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Bodies in Action

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Tiya Miles is one of our top historians of slavery in its various 19th century forms (this is a really great book on slavery and the Cherokees) and I really appreciated this essay about how faculty like to write a bunch of statements condemning racism on campus, but that what actually matters at a time like this is putting “bodies in action.”

This is not to say that words do not matter. Words hold immeasurable weight, which is why we bemoan Donald Trump’s mean and facile use of them. But all word-work requires time, and some have more impact than others. In this mudslinging cultural melee, we need the right words: the stories, jokes, essays, poems, harangues and treatises that paint a compelling vision that we all want to stand for. And beyond judiciously choosing the words to put on the page, we would be wise to follow in the great social-movement tradition of matching our words with bodies in action.

Putting bodies on the line to advance a just vision was among the primary tactics of the transformational African-American movement for civil rights. The embodied form of protest employed by Rosa Parks is an iconic example. A flowing, gold-toned dress sewn by Mrs. Parks hangs with an aura of reverence at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, symbolizing her personal dignity and unyielding drive for justice. That single garment resounds so powerfully because it may have adorned the body of “Mother Parks,” the same body that she used and endangered when refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in the winter of 1955.

At Michigan, students ramped up their response to the door-tag slur incident by taking a page from Rosa Parks’s notebook. They used their own bodies to block transit at a central bus stop on campus. They also subverted stereotypes; black students sat in the road with books open on their laps while white allies stood to protect them from traffic. The campus police did not interfere, but immediately barricaded the street to ensure everyone’s safety.

This creative protest broadcast the rejection of racially divisive acts more forcefully than any faculty statement produced that week. And in positioning their bodies in spatial relation to one another, the students presented a living picture in which people of diverse skin tones, ethnicities and identities could gather together on contested ground to claim their shared belonging. These bodies in space, out of place, engaging in the unexpected to advance a positive idea, sent a message with meaning.

Soon after the 2016 presidential election, the political scientist Frances Fox Piven wrote in The Nation that to be effective, protest movements must generate “mass refusals” that disrupt the complex systems on which everyday life depends. When protesters insert their bodies into forbidden places or adopt poses unsanctioned for their station, they are engaging in blatant acts of refusal. Rosa Parks did exactly this when, as Jeanne Theoharis recounts in her biography of Parks, “she decided to withdraw her participation in a system that was degrading” by refusing to change seats on the bus.

This tactic of corporeal protest, with its elements of immediacy and vulnerability, is riveting and consequential. It is also dangerous. In this dizzying time of multiple and very real threats, deciding which bodies go on the line, where and for what causes requires serious strategic discussion and clear commitment to protecting those who volunteer to risk their bodies.

I doubt my own courage and wonder each day whether I could deploy my body beyond the relative safety of marches approved by permits. But I am certain of this: The change we seek to make won’t be accomplished by words alone.

Pretty much all of this. Outside of my work in our faculty union, which I obviously think is very important as a worker, I stay as far away from faculty politics as possible. Basically, I think that nearly everything faculty do on campus (outside of teaching of course) is a complete waste of time and if I am sitting in meetings working on statements that no one will read but administrators and other faculty, I am doing nothing of value, even if said statements are supposed to produce something for racial justice. I was asked to speak at an event about immigration and DACA on campus last year and I was happy to do so, but everyone in the audience were administrators and other faculty members and it was hard to see the point, even as I did the best I could to talk about these issues. Maybe this is an excuse for me not getting involved with the various faculty committees and such and maybe that’s not entirely incorrect, but mostly I think faculty are so insular in their world as to be irrelevant in the larger fights. But if you want to start disrupting racism with our bodies and creating real resistance, then that’s something very much worth our time and I hope I would participate. That’s probably going to be led by students and we could all do better by following student activists, at least on some issues. In any case, as Miles says, words are important. Bodies are a lot more important.

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