By Ahmed Latif
The events of the Civil Rights Movement unfolded in Selma, Alabama in 1965, but the passing of the Voting Rights Act later that year does not equate the achievement of social justice. Unrest following police brutality and the systematic violent discrimination against minorities are as commonplace today as they were in the 1960s. The answer that Martin Luther King and Malcolm X highlighted to this social problem is societal engagement. It is seen in Ava DuVernay’s 2014 Civil Rights film Selma, but it is not a shockingly new answer. Engaging the public in a conversation of what kind of society we want to be requires more than the storm of righteous indignation and bouts of apathy we see in social media presently.
Engagement was a instrumental in the battle against the heinous institution of slavery, long before the American Civil War. Many freed or escaped slaves provided their narratives to international audiences in the 18th Century to engage society in a fundamental discussion of who we are? Olaudah Equiano provides us with one of the first and oldest slave narratives. It is not an easy or joyous read. Yet it is a powerful and jarring narrative, frightfully relevant and dedicated to keeping alive the memory of humanity’s worst and the hope for humanity’s best. This inspiring tale of unbearable pain and human resilience highlights the impotence and ignorance of a society that does not engage in a more inclusive and peaceful dialogue. Conflict may be more prevalent in human society as a means to an end, but it is never more conclusive in ending turmoil nor is it more productive in building a better tomorrow.
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African was first published in 1789. It is a momentously grim description of his years in slavery. It depicts his attempts at freedom, education, and his spiritual search for answers. Equiano writes not for literary acclaim but for spiritual emancipation from the shadows of his past. The very same shadows that haunted him from his childhood in West Africa to adulthood in the Americas and England.
He is robbed of freedom both physically and intellectually. His thesis on slavery is both gloriously and morbidly relevant. Slavery robs the slave of power leading them to the most futile of actions; but it also corrupts the master with power leading them to the most egregious of actions. Slavery creates monsters and madman from ordinary people. Equiano essentially reminds the reader that the worst action to be taken against another is to rob them of their humanity. And the worst action to be taken against oneself is lose one’s humanity.
He beckons those powerful and influential people to listen. He calls on society to acknowledge the humanity in one another rather than tear it down with hatred, ignorance, or self-righteous arrogance. A deeply religious Christian Equiano believes even after experiencing slavery for most of his life, that society can redeem itself by protecting the most vulnerable and marginalized. The book is not long and is available for free courtesy Project Gutenberg. So pick a rainy day, discover this narrative as many others have for hundreds of years, examine your own positions, your biases, your world, and engage your society in a fruitful discussion. Who are we? What kind of society do we want to be? How are we treating those in need? And how do we want to treat each other?
Equiano is compelled by his faith to never cease hoping. I beseech each and every one of you to speak to one another. Hope is not a result of violence but of language; and not language that lends itself to the basest of ideas or the decrepit order enforced by feebleminded ignorance. Hope is in the meaning and credence that we lend to such revered ideals as equality regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or economic status. Such ideals are never befuddled by the fear-mongers who demonize others or the simpletons who employ the politics of fear and division. If there is anything at all that one can be so ardently passionate about, it is the right of everyone to feel included in society; for life on the margins is ever so bleak. And as Equiano taught us humanity can survive in the margins but it thrives at the heights, possessed by refined ideals and moved to converse on culture and the collective.