Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Day 8: Our Noun > Our Adjectives

By Ryan Price

So we continue to travel through many small towns and big cities, practically to the fanfare of trumpets. The cameras come out, filming. The citizens show up, smiling. The mayors are present, handshaking. The museums and universities are great places for us students to learn and grow, while these receptions are often great times for communities to heal.

Here’s the tension I feel though: the original Freedom Riders wouldn’t have behaved as perfectly as we do. As they traveled through these cities, they would have asked things to the tune of: “We’re really happy that our brothers and sisters, black and white, can ride buses together now. But how do you treat migrant workers? Do the children in your high school still viciously bully their gay peers? Do the members of your community paint all peaceful Muslims with the wide, inaccurate and phobic brush of terrorist?”

There’s nothing revolutionary in 2011, thank God, about different races riding buses together. Just fifty years ago, it was revolutionary. Today though the notion of segregation seems laughable. The lesson we learn from the Freedom Rides isn’t that we reached racial justice in the 1960s. No, the lesson we learn as students is that for us to make positive social change, we shouldn’t constantly behave so prudishly, properly and politely (which our generation tends to do).

It would have been rude for me to ask a leader in Tennessee, “Well I’m glad you’ve generously made room for black citizens in the front of buses. But what are you doing about the outlandishly high suicide rate among your LGBT youth? And while you answer that, how does your state do on housing discrimination?” Yet those questions need asking. Speaking truth to power – that’s the best way we could renew the spirit of the Freedom Riders.

What boggles my mind the most in the realm of social justice is this: our complete inability to unite against oppression. One famous civil rights icon told us several days ago that, “Illegal immigration is the worst thing to happen to the black community.” As she continued, the explanation sounded too much like “Hispanics are bad for blacks” for me to be remotely comfortable with it.

Nor can I begin to fathom explanations for the rampant homophobia present among some racial minorities. We have learned of the response to integration fifty years ago where segregationists said, “If God wanted races to mix, he would’ve made them mixed.” Yet, certain minority men and women barely notice the irony when they label homosexuals “unnatural.”

Our sisters couldn’t even cast a vote in the United States until relatively recently, yet they had no problem shouting, “kill them niggers” in Montgomery fifty years ago. Some women have no problem calling gays a threat to the family, when arguments leveled against women’s suffrage just ninety years ago centered on the demise of the family that suffrage would inevitably bring.

How did we become so confused as a society? If I were to write a personal social justice manifesto, it would be this: All of our varied and beautiful adjectives (black, white; skinny, fat; straight, gay; man, woman; poor, wealthy, and on) are nothing compared to our shared noun: human. To fully realize the American Dream, and live up to America’s promises, we must focus on the noun we share while showing greater respect for the adjectives that we don’t.

Tags: , ,

2 responses to “Day 8: Our Noun > Our Adjectives”

  1. Immm

    16th May, 11

    Very well-said, I think. We automatically act in an oppressive way when we fail to take a stand against oppression and when we fail to unite against it. I liked your last bit there, too — it’s important that we respect (and I would even argue celebrate) those adjectives, even while we focus especially on the Noun.

    It’s interesting to me that you say our generation is perhaps too respectful, sometimes, to ask the important questions that advance the goal of equality. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the younger generation would necessarily be irreverent when it comes to such matters of etiquette, but I tend to agree with you that that’s not the case for us a lot of the time. I wonder why this would be so…

  2. Rebecca Littlejohn

    16th May, 11

    Ryan, the thing I’ve been thinking about since you all left town is how revolutionary a ride can be when it has corporates sponsors. You all did seem like an extraordinarily well behaved crowd. Do you think that is typical of your generation? People do say that about you sometimes. But I wonder how much of that is because your experiences have been so mediated by parents and corporate sponsors making it (seemingly) easier, when in reality, they’re keeping you from creating the experience for yourselves. The original Freedom Riders may not have had much, but at least they were free, in ways you all are not, I’m afraid.