living in America in that era — is less regularly examined. Now, a new VR experience hopes to make those resistance efforts a little more real. Derek Ham, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at North Carolina State University, is the creator of “I Am A Man”, which takes users to the front lines of the Memphis sanitation workers strike by putting you in the body of one of the protesters, and taking you through a series of interactive vignettes leading up to the assassination of King.
I must admit — when I first heard of the project I thought, “Wow, what a terrible idea.” Black pain and trauma has been captured in VR before, with mixed results. When a VR game that reenacts the murder of Trayvon Martin came out a couple years ago, that idea struck me as particularly tasteless. But as I learned more about “I Am A Man” I became interested in the potential historical reenactments may have for good, especially as more and more evidence emerges of VR’s effective use in treating PTSD and anxiety disorders.
The game was developed with an award from the Oculus Launch Pad competition, which focuses on sponsoring VR creators from marginalized communities, and will soon be installed in the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis in time for the 50th anniversary of MLK’s assassination. Ham spoke to The Outline about the project and his hopes for VR’s potential use by diverse storytellers.
What inspired you to create this VR experience?
I've been working with VR for a while, and in my work I’ve migrated from looking at spaces to looking at events and people.This project started with looking at an old photo and saying: What was it like to be there? How could VR transport us there? I remember looking at the classic picture of the balcony in the Lorraine Motel and thinking about those people there, all the events that were happening. That spurred my curiosity of developing little vignette scenes. It was just kind of serendipitous — my interest in looking at telling a story and then an opportunity opening up for me to apply for the Launch Pad competition.
Did you see problems with how we learn about the Civil Rights Movement now?
Yes, absolutely. One of the things that I love that I was able to do with this project is to give yourself the hands of a black man. Talking with people who are who are non-black, that’s the first time they were ever able to look down and see black hands, in a way that’s respectful. We don't want people painting themselves in blackface and going out in the streets and saying I want to think about what it was like in the Civil Rights [Era]. It’s disrespectful. But VR is able to bring you in that space.
For the first time, I think for a lot of people — when they experience this experience versus looking at a documentary or film — hopefully they’ll identify on a one to one kind of relational way. “What would it be like for me to wake up in the morning? What is it like living in this country as a black person?” Looking down at their hands [and] having a new thought that kind of closes that gap between just having sympathy for someone else, and trying to think about seeing the world through their shoes, through their eyes, through their hands. I think that’s what VR could do, and this is only the starting point. Other people hopefully will look at my experience and see things that worked, see things that didn’t work, and we’ll start to hopefully unravel a new form of narrative through the lenses of directly through the subject matter you want to talk about.
It seems like along with all the potential for good there is, there are so many risks. How did you navigate issues of desensitization to the gravity of the subject because it is in VR? Or people’s feelings that after going through the experience they truly know what it was like to be black in the 60s?
I had the benefit of connecting with the National Civil Rights Museum, and that’s what they do all the time in traditional media. Museums tell stories, and they present you context to think about that space. I went to Memphis and I visited the Civil Rights Museum. They use a lot of physical statues that put you on the one-to-one scale. There’s a bus where you can sit; Rosa Parks is there as a full-scale bronze statue, and you can literally sit beside Rosa Parks there. There is a bus driver there and they use audio on the bus to give you an overlay of what it was like for her to sit on that bus, being harassed and told to move to the back.
Technically, there’s nothing stopping a young kid to sit beside Rosa Parks, put bunny ears behind her, and take a selfie. So the museum has to do things intentionally to move away from those behavior patterns to bring people into a space of being reflective and respectful. When you move through the museum you get to the actual scene where you can look through the window and see Room 306 where King [died]. Right out there on the balcony, they do explicitly put up a sign that says please be quiet, please be respectful as other people move through the space. VR is tricky because I can’t control what people do when they are in the VR experience. So I truly rely on the pacing of the VR experience in between scenes. You hear the voice of someone who went through the struggle of a sanitation worker. I was able to find audio footage of Taylor Rodgers — he’s now deceased. Hopefully, because I case these true photos in the audio overlay of this testimony, when you get into that next VR scene you're being reflective and being respectful.
