Could I be labeled as an “outsider” today in my own country? After close to 18 years of international work on human rights issues, I’m back in the United States (U.S.) examining historical human rights violations against African-Americans to learn lessons on how to promote human rights. As I’m critically looking at why it took Americans hundreds of years to end slavery and another hundred years to end segregation, I’m worrying that my own compatriots might call me an “outsider” as a means to refute the critique I am beginning to develop.
I’ve been called the equivalent of outsider in foreign countries, but I never thought I could hear it in my own country. No one has called me an outsider. But my sixth sense along with advice of Southern friends indicates that I need to tread carefully. Maybe my sensitivity relates to years of working overseas or maybe I’ve delved so deeply into the past that I am blurring the lines between the past and the present. Yet, something suggests that this history is still sensitive and that this moniker could still be used as a means to counter critique.
Admittedly, I am not in my hometown. But, I am not sure if I would be recognized as a local anywhere. My roots run deep on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, which is my family base. I, however, outside of holidays and summer vacations, have never lived in this town. I grew up in New York State, but I essentially left this town immediately after high school. All other residences have been short-term.
I chose my new residence in Alabama for its historical relevance to the U.S. struggle for racial equality. Whereas in other countries I am working on issues remotely related to me, I am now examining issues that directly affect my national identity as an American. And as I might take pride in the founding ideals of this country or the U.S.’ engagement in World War II to fight fascism, I feel equally a need to be humbled by the atrocities committed in this country, including slavery and segregation.
What becomes tricky is the reality that these atrocities are primarily associated with the Deep South. And the linkages between national, state, and city history may not be automatically appreciated when it concerns controversial issues. Something internal tells me to explain that I originate from a former slave state and a state that legalized segregation. That something also advises me to declare that I am a great granddaughter of a former slave owner and a granddaughter of those who stood on the sidelines as segregation was upheld. But do I need to raise these associations to feel a sense of responsibility for the atrocities committed in my own country? Isn’t simply being an American sufficient?
Dr. King, even as a Southern African-American, battled similar sentiments. He begins his famed “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by countering criticism of the “outsiders coming in.” Birminghamians were not the only people to use this moniker. It was pervasive. I heard it growing up. My grandmother invokes this name to explain what happened in Cambridge, Maryland in 1963.
Like Dr. King in Birmingham, AL, those outsiders in Cambridge were protesting segregation. While my grandmother contends that “things were fine” before the “outsiders” arrived, the fact is, nine years after the Supreme Court decision on Brown versus Board of Education, the local community had not integrated the schools. With the arrival of the outsiders a quiet small town suddenly became a scene of repeated protests and sit-ins with incidents of violent white resistance. While, like my grandmother, I regret the violence that erupted, and I do appreciate the trauma this small town endured, I nonetheless, unlike my grandmother, feel that the outsiders were justified in coming to Cambridge. Outsiders had a right to demonstrate for change.
Dr. King eloquently argued this point in his letter: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” I take solace in these words. These words defend why I am looking at the history of the “Deep South” as it relates to my national identity as well as family identity. I could also easily invoke these words in my work overseas.
President Kennedy’s speech announcing his intentions to call on Congress to pass civil rights legislation in June 1963 further justifies my research. President Kennedy, with specific reference to Alabama, saw resistance to segregation as “a moral crisis” for the country. He recognized that racial discrimination was pervasive throughout the country and that the remedy entailed more than just government action: “It is time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives…. [L]egislation, I repeat, cannot solve this problem alone. It must be solved in the homes of every American in every community across our country.”
As Cambridge illustrates, President Kennedy and Dr. King’s words were not readily received. Martial law in Cambridge was declared three days after the President’s speech. It would be unfair to paint the resistance as simply deep-rooted prejudices. I am actually baffled by my grandmother’s objection to the outsiders’ engagement. She was not a white supremacist, and in small ways, such as giving credit equally to black and white customers at the family country store, she defied the system. But if she believed that “things were fine” before the outsiders came, she did not fully appreciate the injustice of segregation. Maybe the trauma of the events has overshadowed her objectivity. However, those outside agitators were instrumental in ending segregation throughout the U.S.
So, maybe these monikers should, instead, be seen as positives instead of negatives. And, until I become perceived as a local, I guess I will remain an outsider. Possibly I will be an outsider for perpetuity. Perceptions of who is a local are subjective and even residence and family ties do not confer one’s status as a local. Calling someone an outsider is a defense mechanism to refute criticism. However, human rights violations are moral issues and we all have a right to speak out. Maybe, instead of fearing this moniker, I should strive to earn the title outsider.