Read part 1 of this series here.
The other day I had the good fortune to attend a lecture by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell about their graphic novel March. Nice to hear from others who believe in the power of literature to change the world.
And there was a question & answer section, too. Unsurprisingly, my biggest question about their work was not addressed. I wouldn’t have chosen it, either, given that there was time for only ten or so questions from an audience of thousands.
Still, it was very strange to me that Congressman John Lewis devoted something like a quarter of his allotted time to speaking about chickens, regaling us about how he’d raised them as a boy, recognized them as unique individuals, and preached to them. The graphic novel, also, devotes something like a quarter of its total page count to chickens. The art is grimly violent, showing a bird alarmed and fleeing, a gleaming blade raised into the air, ax-wielding human with flat eyes that mirror those of the brutal white anti-rights aggressors depicted later in the book, then the dead bird seeming anthropomorphically sad & resigned. The accompanying text spills forth languorous and bleak:
“Worse, though, was watching my mother or father kill one of the chickens for a special Sunday dinner. // They would either break its neck with their hands, // spinning it around until the bone snapped // or simply chop the head off. // They would then drain the blood from its body and dip it in boiling water, scalding it to loosen its feathers for plucking. // I was nowhere to be seen at those family meals.”
Then, eleven pages later, he writes that he had no qualms about eating a chicken raised and killed by someone else.
Which seems like a strange arc to include in a book about the civil rights movement. Especially because, in the case of brutality against human out-groups, history has repeatedly shown that we are less able to treat our opposition as mere things to be beaten or excluded after we get to know even one representative personally. This seems to be one reason why the gay rights movement has made such rapid strides recently: as homosexuality became less stigmatized, people were more likely to know that a friend or family member was gay, which made it more difficult to maintain hate. Similarly, I volunteer with a farmed animal sanctuary that lets people interact with members of species that are treated abysmally in human agriculture, with the hope that direct experience will disrupt the cognitive disconnect between living creatures and the slab of flesh cellophaned in a grocery store refrigerated display.
Congressman Lewis would not eat a bird he knew. But when one he didn’t know was served to him, he “had no problem cleaning [his] plate.” With chickens he didn’t know, he “wasn’t even bothered by [their] fate.”
It’s especially strange given how forcefully he stressed (in both his book and his lecture) the importance of Nonviolence (“Nonviolence with a capital N”) in all aspects of our lives. The nonviolent civil rights protests were patterned on Gandhi’s methods, but the Sanskrit that Gandhi used is “satyagraha,” which would be translated into English as something like “truth force.” The idea being that you behave correctly with such firm insistence that others will eventually realize the error in their own ways. A nice idea, but it depends on a shared worldview between you and your aggressors — passive rightfulness could easily lead to death and defeat by aggressors who do not accept that their actions are wrong. (See the previous post in this series that considers our country’s history of nonviolent protest here).
In the case of the civil rights movement, even, you could argue that nonviolence in the South would have failed were it not backed by the threat of violent federal reprisal from the North.
The Sanskrit word that best mirrors the English “nonviolence,” though, is not “satyagraha.” It’s “ahimsa.” The latter emblazons the skin and t-shirts of many vegetarians throughout the United States. And that parallel makes the chicken story arc in March seem even stranger to me. The book makes clear how awful the behavior of Southern whites was, but with the chicken story arc, Congressman Lewis announces that he has a similar cognitive disconnect.
I can see why that level of honesty is commendable, but why did he devote so much space in a book about nonviolent civil rights protests to a story about violence against chickens?
Indeed, this has relevance to a question he did answer. One of the chosen questions was from an elementary school class that attended the lecture as a group: “What can we, as eight year olds, do for equality?”
(Quick aside: can you see why I was so happy to be there? What a lovely evening, to be at an event where this sort of question was both posed & answered earnestly.)
Congressman Lewis answered that young people should study the history of the civil rights movement, and that if they see something that isn’t right, if they see someone doing or saying something wrong, they should stand up to that person and let them know.
Which is nice. And Congressman Lewis’s achievements make clear that he has the authority to give that advice credibly.
Still, I can’t help but think that his advice was only half the answer. Personally, I think we can fight injustice both externally, trying to correct the bad behavior of others, and internally, trying to ameliorate our own contributions to injustice.
For a second-grader, pushing back against external injustice is difficult. There’s a question of access, for one thing — an eight year old might not directly observe major injustices or be able to attend protests. Even if a eight year old does see a police officer frisk someone inappropriately, I’m not sure the officer would listen to a child saying “That’s not right.”
If that’s the only recommendation children are given, I’d worry that they might feel ineffectual, lose help and stop trying.
But a second-grader, through internal change, is fully capable of pushing back against the major driver of injustice in the world today. Global climate destabilization is causing huge amounts of suffering to the world’s poor, and this will only increase as temperatures rise, hurricanes become more extreme, and weather patterns become more unpredictable.
Which sounds bleak, sure. But climate change is driven by the behavior of consumers. Most people, as individuals, don’t pump much poison into the atmosphere — I assume few first graders are burning garbage in their backyards or slipping out for long, unnecessary nocturnal drives in overweight vehicles. But corporations don’t act in a vacuum — corporate behavior is motivated by the demands of consumers. Second-graders, as consumers, can make choices that will contribute less toward climate destabilization.
Our world has other problems, sure — there’s been a lot of hateful language bandied about in the United States recently (see, for instance, the primary, or the “all lives matter” counterprotests), and other parts of the world are even more vicious — but those other problems, xenophobia, exclusion, etc., are exacerbated by economic scarcity. In times of bounty, it’s easier for people to agree that everyone deserves a fair share… each person’s fair share will be plenty. But if five people are stuck on a lifeboat with only enough food for three, it’s easier to invent mean-spirited justifications for pushing two people overboard.
Climate destabilization will lead to further economic scarcity. It’s not unreasonable to expect that it will directly cause people to become more hateful & exclusionary.
But second-graders can turn off lights that aren’t in use. They can decrease their meat consumption. They can play with used toys, and request as much for Christmas and birthday presents. (I’m a wee bit older than six or seven, but here’s a video by Greg ‘Kingkong’ Eismin of some friends “shopping” for presents on my birthday.)
Those behavioral changes are all within reach of eight year olds and would be a huge effort toward fighting inequality — those changes will make it less likely that their fellow humans will starve in food crises, drown during forced migrations, die battered & bruised in hurricanes.