I saw, “Selma,” yesterday, and in many ways, I am still processing it all – I should add that, even 24 hours later, I am also still a total mess. I wept through 60% of the film, and, of course, this experience was following me finally getting around to watching, “The Normal Heart,” the night before (and, “Whitney,” the night before that – which, as we know, is arguably unrelated). “The Normal Heart,” also did something deep for me. Still processing, still understanding, still moving forward.
Please note, this post is not a review of either film, despite a number of thoughts and questions and challenges now entering the post-movie provocation phase.
This post is about activism.
Last year, I made the decision to change my social media and blog profiles to identify myself with the label, “Activist.” It hit me shortly after some work I was doing on an Incident Team, with the reminder that, if you see or feel or know something is not right – and you choose to speak up – you are an activist. And, furthermore, if you care – even of the presumably smallest things – your ‘damn’ is enough.
And, thus, a full embrace.
When I was growing up, I was told, “People with the biggest mouths get into the biggest trouble.” My mouth was big, and it didn’t stop moving. “VERY SOCIAL,” and, “VERY TALKATIVE,” my teachers would warn my parents of my potential downfall.
When I was growing up, I fought for the underdog. I befriended the kid in my class who was living with autism, challenged rules around the age in which students could compete in the “Jump Rope for Heart” competition, and headlined an improv group full of teens addressing drug/alcohol abuse, depression, and other social issues (“STOP: Students Taking On Problems”).
When I was growing up, I was ultra conscious of my big mouth, easily fighting off the stereotype of, “extremist,” or, “too liberal.” I knew I was not the former, however while growing up on a military base in conservative central Oklahoma, one often pauses in fear of, “rocking the boat.” I was often told activists were the odd ones, and, “extremist,” “activist,” and, “oppressor,” were often one united identity.
I was told activists were Black.
Activists were queer.
Activists were women with armpit hair who waved their bras in the air and let their breasts race for their belly button.
And in the most diverse way, I identified with each of these expectations. I found figures and stories to believe in – some silently supporting – while remaining hopeful that I, too, could have my moment someday. That I could be an activist, and be okay with all that came with this stressful identity. Embarrassingly, I must admit, it was not until I saw, “Hairspray,” in tenth grade that I finally understood what a peaceful protest really looked like. It was, “Hairspray,” that rocked me. It was, “Hairspray,” that taught my fifteen year old self that all of this – this, caring and pushing and believing – was worth something. And, though cliche, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.
Let’s pause here for a moment. Yes, you read that correctly. Tracy Turnblad helped me understand what it meant to truly stand up for something when you know it to be right. Of course, MLK and Malcolm X and Harvey Milk all showed me this in the historical context, however watching “activism” happen live became something I could never forget. And I took this memory with me through high school, college, and beyond.
One sunday afternoon when I lived in Los Angeles several years ago, one of my roommates (and now, a very dear friend) came downstairs and asked me to join her in protesting California Proposition 8 (or, “Prop 8,” on the streets). Despite juggling my own identity and political development occurring at this particular time, I joined my friend and saw, first hand, the heart and soul behind the fight for marriage equality. I had never seen so much passion and emotion as I did that day (much like that of the raw experience created in, “Hairspray”).
This specific friend still inspires me to this day, and is constantly on the front lines of our country’s need to make change. Hell, it is not uncommon to find this sweet friend still debating social issues, picketing corrupt politicians, and engaging in twitter wars with crooks. She serves with confidence, and taught me that activism is about speaking up, even when you’re scared to death (in a, speak-up-even-if-your-voice-trembles-or-whatever-that-quote-is-anyway, sentiment).
Because, my voice does tremble.
My voice does shake.
And, speaking up isn’t always easy, regardless of the context. Whereas my life as a motor-mouth kid from the Air Force Base may appear to be engaged thoughtfully and confidently, it’s not uncommon for me to still be scared out of my mind. In fact, sometimes speaking up for one’s self, solo, can be even harder than having a hundred protesters by your side.
But you have to start somewhere.
Write down what it is that you believe in. Skim the news, debate people on twitter, post a thought-provoking article on Facebook, befriend someone different than you – these are all a start. We need more activists. We need more people to come out…and to come out as whatever, whoever. I had a friend text me the following, recently: “You see, when you care about something, you manage to make something happen.” Action.
Be something. Do something. Stand up. Give a damn. Give a whole bunch of damns. Lead a peaceful protest. Learn. Grow. Challenge your family, your critics. Be critical. Walk up to someone and engage a dialogue.
Listen when your gut screams, “This is not okay!”
There is still a lot to be done. And you can be on the front lines of change if you so choose. There is a part in the film, “Selma,” when a white man comes down from Boston to march, and someone asks him, “What brought you to Selma to join this march” (or something related to this inquiry)?
His response was concise and direct:
“I couldn’t just stand by…”
Simply put, my friends, once you know something, you can’t say that you don’t. And once you get those chills or goosebumps, you can’t ignore their provoking tension. We can no longer simply, “stand by.”
I’m willing to fight. I’m willing to push. I’m willing to care.
I am willing to act. Will you join me?