Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Akwi Nji on choosing justice over comfort

Our role as Americans is to work for social justice and against mistreatment and hate, however uncomfortable it may be for us or to others who see such work as directed at them, said Akwi Nji, a Cedar Rapids writer and performance artist who was the keynote speaker at St. Paul's United Methodist Church's annual Martin Luther King Day celebration. She drew on the example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who she said chose discomfort in the cause of justice, such as when he alienated his own allies by taking a stand against the Vietnam War in 1967.

Nji compared society to a seesaw; the "teeter-totter" was a staple of playgrounds past although maybe not as much anymore. The operation of a seesaw requires two people to work in tandem, each using their own weight to allow the other to go up in turn--a reciprocal process involving roughly "equal weight and equal work." "That is our only option," she argued in applying the metaphor, as no individual can remain always at the top. "If we insist on playing alone we'll always find ourselves at the bottom," no matter how much money we have or how fabulous our house.

Seesaw, from
"Offering the weight that might help others to soar" means working with organizations we believe in, however we can. There is "never a reason to rest" working together for social justice; "it doesn't have to be every day but it should be most days." She referenced an essay recently published on the web platform ExtraNewsfeed, in which she described an encounter with a racist at a restaurant. She realized afterwards, based on the number of people who approached her to offer sympathy, that numerous people at the restaurant "heard [what the racist was saying] and believed it was wrong but did not step in." While others who were not present have told her they would have stood up for her had they been there, she is understandably dubious. "We'd all like to think we would [speak up], but a lot stands in our way." Most of those obstacles are fears--of losing face, of giving offense, maybe of getting hit. King faced fears, too; his house was bombed in 1956 and death threats were constant.

Here is Nji at her most challenging. She began her address by reminding her audience that "This is our America," including all, "whether you were born here or not." She said she "still believes in our country" at the close of the Obama administration, because she trusts most of our fellow citizens and that Dr. King was right when he said "the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice." But she added that justice "won't happen on its own," and asked her listeners two basic questions: What do you stand for? With whom do you stand?

I personally feel challenged by Ms. Nji's questions. Last spring, I explained that I feel a particular calling to critical analysis; I also see my work as a college professor to be a professional explainer of phenomena, of people to each other. But at what point do events make that stance untenable? Here on Holy Mountain, I stand for an inclusive community, as opposed to a collection of atomized individuals or hostile groups, in which every individual has the opportunity to live his or her best life. I stand with those whose opportunities are limited, by circumstance or by the greed and judgment of others. But a blogger like me has the luxury to do careful reasoning and research. That doesn't forestall people calling me a communist or a hater, but it allows me to stand on fairly solid argumentative ground. Many of my blog posts even come with citations! It's altogether different to imagine myself intervening in a conversation in the next booth over, which is irritating but also seemingly private. I mean, in my confrontation with this lout, where would the citations go?

It's enough to make me doubt third places, although the prophet Ray Oldenburg describes a true third place as one where everyone in the place is part of a community that, among other things, enforces social norms (The Great Good Place [DaCapo, 2nd ed, 1999, 75-80). I doubt the lout who harassed Ms. Nji is big on social norms, but surely he was counting on being able to conduct his harassment without being interrupted.

So what do you stand for? With whom do you stand? And how do you make that stand?

SEE ALSO: Akwi Nji, "A Night in the Life of a Black Woman," ExtraNewsfeed, 11 January 2017
Soo Oh, "How to Intervene When You See Street Harassment: An Illustrated Guide," Vox, 21 January 2017
Mariah Porter, "Coe Celebrates MLK," The Cosmos (Coe College), 20 January 2017, 1, 3
Makayla Tendall, "MLK Day Celebration Focuses on the Power to Change Community," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 16 January 2017

"Claudia Rankine on Race," 23 January 2016
"Speakers Raise Tough Issues at Coe MLK Celebration," 19 January 2015
"The Race Card Project," 12 February 2014

Rev. Jonathan Heifner of St. Paul's convenes the gathering
Judah Praise from Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church provided music

Imam Hassan Selim of the Islamic Center (right)
accepts the 2017 Percy & Lileah Harris "Who is My Neighbor" Award
Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church Choir provided music and amusement

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