I feel compelled to address the primary example of ignorant over-sensitivity put forward by Mr. Horowitz in his article in the last issue of the Misc (“Avoiding offense prevents honest exchange,” 21 October 2015).
The fact that a particular phrase has historical roots does not excuse it from examination. Regardless of whether it was one’s proverbial bigoted uncle at one’s last family reunion or former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo who promised to do something in such a way that would “make Attila the Hun look like a faggot,” the quote remains in very poor taste and unworthy of adorning a t-shirt.
The statement “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave,” in its historical context, represents the suffrage movement’s cooptation and exploitation of a struggle of a people that most suffragettes, as a class, benefitted from, and whose daughters they excluded from their movement.
It should not be hard to see the reason for the outrage and condemnation. Its invocation of the emotions and power of the word “slavery,” in a context in which the enslavement of Africans represented the only real conception of “slavery” that Pankhurst’s listeners would have, and cannot be read neutrally or simply according to its strict dictionary definition. The usage of the word “slave” as a rhetorical weapon by a predominantly white movement was – and still is – wholly appropriative of the pain of a people whom the suffrage movement was continuing to marginalize. The historical context for which Mr. Horowitz pined simply serves to solidify the inappropriateness of the quote.
It is our responsibility as humans to be better than those who came before us, to examine and learn from their actions. Pankhurst’s statement was exploitive then, and it remains so today. It is not ignorance of history as Mr. Horowitz claims, but its very acknowledgement that prompts me, and so many others, to condemn the use of Pankhurst’s phrase as a positive slogan.
As a general rule, claiming to understand what is racist/homophobic/oppressive better than do the people who experience those oppressions on a daily basis is pure presumption and perpetuates those oppressions. An anti-black slogan does not lose its anti-blackness simply because its implications are not immediately apparent to white people.
—Jonathan Nichols ’17 is the Editor-in-Chief of The Chronicle.