activism

What Julian Bond Had to Say about Non Voters and Wings on Frogs

Colleagues throughout the years have argued with me about non voters. I’ve heard it from teachers who answer the call to civic duty every day, grad students frustrated with apathetic communities and activists who spend their days knocking on doors asking for one simple act when the day comes. They all tell me that those who don’t vote have no right to complain.

First I contemplate this right to complain. I know my colleagues are as true to the freedom of expression as they are to the responsibility of voting. This idea that anyone in the United States has surrendered their right to complain will always hit me as absurd.

A system error. If allowed to stand as true it would bring the whole program crashing down. We wouldn’t be who we say we are.

I will argue for an individual’s right to complain as well as an individual’s right to skip the vote. If the rest of us are so damn smart, why haven’t we convinced the non voters that voting actually matters? That voting isn’t just a civic obligation that we talk about like Mass on Sunday but that it actually makes a difference to their interests.

However, at an event this week I heard Julian Bond compare those who don’t vote to wings on frogs. And I applauded with the rest of the packed auditorium. I had been laughing with them. Shaking my head with them. 10955797_10155093619450167_2864420614346220083_o

Watching Bond speak was an interactive experience. You had to get caught up in it. And who thinks they can argue with Julian Bond?

Throughout his remarks Bond expertly paired all the celebrated triumphs of the Civil Rights movement with the stories of activists who lost their lives right alongside those celebrated headlines. From his own perspective he said that the second Brown decision ruling against segregated schools didn’t mean anything to him. What occupied his mind was the story of Emmet Till who was only a few months older than him. That, Bond said, was what he needed to know and it terrified him.

I had to consider what a privilege it is for so many of us to think that a court case decided the right way could change the world. I don’t think a magical moment of full turnout can change the world either. What matters is how we think of each other. How we then treat one another.

Bond turned that story from his childhood around with his memories of the Little Rock Nine. That was the kind of story he wanted for himself. He shared one mother’s story of wringing spit out of her young daughter’s clothes. The all white high school she would attend was nearby but her path was lined with crowds who yelled and spit. So many young people covered unimaginable distances. Bond referred to these stories as the stories of “the people who made the movement mighty.”

He concluded his remarks with a call for an activist movement. Activists don’t stop at threats, at the obstacles in the path or even at apathetic neighbors. I’m still not going to hassle you too much if you don’t vote. But I sure as hell hope you’ll find something you’re passionate about and get involved with it. Deeply involved in it as though it could be your chance to save the world.

As though we can teach those frogs to fly.

Ubuntu and the Birthplace of Cool

I’ve been recently reminded that my own activism has roots in the campaigns for Africa in the 80’s. I convinced my mother to make a donation so I could order a Live Aid t-shirt. I’m sure she hoped the purchase would buy her some quiet time but it wasn’t about the t-shirt for me. I wanted to be a part of something. The t-shirt connected me to concerts in the U.S. and Great Britain, so I wasn’t going to leave the TV when the concert was broadcast.

I know I announced each performer to the whole house. I was convinced my parents and siblings must care as much as I did. I reveled in the idea that music could change the world as Queen, U2, Elton John and George Michael performed. The memorials of Michael Jackson took me back to a few of those moments and Bono’s recent op-ed in the NY Times brings the question of music changing the world back down to earth.

Well, there is a moment where he suggests a tourism slogan for Ghana, “the birthplace of cool” where he imagines “the music of Miles and the conversation of Kofi.” This isn’t the most grounded moment of the piece but demonstrates Bono’s ability to toggle between the celestial possibilities and gritty facts. He celebrates what Ghana has contributed to the world of music and walks through its political and economic accomplishments. Bono suggests Ghana is the new face of Africa where aid money makes the difference we all hoped it would. He looks to the news from the G-8 summit and calls for more aid for Africa. He pleads to a world he believes should see itself in the success and failure in Africa:

Africa is not just Barack Obama’s homeland. It’s ours too. The birthplace of humanity. Wherever our journeys have taken us, they all began there. The word Desmond Tutu uses is “ubuntu”: I am because we are. As he says, until we accept and appreciate this we cannot be fully whole.

This question of wholeness and the suggestion that one people’s success or failure reveals the nature of people in countries far away resonate with the work of the National Academy. Music is a representation of our experience, the world as we know it and sometimes imagine it to be. Changing the world still requires people who are moved by the music and the words to take action. Bono uses both and recurs to political ideals recognizable across international boundaries.