Having lost Maya Angelou only a few days ago, I'm reminded of her indefatigable commitment to not merely embrace the world but to wrestle with its problems and not let them go until the world became better for everyone. Among the many trending subjects that happened today, one was notable and came out of a dialogue posted on YouTube between Angelou and none other than Dave Chappelle. The quote that resonated was her enjoinment to him:
"If you're not angry, you're either a stone, or too sick to be angry. You should be angry...You must not be bitter. Let me show you why. Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn't do anything to the object of its displeasure. So you said anger, yes. You write it. You paint it. You dance it. You march it. You vote it. You do everything about it, You talk it. Never stop talking it."
You can watch the whole video here, and it's worth your while. But it got me thinking about Maya Angelou, and the person who started her writing. It was none other than James Baldwin.
A renowned person of letters has a serious talk with a contemporary comedian and wisdom results. Well, thinking about James Baldwin naturally got me thinking about one of my earliest (and ongoing) partners in activism and political consciousness, Dick Gregory. I was recently sent a video of Baldwin and Gregory in a public salon in the '60s. You can watch this video here, and it's worth your while too, though a bit longer than the Chappelle/Gregory one. Nobody is every surprised at the eloquence of Baldwin, but this might be an early glimpse into the political wherewithal of Gregory. Starting close to the 36-minute mark, Gregory holds forth on an important truth and tells a lovely story of one of my inspirations, Father Groppi.
In these troubling days of escalating violence around the world with national tensions on the rise in the South China Sea and a coup in the Kingdom of Thailand, these days of senseless violence domestically with the misogynist-driven mass killings by Elliot Rodger and the attempt (thankfully averted) to Florida's attempt to draw a precise line to allow it to use the death penalty against the cognitively impaired, in a world where concern for human rights takes a backseat to who wore what at the latest Kardashian wedding, it is affirming to be reminded of certain truths. And it is true that one needs an attitude for human rights as an important start to work for achieving them. Speaking as someone who has made it a core mission of my organization, the Human Rights Action Center, to campaign for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) to be printed in passports globally, it is a strange thing to admit that the first need is the right attitude: to work for others' well-being and to embrace the impulse to and idea of human rights.
After all, those who have been tortured and detained over the past several decades due to clearcut violations of legible and defined human rights would not fill a stadium. It would not fill ten of them. Those people would fill every single stadium on the planet and then some. Let's not even discuss the numbers that would be represented if we included the disappeared and the killed. They might have been killed by those lacking the necessary attitude, but they were victimized in ways that involved measurable violations of specific human rights. Their numbers are countless, greater than any demonstration you've ever seen, greater than all you've ever seen or read about.
In defending human rights for all people it's imperative to have a single universal standard. Particular societies may have additional privileges or opportunities afforded to them by material abundance or geographic luck. But the principle for a single universal standard of human rights for all peoples is the genius of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights and the possibility for people to achieve measurable and specific human rights goals both explicit (the right to freedom from torture) and implicit (as evidenced by Navi Pillay's groundbreaking recognition of LGBT rights). We can not defend human rights selectively. You support all the articles in the UDHR as a matter of principle or you fail in supporting a single universal standard.
But what resonates the most when it comes to success in this regard is that to fight for human rights necessitates an attitude more than specific knowledge, and that though one might move forward with anger that it is imperative to release the bitterness. Take Angelou's injunction seriously with regard to human rights and keep your anger to defend them and march it and vote it and let your representatives know that you intend to do so, wherever you may be.