Rededicated to the impossible

Drawings of slave ships were one the primary tools abolitionists used to tell the story of the atrocities visited upon those enslaved

Drawings of slave ships were one the primary tools abolitionists used to tell the story of the atrocities visited upon those enslaved

So I just finished reading Half the Sky. Meaning that I stayed up until 2AM two nights in a row (which, for a mom with little kids, tells you that I was REALLY serious about reading it), absolutely transfixed by the stories of gender oppression around the world and, even more so, the completely inspiring in a million ways women (and some men) who are working in creative, tireless, and mainly fiercely courageous ways to end it.

I’m not going to write a review; here are links to some sources that have already reviewed it. But I do have several posts stemming from it swirling in my brain, so you’ll see some references to Half the Sky sprinkled throughout my writing over the next few weeks. This is the first.

I like authors that make no secret that their writing is part of a crusade for social justice. When I met David Bacon in September, I had the chance to tell him that in person.

The authors of Half the Sky do the same thing, right from the start. And here’s what I especially appreciated about their introduction:

“Honor killings, sexual slavery, and genital cutting may seem to Western readers to be tragic but inevitable in a world far, far away. In much the same way, slavery was once widely viewed by many decent Europeans and Americans as a regrettable but ineluctable feature of human life…But then in the 1780s a few indignant Britons, led by William Wilberforce, decided that slavery was so offensive that they had to abolish it. And they did.” (p. xxii)

Calls to action don’t get much bolder than that, do they?

Think that you’re busy? That the problems you’re confronting are intractable? That you lack the funds, or the technology, or the public opinion that you need to move the needle on your social injustice of choice? Um, try abolishing slavery, unilaterally, at the height of the global slave trade, at a national cost of almost 2% of GNP per year for SIXTY years (plus one brief war and three war scares).

Half the Sky returns to the abolitionist Brits at the end of the book, in the appropriately-titled “What you can do” chapter. There, they pinpoint as the key factor of success the abolitionist activists’ ability to document and vividly describe the horrific abuses and injustices visited upon slaves–this idea that we advocates seem to instinctively know (although sometimes forget)–that building relationships, however vicariously, and helping people to connect in meaningful ways with suffering that we will otherwise try to ignore is the best (and sometimes only) way to build inexorable momentum for dramatic social change. In fact, they cite some very powerful social research that statistics and generalized cries of alarm tend to repel solidarity and collective action, while personal stories of those impacted draw people in and can, even, compel significant sacrifice in pursuit of justice.

So, besides really trying to influence my son to choose William Wilberforce or Thomas Clarkson as his ‘historical hero’ in the 5th grade, what do I take away from this refresher course in the thrilling history of abolition?

Really, just a reminder of what I already know to be true:

  • There are no excuses. I’m making a renewed commitment to being the kind of person that people shake their heads at, wondering ‘what in the world has gotten into her?’ I will be unreasonably passionate about injustice. I will not pursue pragmatism.
  • We don’t win people over with logic; we win them over by igniting their love for their fellow human being.
  • We can’t wait for the numbers to look good for us. Public opinion alone is seldom sufficient for social change, and so facing significant opposition is no reason to wait.
  • No matter how hard I might think I’m working on a particular cause, or even in general, I’m not even beginning to give what women around the world are giving to their quest for justice. I can and must do more.

    After devouring Half the Sky, I don’t feel guilty. I feel emboldened. Audacious, even. And angry. And part of a much larger whole. And ready, to think really, really, really big, impossibly big.

    So I don’t apologize, if you are one of the dozens of people I’ve grabbed this week and told, “you must read this book!” I won’t apologize for asking you to write letters and give money, for telling you stories that are horrifying and galvanizing at the same time, and for not shutting up about the tragedy that is our treatment of women and girls around the world. We’ve got better tools and more inspiration than those Brits did in the 18th century. We can make this the century in which we eradicate the ills that have thus far plagued us.

    I want it to be written, “and they did.”

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