My Declaration of Interdependence: In Memory of Professor Maya Angelou
By Sherick Hughes, UNC-Chapel Hill
On Thursday, October 1, 1998, I was moved for the first time in my adult life to write publically on the issues of the freedom of speech and the right to peaceful assembly in support of my fellow allies, classmates, students and colleagues from the LGBT community. I was one of many graduate students at Wake Forest University (WFU) who became quite angry by the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) leaders’ insistence upon exercising their public “rights” to come to our private university to express their shame of WFU due to its Southern Baptist roots, but support of an “active pro-gay group” and “pervert, Maya Angelou.” I grew up in the Baptist church in North Carolina and while I was all too familiar with the WBC’s discourse, I felt that my silence would offer an inadvertent sign of my acquiescence to their ignorance and hatred. The WBC not only insulted my LGBT peers, but they also insulted one of the pillars of the community when they attempted to trash the name of one of our most celebrated university professors, the late Dr. Maya Angelou. My 1998 letter to the editor of WFU’s Old Gold and Black was published and a former professor of mine noted that it had been read and considered by members of the leadership of WFU. I have no confirmation of that fact, but I can say with confidence that the WBC were allowed to come to campus, but not on a busy campus day, like they planned. In fact, the date that they arrived in protest was a day that many folks who would normally be on campus were away. I was not even aware of the actual date that they arrived in protest.
Until yesterday via social media, it had been nearly 16 years, since I thought about the Westboro Baptist Church. Now, from my understanding, they plan to protest tomorrow (on my birthday) at the WFU memorial ceremony for the late Professor Maya Angelou. Again, I am angry that our democracy would allow an anti-gay hate group to protest against Professor Angelou on campus. How could our law be amended to protect the right of Professor Angelou to rest in peace and the rights of her loved ones and admirers to mourn in peace without our rights being encroached upon, yet again, by an organization that seems to condone the hatred of all but themselves? So, today, I plead with editors and general readers to consider my Declaration of Interdependence as we lean forward together to consider how one hate group may adopt an independent approach to misusing its rights and ours and whether such groups should be protected by the same statutes they mock and abuse.
My Declaration of Interdependence
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to thwart the progression of hate organizations in the United States, it is important to remember the ethos upon which our country was founded. Eleven score and nearly eighteen years ago, our forefathers conceded that under the laws of the Constitution, “All men are created equal,” and still, 238 years later, a group which denies the application of these inalienable rights to gay and lesbian students and their allies, like the late Professor Maya Angelou, seeks welcome on the WFU campus.
Two hundred years later, a group that masks its intentions of hate through the euphemistic name of Westboro Baptist Church wants admission to the memorial service of Professor Angelou. Two hundred years later, a group that rebukes universities for having an “active pro-gay groups” and for having the deceased “pervert, Maya Angelou” as a faculty member requests permission slips for her campus memorial service.
Two hundred years later, a group with the web site address www.godhatesfags.com confuses university officials and legislators about the ethical and right answer to the freedom of speech question. The right answer is, “not now, not here!” Constituents of the Westboro Baptist Church pose “clear and present danger” to the survival of America. This antigay hate organization tends to gain admission to our universities (including our memorial services) if they agree to pose a non-confrontational demonstration. Our Constitution does address the right of citizens to a peaceful assembly. However, we should question the intent and ability of a hate group to forge non-confrontational peace, for the very nature of hatred, defined as “active malice,” precludes positive, constructive discourse and assembly. Under the founding laws of our country, citizens are afforded the freedom of speech: a measure that was seemingly intended to inspire dialogue. Yet, never in the history of the United States has a pure hate group accepted dialogue with the object of its hatred. Hate organizations rely upon coercion and fear in order to advance a malicious monologue that attempts to eliminate the hated “other.”
When we accept discourse about the elimination of gay and lesbian students, we accept discourse about the elimination of their allies. When we accept discourse about the elimination of their allies, we accept discourse about the elimination of our colleagues, associates, students and friends. When we accept discourse about the elimination of our colleagues, associates, students and friends, we accept discourse about the elimination of ourselves. When we embrace the speech of human elimination, we must accept that the freedom of speech has gone awry.
Some believe that gay and lesbian students are cursed (and therefore deserving of hatred) because of an interpretation of biblical scripture. Similarly, people of African descent are believed to be cursed beings. However, this notion is not formed until long after the original documents that together became The Holy Bible that we know today. The notion of the curse of people of color emerges after the oral traditions were collected in the Babylonian Talmud from the second century to the sixth century A.D. In these accounts, the descendants of Noah’s son Ham are supposedly cursed and through this curse, his posterity is to be (come) black. Historians noted several contradictory legends concerning Ham (e.g., Gossett, 1963). Perhaps, we can agree to let s/he who has no sin decide God’s true word concerning cursed people.
I have no profound answers for the questions, “What are the central values of the American private universities with historically Baptist roots?” “How should those values manifest when a fellow Baptist organization intends to come to campus to protest against LGBT students and allies dead or alive?” However, as an American citizen with a family of eight generations in the United States of America, I have learned that we must never tolerate terrorism under the blanket of religion and free speech. Instead, we must exercise our right to free speech and peaceful assembly by declaring our interdependence and denying independent hate groups the legal right to intimidate us with hate speech and assemblies of symbolic violence, at best.
Dr. Sherick Hughes is an Associate Professor of Cultural Studies and Literacies in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the Founder and Director of the Interpretive Research Suite & Bruce A. Carter Qualitative Thought Lab. Hughes has authored and edited over 50 scholarly publications including: the Critics’ Choice Award-Winning book, Black Hands in the Biscuits Not in the Classrooms; award-nominee The Evolving Significance of Race (with Theodorea Berry); and the 2013 Special Issue of Race, Ethnicity and Education in honor of the educational legacy of the late Professor Derrick Bell. Hughes was the recipient of the 2013 Early Career Award from Division G of the American Educational Research Association and he is active with the national Save Our Schools and United Opt Out movements.