RECONCILING ACTIVISM - Brantley Pruitt
We live in a noisy world these days; especially when it comes to political activism. Competing agendas can set the stage for division, watering down the chance for any large collective good. We've all likely felt it, I'm sure, undergirding our passionate talks at the dinner table, or in the news segments we catch in the early hours of the morning, and in the constant inundation of harried posts in our social media feeds. It’s a despairing homily on repeat.
Why do we feel so primed to do this? Because the news seems always to be about our identities: who is “in”, who is “out”, who belongs and who should be cast out, who should be punished and who acclaimed. Identity, of course, feels so personal; it is so personal. How we see ourselves depends on the relationship between our individual quest for personal freedom and the demands of a society conditioned to a status quo. Our identities, therefore are a projection of who we are to society, a product of either internal or external agency. Some identities are placed upon us by society; others are relational, but the ones we seem willing to fight to preserve are the ones we chose for ourselves. This is why, when we feel that our perspectives are not being brought to the table, we can feel so demoralized and adrift.
But we won’t find our way forward through panic or despair. I think we need a sense of patience and clarity to guide us as individuals as well as in our collective pursuits.
One way to resolve this conflict of competing identities and the ideologies behind them is to step back and separate people from the actions they perform and the institutions that they operate within. Nothing happens in a pure vacuum. What we should be invested in instead is criticizing the instances and abuses of power where our identities cross with the larger social framework.
One of the ways I have started doing this is to tell my accounts of witnessing societal injustices as a way of advocating for those with less privilege than me. For me, that means straddling the lines of being a queer, prep school educated, college-educated black man in the American South, with all the attendant baggage that accompanies those terms. For what it's worth, I have lived a mostly privileged life (still with its own difficulties) and have been given the ability to commune side by side with people who did not have the same advantages in life that I had.
A few years ago, I was a substitute teacher at a public high school. One of the classes I covered for a few weeks was teaching English as a Second Language.
This class was mostly filled with the undocumented children of Latino migrants. The curriculum was not adequate to get these kids’ English reading skills up to par with the district's requirements. It honestly shocked me to find out the level of poverty some of these children were coming from: two girls from the class would regularly ask the student teacher I worked with for change to get snacks from the vending machines as they could not be registered for lunch subsidies due to their immigrant status. I would come home after working with these kids feeling so constrained and angry, so unnerved by the apathy of the people in the school who let these children suffer in that way. What made it worse was that I, as a temporary visitor, had no real power to change this, or even to bring it to light when those around me had already accepted it.
However it is incidents like these that show us where the margins of society really are. For me, it is imperative that stories like these are told so people are made aware of the larger world outside our own bubbles of comfort. To invite us to understand that there are other struggles that are not just immediate to our own. Once we understand the histories, struggles, and in some cases, traumas that go along with some identities, we can better engage in stronger community building.
Yet another student comes to mind from that particular school. She was black, fifteen years old, and with enough sass to talk back to her teachers and cuss out fellow students. She refused to show up to class and never turned in her homework. I was eating lunch in the teachers' lounge and the veteran teachers intimated how much they hated her indolence, how they couldn't get through to her and how most of them were counting down the time until she would either drop out or be expelled. For some reason, she took to me, though, and I sensed that she needed a friend, or at least a teacher who would be some sort of mentor to her. She likely projected this tough-girl image as a way to hide her fears about her family life, her future and how her teachers felt about her. I tried to be as friendly as I could and respected her need for privacy in her personal life. As the semester wore on, I was surprised one day to find her walking by in the hallway after she ditched her first period class with me. She peeked her head in and said, “Mr. Pruitt, had I known you was teaching today, I wouldn't have skipped class.” I'm still taken aback by her humor and candor, and I felt guilty that I was no longer a presence in her life when I moved on from substituting. It's moments like these where you sense how much of a difference you had or could have had in someone's life. How being there for someone, even in the least noticeable way, has the potential to reap big rewards.
That's the life I strive to live and I hope you will too.
Society, as layered as it is with bureaucracy and apathy, is still a collective effort. These days there’s a lot of pressure to ignore that. But we must always be looking for the human story beneath it all. Focus on the person, the fellow human: their deeper motivations, anxieties, dreams, fears, shadows, their yearnings for true liberation. Replace the noise of division with a simple question: what is it like to be you?
Brantley Pruitt is a black, queer man who has found himself back home in his native state of South Carolina. A wannabe academic, he questions the craziness of the world.