At the same time I have to relax and know that I can’t control [everything]. One of the powerful things that people told me is the scene when you’re right there on the street as the marchers are walking with the I Am A Man signs. I can't stop a kid from still picking up a sign and waving it in a workers face in VR space and just kind of wilding out or throwing stuff around. I’m intentionally trying to use music, to use the audio recordings and photography to hopefully anchor you in and put you in this space of reflectivity. But it’s hard. As I said before, I relied on thinking about how museums do it already in physical space and learn[ed] from them and tried to use some of those same techniques of using music and photography and authenticity to bring you hopefully into a place that shows respect to the events that happened.
Were there other issues or concerns that came up that you weren’t expecting while you were developing this?
In one of the first iterations I was full-blown explicit and you see the whole assassination. You hear the shot, you see King’s body react to it violently and fall to the ground. With VR, it’s crazy because when you start programming it, you put the headset on, you see it, you pull out. You’re kind of going in and out as you’re editing it and playing with it.
And even when it got to a point [where] it was near perfect, it was cringing for me to see it over and over again — that explicit kind of being there. I made an editorial decision to pull away from that direction. It’s just too soon, it’s too real, it’s too violent to be up this close. And on top of that there’s no divider. When I see it in a film, I’m not in that space. I’m looking through a window, a portal. But when you’re in VR, you're right there, and VR stays with you as a memory artifact that’s spatial. So when you think about something like the assassination of King, I’m not sure if I want the spatial memory when there’s people who have already had the spatial memory.
I want to respect them. They actually lived it. So I fade to black and you hear the sound. That’s a technique that comes from theater where the action continues and you put the pieces together and then the curtains rise and you see the aftermath. So I’m pulling from that as a technique to deal with the heavy nature of this pivotal moment.
Was that a decision just you made or were there discussions that you had with other folks?
I had discussions with other folks. Very few people saw that full explicit version, but people who have seen it with the fade to black, [when] I’ve asked them would you have preferred to see it all, they say absolutely not. Several people have talked about the anxiety of that scene of standing right there outside the Lorraine Motel and see[ing] King on the balcony. People who know their history know what’s about to happen, so the sense of I can’t do anything anxiety feels there. Some people said even the shot was a lot for them to handle, so I feel comfortable that I made the right decision of not going full explicit in that type of scene.
What considerations did you have between what black users are going to get out of this versus what nonblack users are going to?
For me, that’s the biggest challenge. I haven’t read reports on full demographic studies on the ethnic background of first adopters to VR, but just from myself being in the industry, people who are using VR right now, it’s like the gaming community — it’s still a majority white community. I knew there’s a challenge for me producing VR content that’s not going to have the quick mass appeal to the majority of VR users.
However, I saw this as an opportunity to bring people to look at VR — like my parents, African-American 65-year-olds who would never put on a VR headset. Why would they? They tried VR for the first time, and my experience was one that resonated with them. I think that’s pretty cool that I could be potentially a conduit for a generation of users who in any other circumstance wouldn’t want to try on a headset to kill zombies, or other stuff that the app stores are full with.
Did you have people test it who had who were around for the sanitation worker's strike?
Not yet, but I have talked with people generationally. When [my dad] came out of the experience he said, Wow that stirred up some emotion from things that I didn’t realize I was still holding on to, as far as living through that era but not having talked about it. This triggered his mind, and triggered memories and emotions that he forgot were still there. I used TV footage [that] would have been some of the same footages that he would have seen in his youth, so talk about his being thrown back. It was powerful to have a conversation with him opening up and telling stories about that day King was assassinated and the events surrounding that. I think this could be really cool to see how people from that generation open up after having these types of experiences.
What are your hopes for the project?
When you think about the I Am A Man movement, it's amazing how some people [I talk to] are like, oh, I've never heard that. Oftentimes they skip directly to King’s assassination, and the Memphis sanitation workers and what they were trying to do becomes a footnote. So the first thing I hope is that I truly honor their story, as we’re coming on the 50th anniversary of their win against the city of Memphis where they were able to get better rights for workers. There’s still work to be done, but they were still helping push the needle forward.
Secondly, I’m hoping that this could be used as a precedent of having more black directors in VR. Amongst those who are in the space, we understand when people give you that look like: Oh, who are you? I have a master’s degree from Harvard, a Ph.D. from MIT, but when I walk in the room I still have to prove that I can do high-quality good product work. [Black developers] have an interesting spin and take in the way we deliver our storytelling, and at the end of the day it’s about storytelling. It’s just a beautiful thing to see telling stories with VR and thinking of myself as a storyteller that comes from a long tradition of a community that has told stories as our means of passing knowledge to the next generation.