Kameryn Carter '19
“Progressive art can…propel people toward social emancipation.”
Among family members, my nickname is either “Angela Davis” or “Debate Team”. Both of these names refer to my ability to turn any dinner table into a platform for voicing my rage at the world’s response to my Black existence. Once I get started, I am unmitigated and unrelenting. I have always felt like a radical activist, as I inhabit most spaces in this way. It has only very recently occurred to me that others may not view me as an activist in the least, let alone a radical one.
In a time dominated by a devastating amount of brutal murders committed by police against Black people, I find myself confronted with an equally devastating amount of Facebook invites to vigils, protests and rallies. In the year I spent off campus, it seemed that every weekend there was another event. In that time, I attended only one. This summer, I went to Boston to visit my best friend. We sat at her kitchen counter and in a very low voice she said, There’s a protest this afternoon. I asked her if she wanted to go. She said I know you don’t do well at those things, so we don’t have to go if you don’t want to, but I’d like to. I had been emotionally drained by recent events. Both Philando Castile and Alton Sterling had just been murdered, and I had ingested an overwhelming amount of graphic media in the days following. And in those days, I had nowhere to put thoughts and feelings that felt as if they would burst open the top of my head.
I couldn’t write just yet. So I decided I would go.
I have always felt an immense if not unbearable amount of discomfort at protests, vigils and rallies. I felt that this discomfort was selfish and trivial, so for a long time I forced myself to attend. Though I felt no comfort and catharsis, I would stand in solidarity with others who were also in pain and grieving, celebrating and hoping. But in recent years I realized that the reason I went was not solely to stand in support, but because I felt rather deeply that the ways in which I processed suffering were invalid. I thought that my poems and essays did nothing to participate in the urgent fight for Black lives. Perhaps I thought that working through my grief in writing was simply an exercise in privilege and should therefore be dismissed.
My friend and I rode the bus to Roxbury, a predominantly Black neighborhood of Boston. There was a group of people gathered near the bus station, one of them with a megaphone, others in neon vests handing out fliers and pamphlets. Cops lined the perimeter of the bus station. We stayed close together so neither of us got lost in the crowd and the man with the megaphone announced that we would begin walking. We walked what felt like the length of the entire city. We sang, we chanted, we prayed. We blocked off the streets with our bodies as cops rode adjacent. People cried and some were silent. Cops followed us the whole way. It should have felt cathartic, but for me, it didn’t. I felt only hungry and tired and cold. I understand the need for these spaces. I can conceptualize what it must feel like to stand among people in solidarity and in grief and desperation for change. In hope. But I didn’t feel that solidarity resonating in my body. I didn’t feel relief or comfort. I felt pervasive alienation because of what I didn’t feel.
I asked a Black woman who is also a poet if she ever felt a pull toward “activism proper”, if she ever felt like doing the majority of her grieving and processing within the space of her work wasn’t enough. She said no. She essentially told me that because I am Black, everything I do is political. Everything I write is Black, regardless of the subject matter. In this way, my work is activism. I will always be a poet, this is my inclination and my work is always implicated in political dialogue. Writing is the primary way in which I process the world, so why would race or violence be any different?
After I talked with her, I began to feel for the first time that my work was enough. In reality, art and activism have always been inextricable from one another. Of course, every political revolution has been coupled with an artistic one. So, what does it mean to be an activist? I cannot help but hear the word “active” within it. Often, I cannot help but feel that I am so passive, that I am hiding behind my laptop or within the safe walls of academia in some way. I feel that I am engaging in some act of betrayal because my methods of processing trauma manifest differently than others. I wonder if people think I feel nothing because I often don’t attend events on campus, because my poems are not always directly grappling with my racial identity. The truth is that I feel so much, and am always grappling. Does my work actively participate in discourse and in some meaningful way contribute to the larger fight for Black lives? I know now that the answer is yes. The definition of activism must be spacious enough to allow for complexity. This does not mean that I will never attend another protest, vigil or rally. It just means that until then, after and always, I can keep analyzing, deconstructing, grieving, processing and being on the page. And that is enough.