Discourse / Letters / November 15, 2017

Letter to the Editor: “On learning, student activism, and censorship”

This is a cry for help:

I prefer tangible community and open dialogue with my fellow students to a static presentation of my opinions from a single Saturday morning in November.

But now, I want to speak publicly as Jayel Gant, so there can be no confusion.

All week I have been trying to write myself into some semblance of calm. Trying to prevent panic attack after panic attack. Reading alt-right news articles with my name attached. Attempting to pass my classes and apply to grad school. But really I can only think of the right (perfect) way to communicate my emotion and intellect, the value of my opinion, and the justification of my own actions as well as the action of my peers and colleagues in a way that won’t be dismissed with intellectualism, sarcasm or hyperbole.

I remind myself that all I can say is the truth.

I am receiving messages from my family warning me not to speak up. They know all too well about the unspoken systems of white retaliation that exist in the “real world” and are afraid that I may lose school scholarships, career opportunities, or be hurt.

Help me! Help! I NEED HELP!

I choose to ignore these messages and and remain carefully optimistic, but I hear them, and I am terrified almost silent and still. My fear is not irrational. I’m 21 years old and don’t know what might happen to me in our current cultural climate. After all, I’m just another loud, social justice activist in a town where the KKK is still rolling around in pickup trucks.

Please help.

I just want to make sure the stakes are clear here. When I resist oppression it is more than a game to me. I have to play for keeps. I go all in, because even if I make all the right moves I am still in danger. Even if I had said nothing I would be in danger. That is real.

Is that not enough? Are the artifacts of my body, my spirit, and my intellect not worth preservation?

To the alt-righters now throwing my name around in the media, I say: Nice to meet you. I’m glad we can finally be in conversation, I’ve heard so much about you.

HELP. This is a cry, for help.

 

To Emily (Please help):

The consideration, deconstruction, and critical analysis of racism and racist texts as a means to justify their educational value (or relevance) does very little to actually combat them. Art is not exempt of the responsibility of its violent and oppressive history. Now that there is a general consensus on the effects of hate speech, it is time for us to make another move forward and think about the effect of the canon. As the academic sphere becomes more diverse, the current canon will continue to lose relevance because it does not represent the population. I refuse to continue reinforcing traditions that do not and will never be able to serve me as an queer academic of color. I want new and different and more, and won’t be intimidated or distracted from paving the way for others who want that, too.

What we are critical of (in this case, the canon) is often considered too essential, too vital to the core of education itself. Those artifacts, arts, texts- are indeed valuable, but are not vital. My complaint is that even when people of color’s experiences are being considered, the artifact of the white man’s experience is the focal point, especially in pieces like Good Person.

If the canon, in all of its whiteness and Eurocentrism, is considered to be more precious than the concerns of the people who are affected by it, this is white supremacy at its prime.

Next I have a list of clarifying questions:

Who is the ‘we’ you address in your letter?

Whose sexism, racism, classism and colonialism needs unpending?

Who is obligated to be made uncomfortable and to what extent? Why are we obligated? Where is the line drawn between environments that are uncomfortable, hostile or violent? Who needs to be made uncomfortable and who is already uncomfortable?

In academia we often position ourselves in a reactive, if not complicit position to oppression. We would rather consider than make change and move past. Doing racist things and then discussing it afterwards has been the tactic for centuries. Who does the labor in this effort? Who starts the discussion? Why does it have to happen after racism is allowed to speak loudly and clearly?

You write, “It is these confrontations that teach us who we are, what we do and what we must change. Artifacts, art, texts—they require us to take a bold step back.”

I ask again: Are the artifacts of my body, my spirit, and my intellect not worth preservation?

Allow this confrontation to begin teaching us who we are, what we do, and what we must change. Artifact: Jayel Gant, word, and spirit, is stepping forward. Will you step back?

If you want our voices heard and our expectations met then why are you disappointed? Our voices were heard. Our expectations were met.

Help me.

I have a voice.

This is my voice.

My voice is in no need of assurance.

Be brave enough to make yourself uncomfortable.

You say, “If the only people who can produce, cast, or perform in a play are those who share the social and cultural identities of its characters, every main-stage production will be some version of Death of a Salesman. Worse, we will have very little to talk about.”

There is always something to talk about. Hopefully, we won’t have to continue talking about educational environments that continue to drive students away with blissful, willful ignorance.

 

To Roy (Please Help):

Our forum was a celebration of free speech, and one of the first instances that students of color in the theatre department felt comfortable expressing their concerns. I push back against your attempt to frame our coming together as a battle. What the students and faculty did was beautiful, cathartic and an establishment of grounds to grow healthier.

