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Posts Tagged ‘ Davis Knittle ’

Day 8: On Religion

Friday, May 20th, 2011

By Davy Knittle

On Friday, Odessa Woolfolk, co-founder and president emerita of the Board of Directors of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute spoke with us about the participation of women in the civil rights movement and about the Children’s March that took place in Birmingham in 1963. Afterwards she took questions and while I usually hold back, I asked Ms. Woolfolk the question that’s been guiding my engagement with the stories of the civil rights movement, and my thoughts about the community-based work of each of the students on the ride over the past several days. I asked her, effectively: “The civil rights movement was guided by a faith-based energy that structured much of the discourse of the movement, even though the movement spanned many different religious and non-religious groups. The centrality of that religious discourse, of the crucial role of religious leaders in the movement and, in particular, the music of those religious communities provided a framework for the movement that helped those engaging in non-violent practices to understand and affirm the basic humanness of both the members of the movement and those who were in opposition. With this in mind, is a religiously-grounded discourse that which is most likely to bring people together now in a way that strengthens their collective engagement with America’s future? Is there another discourse that’s likely to be as effective in terms of unifying individual actors in a way that makes the humanness of all people both the goal and the impetus of collective action?”

Ms. Woolfolk stopped before she answered the question. She looked at me, said something to the effect of the question’s magnitude and the whole room laughed before Ms. Woolfolk said to us what I’ve been wondering about throughout the ride. She spoke to the centrality of religion before saying that the goals of her generation were collectively understood and enormously clear and that our work is necessarily more complicated and more difficult.

It’s been a challenge for myself and, it seems, for many of the other student riders, to take the lessons of the Freedom Rides, and of the civil rights movement more broadly, and to apply them to our current work, however that work constitutes itself. In my own reading of that history, the energy of that movement is still infectious, even if our goals and our approaches are less clearly collectively understood. That question itself: “where does the energy for collective action come from?” grounds itself beautifully in the methods of the Civil Rights Movement. If the work of our lives is to figure out how and where to apply that question, then if being on the ride has clarified that question, if for me, I understand collective work as an spiritually-guided, if not structurally religious process, then, in my understanding, the ride is doing its job.

Day 9: Davy Knittle

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Day 6: Situating the Landscape of the South

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

By Davy Knittle

A decade ago, my father and I rented a car, flew to Vancouver, British Columbia and drove east across the width of British Columbia and halfway across Alberta, stopping in Lethbridge before we drove back. In the course of the drive we drove through the Canadian Rockies, and when we descended out of them, the horizon line extended across the sudden and uniformly flat land. The sky got bigger.

Driving away from the East Coast, I’m often aware of the comparative containment of the sky of the Northeast. Throughout the ride, I’ve been waiting for the change in landscape as we get further from D.C. I was stunned by the thick green of the Virginia and North Carolina foliage, and now, closing in on the Tennessee border, the sky does, in fact, feel bigger. The land has been variable and gorgeous. Original Freedom Rider Helen Singleton said yesterday that it’s difficult for her to reconcile the painful history of this landscape with its specific beauty. She said that only now are Americans from outside of the South starting to be able to appreciate the South for its landscape outside of the operation of its history, which itself operates as a barrier between the South and the rest of the country.

She said that the history of racial oppression in the South was a waste of the land (as well as, as she implied, a gross misuse of human life and of basic humanness itself). We’ve seen so many vacant urban blocks on the ride, so much endless suburban space, so much ritualized farmland with small, adjacent houses and other buildings. The physical space of the South is deceptive in that way – if there’s a relationship between what we understand about a place from its landscape and what we understand from its history, the lush quality of the foliage throughout the route of the ride makes it harder, for me, to internalize the history of this land, because it looks like the Northeast, which is what I’m used to, or because it’s so basically beautiful.

I feel about the land of the South the way I feel about America as an entity made up of the interaction of its landscape, its history and its current reality – largely confused, impressed by its beauty, and incredulously unable to reconcile its disparate features. The land of the South feels multiplicitous and deceptive in a way that makes intuitive sense. Even so, it feels enormous and unsolvable to try to fit the history of this landscape into the land itself.

Day 6: Nonviolence is Creative

Saturday, May 14th, 2011

By Marshall Houston

Day 5: On Healing

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

By Davy Knittle

Yesterday morning, I stood in the basement cafeteria of the United House of Prayer in Charlotte, North Carolina with Tom Hanchett, Staff Historian for the Levine Museum of the New South. I thanked him for coordinating the breakfast with the elders that the Freedom Riders young and old were taking part in. We had been standing on the side of the room, looking out towards the cafeteria that was full of light from the chiefly red and blue stained glass windows on either side, but he turned to me before he next spoke and looked at me directly. He said, in response to my thanking him, that the work that we’re doing is essential because it’s bringing healing to a lot of people, that it’s allowing them to revisit the history of the last 50 years in a way that allows for collective forgiveness and that emphasizes the basic human beauty of everyone who finds, or needs to find, some kind of home in the history of the Civil Rights Movement.

Throughout the ride, I’ve been uncertain as to exactly what purpose we’re serving, as student riders. Tonight, in Anniston, Alabama, where a Greyhound bus carrying six of the original CORE Freedom Riders was firebombed and burned on May 14th, 1961, I got off of the bus and was greeted by a member of state government who grabbed my nametag and turned it over so that when she said “Welcome to Anniston,” she greeted me by name. We’ve been saying to each other, on the ride, that each stop, each conversation, each town is singular. Each town, similarly, is in need of a singular sort of healing.

