Journalist, author and alumnus Issac "Ike" Bailey delivered an address based upon this piece at the college's Oct. 28 Fall Convocation celebration.
Bailey's writing demonstrates compassion and insight; it is born of his experiences as a black man from South Carolina whose fight to be heard and understood has been both metaphorical and literal.
First, to those who are hurting:
Fight when you must. Dance when you can.
Fight to get through. Dance to get to.
If you need to survive, fight. If you need to create, dance.
For the privileged:
Difference leads to discomfort. But it only becomes disadvantage when the privileged come to view comfort as a destination, not as a tool.
One of the under-discussed problems of our time is the peddling of half-truths to the already-hurting. They must fight for everything, we tell them, when fighting too long and too consistently can lead to a kind of self-destruction and a self-defeating, joy-stealing cynicism.
What doesn't kill them will make them stronger, we frequently tell them, when, in fact, what doesn't kill them can cripple them in ways not seen, even if they survive, and can convince them the world is unfair, that they should take their eyes off God and forget the purpose for which they've been created.
We need to start reminding them of the other half of those truths. It doesn't matter if we are talking about domestic violence, or the unrest in Charlotte, or stuttering. Yes, the already-hurting must fight to survive, to save themselves physically and emotionally and spiritually and psychically, and fight for as long as they must, and wherever and whenever and however they must, to get through. But once they reach the other side, they must dance, because that's where their voice is, where their rhythm can be found, their talents can be utilized, their insight realized. That's where they can choose a partner, or choose to stand alone. That's where their creativity can blossom, because they get to set their own pace and be unafraid of stepping on the toes of others, or having their own toes stepped on.
They must dance every chance they can. Because they need to. Because we need them to.
Fight when you must. Dance when you can.
Fight to get through. Dance to get to.
But they can't know that if all they are told, all they ever believe, is the half-truth that what doesn't kill them will make them stronger. No. What doesn't kill them will make them stronger only if they make it make them stronger. It's not automatic. Overcoming struggle and coming out better on the other side is not a birthright. In fact, challenge, real challenge, and inequality and poverty and pain have led to heartache and brokenness more than triumph. We must remind the already-hurting of that reality, of that possibility, not to discourage them, but to arm them. They need to know that sometimes you survive a fight and come out on the other side with scars and open wounds, sometimes broken bones and a sense that things will never be fair, can never be fair, that the mountain really is too high to scale so there's no real use of trying to climb, that having simply survived is enough, that that's achievement in and of itself.
But it's not, because they've been created to do more, to be more. If they are reminded to dance, become convinced that what they've endured did not rob them of the ability to, if they tap into the courage they already possess, to put one foot in front of the other, to drop the weapons that served them well in their fight and slip on their dancing shoes, they will find their purpose and fulfill it.
For much of my life, I didn't know this and fought long past the time I had already survived the battle. I was likely poised to step out of a mild stutter like most kids do, until my oldest brother stabbed a man 48 times and almost took his head off and was convicted of first-degree murder and sent to prison for 32 years -- I was nine years old. He had been my hero, the man who protected me from bullies and my mom from my drunken, abusive father. That's when my stutter worsened and deepened and why it has stuck with me into adulthood. And that's why I had to fight, because it was the only way to survive.
It felt embarrassing and demeaning to not be able to command words and have them flow freely from my mouth the way everyone else could. I have been laughed at and ridiculed and under-estimated because I "talk funny." Worse, I began to believe that those labels fit me, that that's who I was and would always be, and that meant I'd always have to fight to speak, to be heard, to not lose myself. And it hurt like hell and is why I began sitting in the back corner of classrooms, why I came up with all sorts of ways to find some kind of relief -- tapping my index finger on the side of my head, rocking back and forth, clicking my tongue, counting to 10 -- even if it only lasted for a few minutes or a few days and would end up causing me even greater pain and stack bad habits on top of my already severe challenge.
And I fought. And I fought. And I kept fighting -- even after I had reached a point where the fight was no longer necessary, because I had survived. That's what I was fighting so desperately to do, just survive. But that blinded me to the need to dance, to the fact that I even could, or should. Unwittingly, I had allowed fighting to become a crutch. Maintaining that reality -- holding fast to the level of survival I had established -- became more important than fulfilling the purpose for which I was born.
It took me a long time to realize that I needed to dance, too -- too long. But once I began, stuttering loosened its grip.
When I left Davidson, my first interview was for a teaching fellowship at Charlotte Country Day School. I showed up and sat at the head of a long table with maybe 10 interviewers. They asked me a question and I began to fight my stutter, to force words freely from my mouth. It didn't work. The more I stumbled over every word, the more the interviewers began dropping their pens and stopped taking notes and sat back in their chairs. I kept talking, if you could call what I was doing talking, because I was told and taught to fight, to never back down. And they kept not listening. I was later told that they couldn't envision me in front of a classroom teaching their students -- because of my stutter.
But had I learned to dance by that point, I would not have just sat there and fought. I would have done what I'm doing up on this stage now. I would have stood up and moved around, because that movement provides me the rhythm I need to produce more fluent speech. I would have held a marker in my left hand like I am now, because something about that small act helps to relax my muscles in a way fighting or trying to kill off my stutter never could. I would have spent the week before, not practicing before a mirror and rehearsing potential questions, as fluent speakers are rightly told to do, but rather finding ways to step outside of myself emotionally and psychically, because I would have known that the battle scars from my long fight had affected my self-image, that I'd have to dig deeper to find and rely upon my true self. I would have danced in that small room before those interviewers instead of sitting still in that chair fighting an unnecessary fight instead. And had I done that, it would have been easier for them to envision me standing in front of a classroom teaching their students, stutter and all.
That's why the already-hurting, the vulnerable, must be reminded to fight when they must -- but only when they must -- and to dance when they can, whenever and wherever and however they can. That's why they must know that fighting gets you through, but dancing gets you to; that if they need to survive, they must fight, but if they need to achieve, dance.
The privileged need to understand their role as well.
They need to know that difference leads to discomfort, but that it only becomes disadvantage when the privileged come to view comfort as a destination, not as a tool. Comfort helps us heal, gives us rest. But that healing is wasted if the privileged remain in its warmth for too long.
That's why if you are among the privileged, comfort should neither be your guide, nor your God.
Yes, hold fast to comfort when it's time to heal. But embrace comfort when it's time to grow, for if you are really serious about making profound, lasting change, you must understand the role of your own comfort.
When you prioritize your own comfort, you begin to wonder why the already-hurting are fighting so hard. And you just want them to shut up because they are making you uncomfortable -- even though they are fighting like hell for their very survival while peace and quiet, not justice, become your goal. And you become a stumbling block to those struggling. Why? Because they can feel your discomfort and part of their fight becomes trying to make you comfortable. That's one of the lessons I've learned from stuttering, that I spent too many years fighting my stutter, not to find my purpose, but to put those around me at ease. It's a perversity that the already-hurting, the disadvantaged, in the midst of their fight, prioritize the comfort of the privileged -- because the privileged so often prioritize comfort above all else.
That's why the privileged have a choice to make: run to comfort to protect their own sense of peace, or do something different by standing in the middle of the discomfort with the already-hurting -- for as long as it takes, for as long as they need to fight -- and helping them get through so we all can dance together on the other side.
Issac Bailey's work has appeared in publications including Politico and CNN. He also is the author of Proud. Black. Southern. (But I Still Don't Eat Watermelon in Front of White People).