As a result of my work and personal networks, I frequently meet teachers, scholars, lawyers, and non-profit leaders who consider themselves activists in some fashion. Focusing on topics from educational inequity to LGBTQ rights, they are keenly aware of issues of race, class, gender and socioeconomic status that influence the lives of the people for whom they claim to be advocates. Like any good activist, these folks are consistently focused on and, some might say, uniquely sensitive to social, cultural and political statements and policies that carry any level of bias based on a variety of identities and are fervently outspoken when they are standing guard as watchdogs and find the slightest infraction in action or rhetoric.
Regardless of how loud you might think they are, we need activists today, just as we needed them fifty years ago. They hold our nation and our world accountable for ensuring that we are progressing in a way that is truly meaningful for all people and they force us to avoid resting on our laurels because things are simply better than they once were.
Anyone who reads my work or engages in a one hour conversation with me about politics might call me an activist. Though I'm not opposed to assigning that word to my role in some capacity, I feel that the term has been terribly abused and misused and needs redefining.
What I have concluded based on my own personal reflections, is that those of us who have been called or dare to call ourselves activists must prepare to move into the next and perhaps most spiritually radical phase of activism: turning inward.
Yes I am an advocate concerned about the state of Black boys in the American education system and the humanity of Black men in the criminal justice system. I'm also a critically thinking brother of three Black women concerned with the systemic forms of racism and sexism that influence their life opportunities. All of these things are indeed parts of who I am as a writer and thinker, but while I hold views about the external factors that impact conditions for these specific populations, I also hold internal racial and patriarchal views that I need to wrestle with in my own journey.
As someone who is deeply concerned about the biases and hetero-normative policies that shape the experiences of queer Americans, I also struggle to reconcile my own ideas about masculinity and gender roles, just as I see the results of classicism in my own community while still holding what others can reasonably consider classist perspectives.
I can tell you from personal experience, that turning my focus from the external analysis of what bell hooks describes as an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy” and seeing all of the mess I’ve been conditioned to hold within me has been painful. It can be heartbreaking if your identity is partially or fully wrapped up in the views you hold of yourself as anti-something only to discover that you are to some extent, no matter how small, also breathing life into the very thing you seek to eliminate.
It can be haunting when you realize that not only do you hold contradictory views and experiences but that you also have no clear understanding of how to reconcile them and what it might mean for your work if the enemy on which you have held a laser-like focus is indeed a part of your very being. Still we must interrogate our own identities in an effort to save both ourselves and others from the social ills we believe to be detrimental to our people.
Who and what are you when you strip away your activist robes? Who and what are you when you step off the stage? When the day is done and you take off every pin and button with some sarcastic, witty political statement written in a color designed to catch the eyes and provoke the minds of others, what can you say for and about yourself? Where is it that you stand when no one is watching or listening?
When the cameras are not near, when your phone is dead and you are walking through what most would consider to be a “dangerous” neighborhood and you hear a little voice in your head begin to speak, what does it have to say?
Activists must continue to be outspoken, but in this time, in the this place, where we find ourselves battling for equality an ever changing world, leaders and thinkers, of all walks, must move from just being outspoken to also being "inspoken," that is we must learn to speak to and from the raw and imperfect person within us who is not concerned with what others on the outside might think about our own terrifying truths.
We have to be courageous enough to see ourselves with the same critical eye we have cultivated to see the world. This is the next phase of activism. It’s the intimate and deeply disrupting act of looking inward and asking ourselves what diseases we carry in our own bodies for which we are also working tirelessly to create a cure. When we fight we, must fight to save ourselves.