Once again, an interesting juxtaposition of birthdays which have set my thoughts racing. This morning, I'm thinking about how we, as humans and artists, respond to oppression and injustice.
Today is the birthday of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Have you read this book recently? I read it the summer before 8th grade, and I remember being powerfully moved by the plight of all the slaves in the book. In later years, I remember the novel being denigrated for being sentimental, and then there was that phrase, "Uncle Tom," used to criticize people who sold out their race.
Then I reread the book when I taught a Survey of American Lit. class (gulp--10 years ago!). I was surprised by how powerful it is. I was surprised by how a huge theme of the book is how humans deal with oppression. What's wisest? To escape? To revolt? To submit?
David S. Reynolds has a great piece in The New York Times today, in which he reminds us of what a powerful book it was in its time, how inspiring, and how the stage variations of the play watered down the strengths of the novel. He tells us about the true nature of the character of Tom: "At the heart of the book’s progressive appeal was the character of Uncle Tom himself: a muscular, dignified man in his 40s who is notable precisely because he does not betray his race; one reason he passes up a chance to escape from his plantation is that he doesn’t want to put his fellow slaves in danger. And he is finally killed because he refuses to tell his master where two runaway slaves are hiding."
When I was younger, I wanted to create works of art that would howl against oppression in just the way that Stowe did. I wanted to create works of art that would inspire people to find a way to end injustice. In short, I wanted to be Anne Frank.
On this day in 1942, Anne Frank started her famous diary. I read it about the same time I first read Uncle Tom's Cabin and was astounded at her ability to keep her faith in humanity. Her diary is full of nuggets like this one: "It's a wonder I haven't abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart."
Yes, my heart still breaks a little when I read this passage, knowing what I know about the end of the story. I understand the Che Guevaras of the world who decide that the only response to injustice is armed struggle.
Today is Che Guevara's birthday, and I wrote a post about him and Latin America at my theology blog. What makes one person who sees social injustice pick up a pen, and another person pick up a gun?
I've shot guns, and I understand the satisfaction that comes from explosive confrontation, even though, I've never had to use a gun that way, and I hope I never do. I understand the frustration that those of us who create art and hope for social change must endure. Sometimes the pace of social change seems so slow, the waiting so long.
And then, suddenly, it seems that the world changes for the good at a dizzying pace. I think back to the events of late 1989 and 1990. The Berlin Wall came down--peacefully! Nelson Mandela walked out of jail--not only did he not get shot, he lived on to be elected president of South Africa.
We can argue long and hard about what led to these changes. Was it the internal collapse of repressive regimes? The protest and pressure by the larger world? The art created by social activists? The prayers of the faithful?
I will continue to believe that all of those things can be important factors in our essential work of bending the arc of history towards justice (MLK's words, not mine). We can't know for sure what the outcome of our art might be and to a large extent, we can't control that. We can argue whether or not Uncle Tom's Cabin propelled the nation into Civil War, and whether or not that was a good development. We can argue that Anne Frank's diary did nothing to stop Hitler--but did she sensitize us to declare that we would never tolerate that oppression again? Yes, she did for many of us--yet the cynics might look at the rest of the twentieth century and ask what good that did.
Still, we must go on, with our pens (or guitars or paintbrushes or . . . ), protesting injustice, directing people's imaginations to the better world that must be possible.