Summer Series #12: In the Wake of Charlottesville, Why Freedom of Speech Matters

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By Valerie Wu

A few months ago, I was fortunate enough to interview Malak Shahin, the founder and editor-in-chief of Ascend Magazine, for an article I was writing on literary activism. Shahin is a Palestinian American who cares deeply about effecting social change, especially in securing justice for Palestine. The goal of Ascend was to provide a creative space where art and protest could intersect. When I asked her whether she believed that art was inherently connected to activism, she responded with: “Art is a form of self-determination...giving people the resources to make art can, in some ways, be liberating or at the very least a step towards liberation.”

In a way, I think that art does embody a freedom of expression. Shahin, who is a Palestinian American and writes to evoke empathy for her people, is in her right to make art. I worked with Ascend for a while to curate a “Diversity Spotlight” feature, which aimed to highlight minorities advocating through the content they produce. We covered films, writing, and music--all forms of liberation for the people who made them. And when we experienced that art for ourselves, we learned more about the people who made them.

As a high school journalist, I think that bridging the divide--politically and socially--comes from looking at an issue from both sides. The nation is struggling with race at the intersection of politics and protest, as evidenced by this week’s happenings in Charlottesville. There is a culture of hate that finds its breeding grounds in racially charged violence and overt discrimination. Yet what’s happening in Charlottesville isn’t new; subtle incidents of prejudice have been occurring since we began to acknowledge our differences in not only skin color, but identity.

Last week, Diana Ratcliff--Heather Heyer’s cousin--made a comment that I still can’t stop thinking about. She asked, “Why is it that the death of a white woman at the hands of a white supremacist group has finally gotten the attention of white folk?”

Why is it? This is a question that has become crucial to understanding the very nature of our society and how it operates. Because if we are only just now acknowledging the white woman who dies, we are in a sense, erasing the deaths of the black communities, the Latino communities, the Asian American communities, that have died before--that have lost their culture because of these white supremacist values and the privilege they take for granted.

For four months, I interviewed these communities, the artists and changemakers. I talked to Malak Shahin, who is Palestinian American and is acutely familiar with this sort of marginalization. I traveled to the South Bronx and visited an “activist poetry cafe,” where chefs were actively resisting stereotypes by making better food and writers were writing their resistance. I met graffiti artists who were painting murals to protest gentrification. I researched and wrote and researched and wrote some more. I found out that many literary magazines who advocate for diversity are actually led by white women, and that there is an inherent minority bias within the publication industry. Art has sparked a social justice movement, and awareness of these issues regarding race relations comes from education. Because Diana Ratcliff is right; we can’t just rely on what’s happening now to understand what it means for the future.

Through my time as a journalist of color, I’ve learned what it means to tell the stories that matter. Right now, we’re giving the platform to the wrong people. We don’t call what’s happening in Charlottesville terrorism because we don’t want to imagine anyone--Americans--as terrorists. We don’t want to think that racism still exists, and that it’s real and present today. It’s not just in our history books.

Forms of expression are and always will be a form of expression and resistance. What I’ve learned, though, is that it is necessary to provide words for those who do not have them. In today's America, it's crucial that we act as the voices of those typically underrepresented in history: the immigrants, the non-binary, those who have been discriminated against throughout the ages. We cannot be bystanders to historical oppression, just as we cannot forget the fact that history is multi-dimensional. The diversity of perspectives and voices is what allows us to make ethical decisions today--decisions that ultimately take into account the needs of each individual, people, and nation.

As a global citizen, it's my responsibility to care about the future of not just my country, but also the world and how we tell its story. That’s what I view freedom of speech as: speech that empowers. And as a human being, it's my duty to speak about what is so often lost: the truth.


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