“A Letter From Birmingham Jail” Was an Op-Ed: Teaching Voice & Social Justice

That’s how I now start my talk on social justice, voice, and opinion writing: “A young preacher wrote a letter in a Birmingham jail. It was published in the New York Sunday Post, in part, the following week. That letter from Martin Luther King Jr. has gone on to have quite an impact. Thats an Op-Ed.”

I have given this talk at Spelman College a few times now and that is what the presenation has become. It began as a way for me to share some of what I learned as a Public Voices Fellow at Emory University with a college who serves students about whom I am quite passionate. An hour into the first session of the Op-Ed Voices-led project at my elite institution I thought, “this needs to happen at Spelman.” Lo and behold, a faculty member there had a similar thought, invited me to her social justice class and so began a relationship that has impacted my thinking on my scholarship and community.

There is no shortage of “experts” to tell you how publishing can help you build your brand for any number of material gains. That is fine but if building a brand is all there is to life I would rather check out sooner than later. It’s been said to me before that black academics at tony institutions have neo-liberal angst that manifests in public displays of activism, faux or real. I may be guilty as charged.

All I know is that if writing is to be what it has been historically to social movements then this shifting media landscape needs to be engaged, studied, and mastered by those who would do more with their lives than build brands of Klout and Kred and retweets.

There are few places better for this vision to unfold than Spelman. Historically and predominately black, Spelman has a reputation for producing self-actualized, critically thinking, fierce young women. I have found that to be ridiculously, wonderfully true. Whereas in my fellowship sessions seasoned, accomplished, credentialed scholars (I’m the only uncredentialed student in the mix) struggle to profess themselves experts in anything, my young women at Spelman do not hesitate to tell me that they are experts in black feminist thought, community organizing, political networking on capital hill or biomedical research.

These young women know their worth.

What I try to do is match that confident voice to vision through excercises in narrative and the sociological examination of how ideas are made normative.

This week that started with the story about a little letter written in a Birmingham jail to illustrate the potential for public writing as a mechanism for social change.

As Melissa Harris Perry is scheduled to speak at Spelman this week, I also did a narrative history of her rise from professor to media celebrity. We construct the path she took from her first major Op-Ed to her column in The Nation to her guest spots on the Chris Matthews Show to her designation as “expert pundit” on the Rachel Maddow Show to her own show on MSNBC. We unpack the power and institutions that were engaged to produce the Melissa Harris Perry show as we enjoy it today. Then we start dialoguing about the rigidity of those structures, how they’ve changed historically since King published “A Letter” and the opportunities and risks those changes present for those who would engage media to inspire action. Key to that process is identifying opportunities presented by new media platforms, de-bundling your expertiential expertise from credentialing, and being prepared for the page view logic of social media that promotes racism and sexism. Armed thusly, I have no doubt that we’ll look up one day and see some of these Spelmanites on whatever medium we then engage to consume our media. Maybe it will assauge my neo-liberal academic minority angst.

That’s a maybe but this is what’s for certain: I leave hungry every time I do this class. I’m usually knee deep in a day by the time I make it Spelman, so I’m starving. But, I find I’m far more hungry for the intellectual and emotional charge I get from these young women (and the occassional young man from neighboring Morehouse College) than I am for food.

Here’s when I am most hopeful, most engaged, most challenged and most alive.

Thank you for that, Spelman. Happy writing.

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