On Friday morning, I found myself in the midst of the finale of Harvard Heat Week, a week-long protest led by Divest Harvard with the goal of pressuring the powers-that-be at Harvard into divesting from fossil fuels. I must confess that my motivation for protesting was less noble than most’s—I had heard that Cornel West would be speaking and I wanted to see him—but I learned a great deal from the protest nonetheless. I learned that the fight for social justice is often loud, awkward, and uncomfortable. Many times it’s done in the wrong ways, and sometimes it even offends the wrong people. Sometimes the chants get lost somewhere in the middle of the crowd, and our goals are never quite aligned. I’d go so far as to say that the fight for social justice is inherently a mess. When a lot of people feel strongly about a complicated issue, we’re never all marching in precisely the same direction.
This essay is not about divestment. Though I do think divestment from fossil fuels is a noble goal, I’m writing about a social justice issue that hits a little bit closer to home. Ever since the back-to-back deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in mid-2014, the fight for racial equality has found a new vigor. For a few months, America was sharply awakened from its discriminatory slumber and the black community was given a chance to speak out with one voice. I am certain that I am not the only one who was disappointed when I realized that we did not have just one voice—we had many. While some protested peacefully, others lashed out with violence, choosing to loot and burn buildings, and some even went so far as to commit the horrific murder of two police officers in New York. We certainly made noise, but to what effect? While many people cried out for “justice,” that word seemed to carry a range of different meanings.
These events remind me of a quote from one of my favorite books, Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. In the gripping novel about South African apartheid, Theophilus Msimangu, a black minister in Johannesburg, says these chilling words about the future of his nation’s racial divide:
“I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.”1
Though the character was speaking about a different time and a different place than twenty-first century America, his words are woefully poignant today. If we who are oppressed are striving for equality and peace, why are our voices so often full of hatred?
Of course, I do not mean to say that it is wrong to be angry. As a Christian, I believe there is a good and righteous anger, famously demonstrated by Christ when he overturned the tables of money lenders in the temple of God. This type of anger, which is born of righteous sorrow and which moves hearts towards love, often comes out in the face of social injustice. But we must be careful to make a distinction between righteous anger and blind hatred. Too often, at times like these, we wrap up our own prejudices and resentment in the blanket of social justice and tell both ourselves and others that we act only out of love for our people.
This is why movements such as Harvard’s new Renegade Mag worry me. While much of the magazine’s content is profound, there is also much that is written out of hatred of the white man for what he has done to us, people of color. Under the guise of “solidarity” and “empowerment” for people of color, many of us seem to stray dangerously close to “exclusion” and “intolerance” of all that is white. This is not the path to equality. As Martin Luther King, Jr. famously put it, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”2
The mess of social justice, the conflicting noise of many voices, the confusion of love and hate. Racial injustice is far too real and people are hurting. But there is hope. Romans 8:28 tells us that God works all things together “for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (NIV). Often that good comes only in the long, long run, but I believe it is more immediately visible when we are dealing with social justice. Because speaking loudly is just as important as saying the right words, and there is a kind of music that is made from dissonance. I went to Heat Week to see Cornel West and I came out more interested in the issues surrounding divestment. In any social justice movement, it is true that we won’t always say the right things, and we will often offend the wrong people. But I thank God that we are making noise.
The issue of racial inequality is far greater than anything that I can address in a few paragraphs—indeed, far greater than anything I can ever fully understand. But I hope that by adding my voice to the mix, I am making the cry for justice—the cry for love—just a little bit louder.
Obasi Shaw ’17 is an English concentrator in Winthrop House.