Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Devorah Major – Defining an Activist

A post from Devorah Major, over at Red Room, caught my eye. I have written extensively about the place of literature and fiction for addressing social injustices. Ms. Major makes a great point by adding poetry to the list. She also challenges how we define an ‘activist’ and comes up with a far more inclusive definition than I had ever considered.

My ignorance with regard to poetry is pitiful. Ms. Major was the Poet Laureate of San Francisco between 2002-2006.  She is the author of Brown Glass Windows, which is the story of a multi-generational African-American family, living in San Francisco’s vibrant Fillmore District, and shares both the many layers of the family and of the city.

I don’t usually cut and paste someone’s article or post into my blog. I tend to summarize and add a quote or two. But I just cannot see how to do that here. Below is Ms. Majors post in full. There is nothing that I felt I could leave out.

“I have been chewing on what it means to be an activist about the many ways we can and do act in our lives about when and how those ways are political as well as purposeful if there is a difference between those two things or if, as is more likely,  one’s purposeful acts are defined by ones conscious or unconscious politic of life and politic of community.

Certainly one sows seeds and ties up young sprouts and further nourishes small saplings through teaching and though it may seems as only an evolutionary act there is a point when the act of helping young people to see that they can think and should reason and giving them tools to do so while helping them to not only look at but see their world, themselves in these times of “dumbing down” and blurring and testing but not evaluating, training but not educating, in these times as much if not more than, ever teaching can be a revolutionary act.

Letter writing, marching, witnessing, giving money to a cause are all kinds of activism- but front lines taking over buildings for the homeless, striking and shutting down industries, seem to me to be a deeper kind of activism.  But then again, when I look at Egypt I see that for them just showing up is a far more revolutionary act than it is for me. Poetry is very much a revolutionary act. http://revolutionaryfrontlines.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/egypts-revolutio…
There, as in much of the world, writing a poem, making a speech, releasing a blog entry can lead to beatings, prison, death.

I know some real revolutionaries.  People who don’t just bandy about the word but live their lives forwarding people’s struggle in word and deed.  Kiilu Nyasha kiilunyasha.blogspot.com/ was struck by a degenerative disease which has left her in a wheel chair for over two decades.  Despite the extreme weakness in her limbs she continues to teach, write, produce radio shows, connect people, make sure that struggles for people’s liberation are moved forward.

Yet what of those who spend most of their time holding family together, caring for elders, seeing that children are fed, guiding teens- is this not also a kind of activism?  In a country where we are constantly told to go for self, where radio and television ads actually applaud and celebrate selfishness is there a kind of activism that exists in just doing for others, caring for others, tending to the needs of others?

What of those elders who in the 70’s would not dream of becoming a member of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense but would, and sometimes did, hide a member in their home, protect a member, stand guard.  Were they not activists, maybe even revolutionaries?

In these times I think we all, and when I say we I am saying me and thee, need to become more active in the greater world.  But I also think that we need to be broad in what that definition of activism is.  Yet as a writer, as a poet who is a member of the Revolutionary Poets Brigade, I am sure that writing the poem, reading the poem, however clear the political thrust, however skillful the craft, however profound the vision is simply not enough.”


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/

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