Yesterday, I asked myself “who are we to heal anyone,” but it seems that it is because we’re young and engaged in the process of being engaged that we’re able to bring healing to each place where we stop and reflect and allow ourselves to be received. As it turns out, the physical act of 40 students from different places, experiences and, maybe most importantly, racial backgrounds riding together in the interest of active collectivity is a gesture of healing in and of itself.

It’s a tenuous relationship that we have between what we can offer and the processes that we complete by being present in each place. Our ability to internalize, to observe and to accept the past and present circumstances of each town is essential, so it feels, in that town’s ability to begin to rejoin an American collectivity previously blockaded by that history, to be part of a national decision to move forward by recognizing each person’s comprehensive humanness. In each moment, our job as Student Freedom Riders, is to meet that moment with relentless openness, and our work is to be ambassadors of healing by means of that openness, to let our natural hopefulness extend, and to leave some of it, as a figure of our appreciation for our consistently warm and grateful reception, in each town, and along the roadway where the original Freedom Riders traveled.

Day 4: Davy Knittle

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

Day 3: American Roadway One

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

By Davy Knittle

The dinosaur roamer
of an interstate system

American carousel access
to its breakaway points
emptied by the impulse
of its own travel

Jeff Davis highway and
the road to Richmond
flooded with electric cars, maybe

or becoming that land
made flat by its unreflected lights

No span is a highway island,
a glow that’s always on

The great drive an analog that
took no original account for wear

In the roadway, going –
some pools of weight on the trees
their shadows as a pull
to the highway shoulder

Their output points, 8:30 light
over the throw of construction

The highway the outcut center, then
of the base state of forest
of the specific tack of the land

The road a sphere outracing its radius
rewriting its everywhere center
over a fenceline, a raceway
a telephone tower archived between sets
the fixed start, and over again,
of a ceaseless region

This poem speaks to a number of questions that have dictated how I’ve seen the first days of the ride, about the physicality of what landscape we’re seeing, as compared to what the original riders saw. In many ways, the original Freedom Rides were an ideal enactment of some fragments of the American Dream. A roadtrip in the pursuit of civil rights speaks to both an idealized American freedom of action and a freedom of movement, by means of the interstate highway. It makes sense, given how roads and roadway automotive travel have figured into the American 20th century narrative of American exceptionalism and the enactment of autonomous American identity that one of the first crucial acts of the Civil Rights Movement was focused on interstate travel legislation. That to be American was, before almost anything else, to be able to travel on the roads.

With this in mind, I’ve been struck both by how extreme American urban desolation looks – how filled with vacant buildings the cities of Petersburg, Virginia and High Point, North Carolina are, and by how much of the American landscape stretches out along two and four lane commercial roads that fit the same nationally-prevalent businesses into the landscape. What does it mean for us to be undergoing this driving trip? In 50 more years, who will be on the roads? What will become of the roads, and of the people who need the roads to move around their home radii, when that kind of driving becomes untenable? What kind of an America will we have as a result? How does the change that will necessarily happen in the great automotively-bound majority of the country suggest or signal what other kinds of American change could look like? Who will we be, as Americans, when we are no longer a nation of drivers?

Newseum Event

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

Day 1: Questions We Need to Answer

Sunday, May 8th, 2011

By Davis Knittle

There are several questions that have been pervasive, almost haunting, since our kickoff event last night at the Newseum. The first question I asked of Diane Nash today, and have since spoken about with many of the student riders: “Who gets to police American collectivity?” The second question: “What is America’s understanding of itself?” And with that “What does it mean, 50 years later, for us to be getting on the bus?” has also been guiding my experience so far. I’ve been speaking with a number of the student riders as to our collective and individual conceptions of what we’re doing here — of what it means of us to be on the bus.

Diane Nash spoke today, in the context of our impending ride, about needing to understand a clear collective goal in order for non-violent action to be effective. What’s difficult about generating effective non-violent action in our current American moment is that the systems and the questions of this moment need to be taken apart before they’re parsable in a way that lends itself to any kind of direct action. For us, being here is a meta-action. We’re getting on the bus to puzzle out civic engagement. To think about where America will be in 50 more years. I’ve been impressed, today, about how scary we all think America is, about how scared we are of what a misuse of resources might look like in 50 years, of what will happen to our country if we don’t figure out effective systems of providing the basics social needs of, for example, healthcare and education.

All day, I’ve been wondering about what this time, this American breaking point will look like in a decade. Getting on the bus, with that in mind, is an opportunity to have these necessary conversations about what collectivity could look like, about our hopes for America. I have a complicated relationship to patriotism. I’m proud to be an American, and I feel lucky to be able to see these sites of history, and to see this basic American land, as we extend into the south. The question I’ll travel with is: “Who’s America is this?” Who lives here? What did the electoral politics of the 1980s become? What do we vote with now? What’s an act that’s more than a vote, if a vote isn’t enough?

The initial Freedom Ride, was, in my understanding, a production of late modernism. A post-modern reality wouldn’t allow for such an uncompromised action. Civic display is something else now. Each of the 40 of us are active, in some way, in our school and surrounding communities. When we take responsibility for being Americans, what will that look like? What will we need to do? How do we begin to sort out what our civic reality looks like? What our American reality is, even before we start to puzzle out what and how it could be?

Student Rider: Davis Knittle

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Wesleyan University
Middletown, Connecticut
Hometown: Brooklyn, New York

Watch the full episode. See more Freedom Riders.