Here in my beloved South, the main characters in our political drama are still men, on the left and the right, wearing clerical collars and officers’ uniforms. Moral Mondays have now started up again in North Carolina, and I am asking hard questions about how to teach my daughters to be brave in a political world run by men.
My youngest daughter and I had a confusing argument on the way home from Raleigh a few weeks ago. I had brought her with me to a meeting about wage theft in the restaurant industry. She was ostensibly doing homework while the grown-ups strategized, but she left inspired. “I want to go to the next protest, and get arrested!” I explained she was not old enough to make that decision, and that she could be brave in other ways. She was disgusted. “I am TOO old enough to get arrested, and I want to do something REAL!” (Emphasis in the original.)
Where did my daughter get the idea that being arrested is the only REAL way to witness? She learned this last summer, at Moral Mondays in Raleigh. Many of my friends had discerned their conscience and participated in the weekly liturgy of orderly resistance. [See, for example, Willie James Jennings' essay in RD, "Becoming the Common." –the Eds.] I am not sorry she and I attended the rallies together. I am sorry she left with the message that the only real way to work for justice is to line up according to instruction, put her hands behind her back, and be led toward a police vehicle.
My older daughter was hitting adolescence when Barack Obama ran for his first term in 2008. I am a “yellow dog democrat,” and, for the previous two elections, I had checked the box while holding my nose against bad doggie breath. This election was different. I was inspired. Pundit after pundit told us Obama was a pragmatist, but his campaign was an experience of networked optimism.
The name “Obama” was divisive in many neighborhoods across North Carolina, but in Durham, North Carolina his sign in your yard meant hopeful solidarity across the unbridgeable divides of race. It was a heady, heart-felt time for us, as we wrote letters and knocked door to door. But my daughter said something right after President Obama won that gave me pause. She woke up on November 5 with a deflated sense of purpose. She was going to miss being a part of a giant project for, well . . . hope itself.
“Maybe I should become a football fan. Now I understand why people want to have a team!”
Even though she had been working phones and licking stamps with other girls and women for over a year, she had been training for a relatively short, exciting game—a game with a charismatic, masculine leader.
During that mommy moment, a video came up in my MTV-cluttered brain. The first time I saw the video for Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality” I was a sophomore in college. The video shows a little girl bathed in the glow of the TV as she watches a montage of Kennedy, Mussolini, Gandhi, Stalin, and Malcolm X—a strong warning to little girls (and others) about the cult of male charisma that often comes with large movements.
I was originally confused by the song. Why loop together such good leaders with such tyrannically bad leaders? And did they really mention the Nobel Prize in a negative valence? Fifteen years later, and I was an avowedly feminist mother raising two daughters during an era of global, economic misery and war. Forget tampons and mascara. I needed to pay closer attention to the gender politics of leadership.
Fast-forward to the present, and my participation in Moral Mondays last summer. I drove from central Durham to downtown Raleigh Monday after Monday because I wanted to be with other brave people who had a clue about the ALEC-funded poop-storm we are in as a purple, battle-ground state. I met a librarian who reminded us to smile for the police cameras, because we were, she explained, being recorded for facial recognition data-banking. I listened to teachers talk to each other about whether or not to post anything on social media, because they knew a teacher who’d been reprimanded for attending. I cheered on the Raging Grannies, who have memories of protesting other wars that took young men and women violently and nonsensically from this world.
Basically, I went because of the conversations around the stage, not so much because of the speakers on the stage. I met fabulous women from all over North Carolina eager to register our daring, determined hope against the hired bullies who have declared a cynical war against their own people. But, in all of this, I was clear about one thing. I was not going to be instructed in orderly disobedience toward arrest. I wasn’t going to follow directions and put my hands behind my back and appear calm while a police officer handcuffed me and led me away. That seemed, in my gut, the wrong message to send to my daughters.
As we enter this second summer, I am concerned about both the public ritual of compliant arrest and a growing cult of personality at Moral Mondays. It doesn’t matter to me that the personality around whom the cult is forming is a truly good one. Rev. Dr. William Barber seems to be a wonderful and genuine human being working for beautifully fruitful change. But a movement revolving around one central hero is not conducive to the long-game sort of work toward equality and democracy. And a movement revolving around one central, authoritative, masculine, politically and religiously charismatic hero is simply not true to the best of Southern populism. At our best, people in the South have agitated for change in break rooms, classrooms, prison yards and such, pausing for rallies rather than mistaking rallies for the real thing.
While well-orchestrated arrests of large groups, at the instruction of a religious leader, may have the power of nostalgia, egalitarian democracy requires other models.
It also does not matter to me whether the desire for moral heroism is just contagious or subtly encouraged and exploited. There are instances here of both. There are white men without prior records and/or with personal and political connections striding around with barely concealed pride for being arrested with an African-American man of authority. Some of these white men will eventually use their proximity to Rev. Dr. Barber and the abiding culture of muscular heroism in the South to write sermons and books about racial reconciliation and go on well-publicized lecture tours.
There are also men and women who are not seeking street credibility, but who are caught up in the chance to be a part of a righteous team with a legitimate, morally unambiguous leader. It is a heady, heart-felt sort of thing, as well as the sort of thing ripe for manipulation and self-promotion. That is part of the problem with the sort of organizing effort we usually call a “movement.”
I will be attending Moral Monday events this summer. I will also keep speaking the truth about North Carolina as I see it, with my daughters and with anyone else who wants to visit. I will learn from women who see through the allure of personality and heroism and do the work of justice without public credit.
I will also pray that Moral Mondays will shift away from the form of a high-pulpit, Southern church service toward the cacophony of democracy.
Here I think about the sometimes joyful, sometimes anguished form of democracy that arose when police officers joined firefighters, hotel housekeepers, postal workers, and teachers to resist the tyranny of other ALEC-funded bullies across the Midwest a few years ago. It seems time for us to ‘pull a Wisconsin’ here in the Tar Heel state, with or without hymns.
And, when I do attend rallies this summer, I will not be told when to dance or how to pray or when to put my hands behind my back and submit. I’m too free these days for that. I was liberated by a God who put on an apron, washed dirty feet, and preferred the periphery to the stage.