Today, in class, while discussing the Black Arts movement and the fact that the revolution they hoped for never happened, and the fact that many of them went on to mainstream jobs in academia and renounced black nationalism, my (fabulous) professor told us a story about one of her former students. As an undergrad, this young man had a long ponytail and carried around a copy of Thoreau everywhere he went. He was an idealist, sure the world needed changing and sure this changing had to start with him. He distrusted student government and formed his own organizations. He taught kids to read and organized street cleanups. And then he graduated, and, as you do, had to get a job, which he got, on campus. He still works on campus, and my professor described going out to lunch with him, seeing him wearing a suit and tie for the first time, the ponytail gone, and remarking that he seemed all grown up. He said to her, “You know, I have friends who are going without shoes in solidarity with people who have no shoes, but I’m not sure that’s working. Sometimes you have to put on a tie and go to the meeting.”
In some ways, I think I identify with both the shoeless idealist and the guy in a tie at the meeting. Either way, I think I’ve always been an activist.
In fact, I’m pretty sure you can trace my activism to before I was even born. My dad is pretty famous at his alma mater (Hendrix College) for getting elected to and then attempting to abolish the Student Senate, which he felt was a tool of The Man used to distract students with arguments over a paltry $5,000 budget when there were bigger fish to be fried. He later went on to install an illegal pinball machine in the basement of Martin Hall, the profits of which were used to host the first ever Goat Roast, a party tradition which still continues at Hendrix, and which almost got him kicked out of school. Later, my father tried to go to medical school, only to be rebuffed something like seven times. In the meantime, he taught high school chemistry and he kept applying. He still has a letter he received, I believe the time before he finally got in, which informed him he was being rejected “yet again,” the actual wording, which was still not enough to dissuade him. He finally got into medical school, during which he grew a beard which reached down to his chest. When people would ask him when he was gonna shave, he would reply, “When they let my people go.” I guess you can see where I might get a bit of my stubbornness and a bit of a flair for the dramatic?
My mother, on the other hand, also supplied genes to this little activist. I know she’s volunteered for women’s health organizations, she’s got a bumper sticker on her big red pickup that says “Impeach Who? Blowjob or Job Blown?” and she’s been known to put Green Party campaign signs in her front yard, just to piss people off.
From these two people you get little Ernie Bufflo. By the time I was four, it had been memorialized in my baby book that I’d told my dad to “get off my case.” (Guess taking issue with The Man is somehow hereditary.) A year or two after that, my mother took to calling me her “Little Supreme Court Justice.” It was when I was in elementary school that I really, truly discovered my activist streak. I started my own sixth grade newspaper, marshalling my friends to contribute articles which I printed off on my home computer and distributed to my classmates. My main cause was the environment, perhaps thanks to Captain Planet or maybe Bill Nye the Science Guy, and, clad in a green sweatsuit which my grandmother appliqued and puff-paint-embellished with recycling and other environmental symbols, I led a successful crusade to eliminate styrofoam from the elementary school’s cafeteria. I also collected six-pack rings, which I would cut into pieces before throwing away, because I was concerned about sea turtles getting caught in them.
I’m still that kid, as you can see from my blog. For all the ways in which I’m no longer a 12 year old on a mission, wearing my heart and a recycling logo on my sleeve, in most ways, it seems, I’m still the same. I’m not sure if it’s nature or nurture or both, but I’m still leading letter writing campaigns and volunteering to phone bank and pitching in with fund and awareness raising. I’m an activist. I’ll probably always smile at the kids without shoes in solidarity with the poor, even as I giggle about “dirty hippies.” I may have only ordered my first pair of Birkenstocks this week, but despite outward appearances, I think I’m more shoeless bleeding heart than suit in a meeting. I wonder if that will ever change.