Literati, as a space, encompasses the energy that all bookstores have. It is warm, somewhat crowded, and smells like coffee. Heather Ann Thompson filled that space with a lively personality with a lot of interesting things to say.
Thompson spoke about many things that I am sure we have all thought about but have never taken the time to articulate. Thompson prioritizes taking the enormous amount of knowledge that exists in classrooms and giving it context. Her contempt of academia for the purposes of academia was obvious – that is why she identifies as both an academic and as a public intellectual.
I sense this effect in my own writing – I am drifting towards writing for professors and GSIs. I find myself adding lofty jargon to my writing that, I half-heartedly believe, elevates my writing to sound more “professional”. Right now, there is a huge implication to inaccessible knowledge. As a student studying public policy, I learn more and more every day about the lengths politicians will go to make legislation dense and full of technical language. This language only serves to make the regular citizen struggle to understand how they are governed. So, even though the information is “available”, it is not “accessible”. This is not an accident. Even in academia, when the motives aren’t as malicious, creating inaccessible knowledge does a good job of creating information only the “elite” can access. Thompson is chipping away at that practice, from the inside.
Another thing I really enjoyed about Thompson’s talk was her struggle with writing trauma. Thompson explained how it is hard to find a balance between overwriting and underwriting graphic situations. On one hand, you want to properly express the weight of the situation. However, being too explicit can actually push people away from empathy, creating an almost voyeuristic effect instead.
One of my friends, Karolina, has a lot to say about this idea. As a black woman, she is constantly bombarded with pictures and videos on social media that show black bodies being abused. In the last couple of years, videotaped police shootings have begun to circulate on social media. These videos are posted in the hopes of raising awareness for the issue. However, many experts maintain that though these videos are effective at horrifying individuals into actions, they are more damaging to the cause.
Research suggests that for people of color who have frequent exposure to the shootings of black people can have long-term mental health consequences. According to Monnica Williams, director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville, graphic footage “combined with lived experiences of racism, can create severe psychological problems reminiscent of post-traumatic stress syndrome”. It does a great job of desensitizing the rest of us to horrific shootings like this. Do we have to see continued footage of black men, women, and children being shot to spark enough outrage to act? I do not think so. (Or at least, I hope.) These videos are circulated generating hundreds and thousands of views, which means someone is profiting while black people are suffering. Karolina, after failing to rid her social media experience of these types of videos, has taken an indefinite social media hiatus. Even still, she still gets sent these videos by well-meaning peers.
Thompson articulates this struggle incredibly well. Overall, I was inspired by her approach to writing. She does it because she considers it her duty share stories that her privilege gives her access to, even though writing may not come naturally. “There’s no choice,” Thompson said. “You weigh in now or you don’t. You write now or you don’t.”