By Kristin Couch •
Reading Zora Neale Hurston and Audre Lorde led me to question myself about the stance I take on activism. These writers represent two polar ideals of being that I have struggled to find identification with. Zora Neale, my humanist hero who finds that everyone should enjoy being in her company, and Audre, my radical writer who so eloquently speaks about the struggles of being a Black lesbian. By reading their works, I have been inclined to ask a question: should I navigate life not giving so much attention to personal discrimination for the sake of personal peace, or rather, should I express myself and consistently acknowledge injustice? Two questions have been posed by former colleagues that led me to answer.
Despite racism on both micro- and macro-levels, Zora Neale seems to find solace in her being. Her positivity and strength proved useful considering the time period she lived in. Perhaps her positive affect is a sign of a resiliency. Zora Neale Hurston’s perspective of focusing on positivity and keeping busy in her work allowed her to move through her life without being hindered mentally by the effects of racism. She was aware of its provisions and under what conditions she was “supposed” to work under, but created her own way and succeeded. And above all else, she had her own loving and welcoming community to and share her experiences with.
By no means am I saying that we do not acknowledge the losses of Sandra Bland, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tamir Rice, Nino Fortson, or Michael Brown. By no means am I saying that we can’t grieve the loss of others due to police brutality and other extreme racist and sexist practices. However, we cannot let these tragedies submit us into learned helplessness in which we are constantly grieving; paralyzed in our pain and stuck believing that nothing will change in our communities. We can use our devastations as motivations to make the necessary changes we desperately need. Move forward, as Zora Neale did, never forgetting what has been done, and using what we have to make change.
In continuing the conversation about using what we have, the question of expressing oppression arises. The last question reads:
According to Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2000), an act can only be oppressive when it prevents people from being more fully human. A typical combat against oppression is the practice of inclusion. A sign of an oppressed group, which can manifest in the form of exclusion, is when a group finds it necessary to make themselves known to be different from the majority. Black Nationalism, for example, became a space for some Black Americans to have their specific needs addressed. Freire discussed rebellion by the oppressed, whether consciously or subconsciously, an act which is always or nearly always as violent as the initial violence of the oppressor, can initiate love. The rebellious act is rooted in the desire for the oppressed to become fully human. A right that had not been afforded from the beginning.
Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals (1989) claims ethical means doing what is best for the most. Calling attention to our experiences of injustice is oppression expression and is for the greater good of our community. Alinsky presents a series of rules that pertains to the means and ends to making changes in an oppressive system. His tenth rule of the ethics of means and ends is doing what you can with what you have at the time and “clothe it with moral garments” when the action is over. In other words, at the sum we are suffering from oppression, and wanting a revolution, we need to do what we can in the moment. At the time of Michael Brown’s death, the people of Ferguson immediately began protesting the police force. All they had were their pain, presence, and voices.
Expressing oppression is healthy for those who suffer from it. Audre Lorde dealt with discrimination from being a Black lesbian woman in a time period of much resistance to acceptance. Her way of dealing with her oppression was through writing. Even as she was living with a cancer diagnosis she would write. In the way writing was cathartic to Lorde, expressing ourselves heals us as well. Personally, discussing micro aggressions and observations of race interactions helps me to understand my environment on a deeper level. In social situations I can observe a person being uncomfortable around me. Not because of something I did, but a projection of their beliefs or a lack of understanding of who I am as a Black woman. Discussion can lead to understanding which in turn, can lead to healing, which I believe was Lorde’s goal.
There may be a few reasons why we might be hesitant to talk about oppression. Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed discussed self-depreciation being a characteristic of the oppressed because it is derived from internalized opinions from the oppressor. Self doubt may cause people to lose faith in their own experiences. Freire said, “Almost never do they realize that they, too, “know things” they have learned in their relations with the world and with other women and men”. Some may doubt their experiences, some may feel responsible for being oppressed, some may even feel the only way to express oppression is through violence. In response to that, Freire proposes “With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun. Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators, if they themselves are the result of violence?”.
Oppression can be particularly difficult for oppressors to talk about. A way to avoid the discussion is to deny it altogether. Colorblindness is such a tactic. Meritocracy, even with the best motivations behind it, still neglects the factor of privilege. Efforts in trying to avoid the discussion of racism are in vain: racism and oppression are everywhere.
In conclusion, I return to my original dilemma posed by Zora Neale Hurston and Mother Lorde. However, I do not have to exist in doing either or. I am capable of speaking, writing, and expressing about injustices when necessary while maintaining a reserve of happiness to pull from. Zora Neale was well aware of oppression but it did not control her; her self confidence could not be denied. However, Lorde made it her life’s work to write about various forms of oppression and empowered herself by doing so. I choose to exist in both spaces. I control my peace and I’ll continue to stand for justice.
Alinsky, S. (1989) Rules for radicals: A pragmatic primer for realistic radicals. New York: Vintage Books.
Freire, P. (2000) Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Bloomsbury.
Kristin Couch is a Licensed Master Social Worker working in Atlanta. She hopes to continue using her freelance writing as a tool for provoking thoughtful dialogue evoking change.