I’ve wanted to go on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage since my freshman year of college, even before I was an African American Studies minor writing my senior thesis on Hip Hop’s constant dialogue with racial oppression. I spend most of my time talking about privilege and marginalization and make mindful decisions to spend my days with those that are like-minded or educating my peers that are willing to listen. The major danger of living this way is that I am consistently frustrated and discouraged by the raging socialized oppression that lives in the hearts and minds of people across America, Illinois and this campus.
What I see in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and Barack Obama’s Race Speech are similar sentiments of impatience and anger. What they both attempt to do is to step back and justify their cause, course of action and the simple existence of their racial identities. Through gritted teeth, it seems, they make meaning of their experiences to individuals more privileged and ignorant than they are and do so, incredibly, with tact and eloquence. Although I identify as white, I find that I am forced to make the same justifications that they are, although in different forms. As a woman, I must explain constantly why rape culture slowly kills women, why my eating disorder is valid and deserves attention and societal change, and why the cat calls I receive on warm nights on Green Street are not, in fact, compliments, but rather very scary warnings against walking alone. As a member of the queer community, I consistently have to slow down and explain that my genitalia, sexual activity and specific identities are none of their business while dealing with homophobic slurs, hate mail and verbal harassment. As a curvy woman I feel the need to explain why I deserve to breath air, to take up space and that I am, indeed, fit and healthy in a world where my size defines my worth. And although comparing marginalization is neither constructive, nor necessary, I believe that my experiences put me closer to the way that Dr. King felt in Birmingham or how Obama feels every time he makes a speech. It makes me feel less alone and more motivated to act.
That is part of the reason that I chose to go on this Pilgrimage. I wanted to learn more about a history that continues to fascinate, bewilder and prod me. I want to move outside of my own identities in order to become aware of the struggles faced around me, especially those that seem distant to me. I want to be able to, with more conviction and confidence, slow down and speak my mind like Dr. King and President Obama have and encourage others on campus, in my home community, and in my future careers to do the same. It is imperative at a time when shocking social disparities exist under the guises of a “post-racial, post-sexist, post-classist” America. I hope this trip is just one more reason to wake up every day ready for social justice.