There’s a certain feel of justice when we witness an aggrieved party, who has been treated with less human dignity than he deserves, rather than cower confronts the oppressor. It’s even sweeter justice when such defiance was decisive in halting, or helping alleviate, the injustice. We may be witnessing such a pivotal event in the ongoing presidential politics, post-Democratic National Convention.
How much easier is it as human beings, when faced with dehumanization by supposedly larger more powerful forces, to take flight, to seek cover and nurse our wounded pride and repair our broken self-worth?
History suggests that a sublime form of courage is the act of simple resistance to assert one’s being, one’s very existence against a tyrannical force that would rather have the “defiant one” diminished or disappeared.
Thus, we celebrate Malala Yousafzai when, through her simple act of going to school, she refuses to be cowered by the Taliban’s deviant interpretation of Islamic texts that reduces women to sub-human status.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s earned iconic status is the result of a life spent working to dismantle a system of dehumanization that was Jim Crow, as is Gandhi’s based on his valiant struggle against the British Empire’s excesses against his people. And so with Nelson Mandela pushing back fearless against the stifling apartheid juggernaut.
Going further back in history, we find resistance to tyranny in scriptural texts many of us hold dear. Prominently, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions recognize, and are inspired by, the story of Moses’ act of brave resistance against the mighty yet unjust sovereign the Pharaoh represented.
Witness then the past few days when a Gold Star American family not only spoke out courageously against the bigoted policy pronouncements of a pompous presidential candidate, but also subsequently stood up to his crassness and bullying with principled firmness and stoic grace. One cannot but be reminded of the historic power of the voice and resistance in righting so many past wrongs.
For over 15 months now, this particular presidential candidate has channeled his extraordinarily privileged voice not to promote our common values but to serially disparage, delegitimize and dehumanize a large cross-section of America’s uniquely rich diversity: immigrants, women, Muslims, people with a disability, critics and minority ethnicities.
A billionaire businessman, who enjoys uncommon access and status, he seeks to ascend to the highest office in the land, to be the most powerful man on Earth, using a platform that renders – as evident in his reckless rhetoric and policy pronouncements – a significant chunk of the citizenry he seeks to lead as somehow less human than himself or his family and, by extension, less deserving of basic constitutionally protected human rights and dignity.
In the Khan family’s courageous act of resistance lies a lesson for us all as Americans: Against those who seek to deal us less than our full human dignity, against those – whether power structures or power-seeking individuals – who would strip us of our humanity and curtail our God-bestowed rights, against those who would relegate us to a lower tier, resistance is not only the right response, but it also puts you in great historical company.
I am an immigrant, a Muslim and an African-American. That’s three strikes (at least) against me in the dark America of a certain presidential aspirant.
Thankfully, the Khans this week – and the decency and kindness of the multitudes who stood with them – reminded me of a sunnier, brighter America I and many fell in love with. I’m also reminded of two simple but potent counter-oppression measures at my disposal: my vote and my voice! The power of either cannot be underestimated. Indeed, for most of us, it’s the least act of resistance, the bare minimum we can put up.
Sheriff Drammeh of Raleigh is program associate at the Sonja H Stone Center for Black Culture and History, UNC-Chapel Hill. The views expressed are his alone.