We are not warmongers nor imperialists. We (the students and alumni who spoke out and attended the forum) do not laugh or cheer over burned bridges and bad blood. We are a community: we assess damage, care for the wounded, and try to begin building ourselves up again.

We oppressed don’t have the security to celebrate. Days, even moments, later we are thrust back into fear, slammed with the “real” — not reality, but a construction more powerfully imposed than the truth that all people have value: racism, sexism, elitism.

The people who are here and now in your spaces have value.

I wanted to address this idea of the student activist or “sjw.” I do not identify with that description. The label creates an idealized and disembodied representation of real college students on real campuses. I am afraid. I am crying for help.

Please help me.

My speaking out, my persistence, my volume, my pleas turned paper, turned mobilization are not activism, are not protest. That is freedom of speech.  Attending this institution, surviving, and thriving in an environment that is hostile to me is my protest. My appeal to my peers and educators is not protest.

And there is no victory for me until I graduate.

Since you were not at the forum, and dialogue training has taught me to assume that people are always doing the best they can, I wanted to include our introductory statement read aloud at the start of the forum because it was never published publicly:

“Hello all, welcome and thank you for being present for today’s forum. We want to start off by expressing that the goal of this session is to determine whether the Good Soul of Szechwan should/will be put on as the mainstage production next term. The choice to do another play would have to be made by the faculty, which is why grievances were shared. This public forum is being held per the faculty’s urge to arrange a time: “that either the students [students who sat down to come up with the initial list] attend with TAB or that we arrange a time when they or anyone may come to discuss these particular issues.” All voices are welcome, but we also want to address the department’s concern that this may encourage conversation to derail into general discussion of issues within the dept and relating to Neil. We hope that the proposed itinerary will help us come to a conclusion and that afterward we can talk about ways to start dismantling the larger racist structures currently present in the department, whatever that entails for the future.

 

Agenda for Open Forum November 1st, 2017

  1. Everyone sits in a circle, introduces themselves and states why they are here.
  2. Statements will be read aloud by volunteers: these are statements by alumni, students, staff, and community members who cannot attend.
  3. Anyone who is present that would like to state grievances/questions/concerns will be allowed to share what they are feeling.
  4. The Department may respond”

 

Is this censorship?

What do you suggest students do when their concerns are ignored? When asked to hold a public meeting to discuss grievances?

If you are interested in dialogue, we are here. In the future it may be wise to start off by asking questions rather than jumping to conclusions, engaging empathy rather than sarcasm, and asking for help instead of putting on a brave front.

 

To both of you (thank you):

Thank you for you letters, even though I know they were not written to me. Thank you for reminding me that it is okay to speak out on your own sometimes, and thank you for continuing to promote a culture that I am able to both give to and take from.

Please take my words seriously, as one scholar and artist speaking to another. Please read the honesty in my words. Please do not assume that I haven’t slaved over each sentence I wrote or that I wrote and submitted this on a whim. Please do not assume I have the emotional energy for this or that it isn’t taking time away from my academic and extracurricular activities. Please do not assume that I am alone in my opinions because I am speaking out on my own. Please do not assume that every step that has been taken was not strategic. Please do not assume that other people haven’t looked this over to make sure I’m not being unnecessarily harsh. Please do not assume that just because I am not able to be any more articulate, that my ideas are simplistic.

To my department, the other students who organized the forum, and everyone who has shown support in this chaos, thank you, and I love you.  I hope that we will finally be able to start repairing our broken environment as quickly as possible.

 

Jayel Gant

They/them Pronouns

Theater and Creative Writing Major ‘18

McNair Scholar, SROP Fellow, GSEF Pioneer

TKS Staff

Tags:  censorship discourse letter to the editor racism the good person of szechwan theatre

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1 Comment

Nov 16, 2017

I understand that you’re galvanized because something you said finally made a difference, although a negligible one, but it’s no excuse to ignorantly generalize Galesburg as a town rampant with white supremacists based on an isolated incident from two years ago. How would you react if someone referred to Galesburg as “a town where black thugs roll around with paintball guns shooting people” because of what happened on campus several weeks ago? Personally, I wouldn’t react well to that comment because I don’t judge entire groups of people based on the actions of a few.
As a “POC” who was raised in the inner-city, I’ve never felt uncomfortable rubbing shoulders with the locals. There’s a reason why many Knox professors live in the area. It’s a great community and I’m proud to be a part of it now. You should try leaving CFA once in a while and meet some people before making loaded implications.



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