Speaking with Sean Clancy, Nate Powell talked about the ways he views his own activism. He says, “I’m like the vast majority of people. I show up and I use the time and energy from other parts of my life to make up for the fact that I’m less involved on a direct action level. A lot of that means putting my concerns and my heart and soul into the books I make.” In many ways, this is how I view my own work and activism. While I came of age listening to punk rock and being “rebellious,” whatever the hell that means in my case, I didn’t actively participate in protests or activism growing up. In fact, I was blind to the myriad of things that I should have protested and fought against. This is why I identify so much with “Wingnut,” the final piece in Powell’s Save It For Later.
When faced with fascism, hate, or racism, many of us kick the can down the road, saying that someone else will come along, someone else will stand up. We’re Miss Maudie and the women in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird who say Atticus speaks for us so we won’t have to. However, this failure to speak or protest merely exacerbates and perpetuates the issues, expanding the disparities that already exist. Continuing the imagery of roots that seep into our psyches from earlier in “Wingnut,” Powell shows a panel of a gardener pulling up weeds and placing them in a wheelbarrow. Here, he narrates, “We spin our wheels about whether or not this is our present moment, if that can happen here, when it already has.” Instead of asking ourselves, “Can this happen here?” we must realize these issues already exist here, and the only way to get rid of them is to pull them up by the roots, because if we wait, the weeds will spread over the entire area.
In response to the call of who will stand up, Powell details how he’d make signs with “uncontroversial slogans” and walk around his town square, going against the traffic. This solo act allowed him “to return to [his] everyday responsibilities feeling that [he’d] done something.” Those responsibilities, though, exist in conjunction with the visible protest Powell engages in as he walks around the town square. They work in tandem to plant seeds in different psyches, in different ways, and they serve, each of them, as protest and activism. Powell’s visible protest plants seeds even in people that his daughter never expected.
Walking down the street with a sign that reads “Child Concentration Camps are Evil,” a “rebel flag-toting hillbilly” approaches Powell and his daughter asking what the sign is about. Powell follows this panel up with two depicting the interaction between Powell and the man from his daughter’s point of view. Throughout the book, Powell has pointed out to his daughter what symbols such as the Confederate battle flag represent and what those symbols convey about the person who flies or wears the flag. As Powell and the man speak, we only see their hands and the man’s Confederate battle flag belt buckle, which Powell’s daughter stares at in a mixture of fear and astonishment at the conversation taking place. Powell narrates, “I’ve had the highest level of success discussing family separations and child detention camps with these dudes” because people “are receptive to universal moral arguments about many issues.”
In the panel that shows Powell and the man shaking hands, Powell’s daughter darts her eyes up at her father in a shocked manner, not comprehending the moment, especially after Powell tells her about the battle flag and what it represents. However, Powell shows his daughter, in this moment, the importance of civil conversation and of planting seeds. He narrates, “plant a seed, take the win.” This doesn’t mean that the man will change his mind all of the sudden or that he will ditch the battle flag, but it does mean that he will probably think about his reaction to seeing someone protesting child separation.
Even though Powell has interactions such as this, he still feels, as we all do, the fear of “discomfort and embarrassment” being the only one, or one of the only ones, standing up. These feelings cloud everyday decisions that Powell makes, and they cloud the decisions that I make as well. For everyone who drives by honking or giving a thumbs up for Powell’s signs, others yell from their cars, “Get a life you fkn idiot!” These feelings, as well, cause Powell to, as he says, experience “a gradual increase in my own anxiety about consequence, harassment, and violence whenever I wear a protest shirt at the grocery store, at a comic con, at a random gas station of a cross-country trip.”
I connect with Powell’s honesty here, because I feel these same anxieties, especially living, as Powell does, in an extremely homogenous area where signs of extremism appear everyday as I drive down the roads. When I go to the grocery store with a Black Lives Matter mask, a woman leans to her partner and scoffs, basically saying, “Can you believe that?” As I walk down the road to a gallery show at the museum wearing my Dan Nguyen Black Lives Matter shirt, a truck speeds by on the road, as I have my head down, and someone screams out the window, “Fuck you.” Even without these moments, I’m conscience of the reactions when I wear these items, yet I must wear them.
My discomfort is nothing compared to the discomfort and anxiety of others who do not have the privilege of whiteness to keep them safe from the overt hatred and authoritarianism on display around them everyday. So, I stand in the mirror, like Powell, and realize that when I hesitate due to the minor discomfort “the needle has shifted toward internalized authoritarianism” because I do not speak up, no matter if it is wearing a shirt or mask or protesting. I must remember that while I do these things to speak up, I also do them to model for my kids “that despite all the tension, division, and violence, standing up for other people isn’t optional” because “justice, equality, and peace require constant vigilance, even at the risk to ourselves.” We cannot be Miss Maudie relying on others to speak up. We must do it ourselves because when we fail to respond, we let the weeds spread and engulf everything.
Next post, I’ll continue looking at Powell’s Save It For Later. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.