I don’t know how I managed to steer myself away from what I really wanted to do “when I grew up.” But, in the months before I applied to this University, my answer changed from “actress” to “civil rights attorney,” and it remained that way until the overdue awakening of 2020 galvanized me into my own personal reckoning.
Before the summer of 2020, I was convinced that there was only one way to address the sociopolitical inequities that I quickly — and furiously — became aware of at a young age. And it was not until recently that I ever once considered the arts as a useful tool — up until then, it was only the law. But the more socially conscious I became, the more disillusioned I became with it. Because really, you can only see law enforcers and lawmakers disrespect, criminalize, negate and end your existence so many times before you start looking for another way, another approach, another weapon to resist.
Earlier this week, I watched A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks, a HBO Max documentary that chronicles the life of renowned photographer, writer, film director and activist Gordon Parks. The documentary explores Parks’ life through a mixture of interviews with contemporary photographers and filmmakers who are inspired by his legacy along with archival footage of Parks speaking about his own work.
In the film, Gordon Parks says, “I tried to use the camera to sort of correct the things that I experienced as a young Black man coming up in America.”
With his photographs, Gordon Parks beautifully captured the mundane, the anguish, the joy and the humanity of Black Americans, using his camera as a weapon to fight the social injustice that plagued his community.
I didn’t understand the tremendous importance of the arts until I started to take refuge from — while simultaneously gaining insight about — the world through films, photography, creative writing, music and creation. A Choice of Weapons really cemented how essential Black-led art is for not only the individual psyche of a Black American, but also the American psyche as a whole. Jelani Cobb, author, educator and interviewee in A Choice of Weapons, comments on the significance of visual narratives, saying that “Gordon resonates because life has continually reminded us of things that he tried to tell us. We have seen in Minneapolis, […] the most brutal depictions of racism. And you know, we’ve seen just how crucial images are to us understanding our own humanity.”
I have wanted to act in films since I was four years old. Though it is not clear to me how I talked myself out of something I had always been incredibly passionate about, I do understand why. A few months ago, I had a conversation with one of my roommates about how eerie it is that we and so many of our friends who are BIPOC consider “social justice” as one of our main passions. Though it is of course rational to have an intense enthusiasm for equitable socioeconomic and sociopolitical rights, it is also disconcerting. For many people, a passion is something that they can lose track of time doing, something that brings them unbridled joy. But for so many people of color, and my otherwise disenfranchised peers, so often our passions are so deeply entwined with something we need for ourselves and our communities, rather than just something we want and desire for ourselves. By the time I was old enough to understand just how depraved this Nation can be towards my community, it felt less important to follow my own personal dreams and more important that I played a role in ensuring that people in my community have the liberty to dream at all.
It took me a while to get over the guilt of wanting a career that did not so apparently present itself as a way to participate in the movement. While I was ruminating on that guilt, however, a good friend of mine reminded me, “Black people watch TV too.” This helped me realize just how deep inside the box I was in terms of thinking about what can make an impact on society. This generation, especially, is so influenced by the media – what we watch, listen to and consume – and I strongly believe that the stories we tell and the images we show define who we are as a society. It is how we see ourselves and how society responds accordingly.
I realize now that my choice of weapon against the powers that be does not have to be as concrete as a career in law. Instead, it can encompass a multitude of passions that allow me to showcase my own humanity while still challenging the insidious reality that my community faces every day.
Sidney Malia Waite is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected]. Waite, What? runs every other Tuesday this semester.