I went and saw the film “Selma.” My emotions ran high, I was on the edge of tears for most of the film and for sometime after. My head was filled with all kinds of thoughts, both about what was said and what was not. You see, in a film about the fight for the right to vote, to express one’s voice in the voting booth, to self determine one’s destiny that which is missing is what I found most intriguing. The lacuna. History is a complicated genre. It induces questions like who is telling the story and from what perspective, what interests are driving the particular version of that history, what is at risk if a different version were told? Let me here say that I am not going to put forth a critique of Selma or those involved in its production. Selma is a poignant film and its release at this hour, during the last months of the first black president’s administration, when the votes of various demographic populations will be fought over by republicans and democrats, is more than appropriate. However, what I will ask is this: which voices, which bodies where, and remain marginalized or absent in the mythic grand narrative of the struggle for civil rights in the US?
To be honest I found “Selma” riveting. It is a beautifully crafted film about a crucial moment in the fight for civil rights in the U.S.; voting rights for blacks in the South. From the first scene the film’s director set the tone for what was to be an extremely sobering artistic recreation of that moment in history. What arrested my attention was the focus on bodies. The film is set on its course by the inclusion of a scene that depicts the bombing of a church in Birmingham that claimed the lives of four girls. From that moment for the rest of the film I was weighed down by a fog of fear, fear of the violence I knew would come, fear and sorrow for the bodies that sill needed to be broken for the story of the march from Selma to be told. But what also remained present in my mind is that, Selma Alabama in 1965 was not the only time and place where disenfranchised people marched in protest.
In 1966 Cesar Chavez led a group of farmworkers on a march from Delano, CA to Sacramento, some 340 miles. What began as a group of around 100 swelled as more workers joined their ranks through each small farm town they passed ultimately reaching nearly 1,500 marchers. This march was a protest against unfair wages and treatment of farmworkers, many who were, and remain immigrants, documented and otherwise. The laws in California allowed for severe mistreatment, underpayment, and exploitation of bodies, even of rape that went (and continues to go) unreported for fear of retribution. These bodies, these people picked the food of the wealthy while they lived in poverty. This struggle was, like the fight in Selma, about the rights and human dignity of human beings. Of ending the imperial, colonialist, and racist mentality that has permeated the psyche of the U.S. for too long and which allowed, and even demanded, the oppression of marginalized communities so that the U.S. might remain the foremost superpower in the world. It was a matter of ensuring that all who lived and made a home in the U.S. would have equal opportunity to both self determine their destiny and have a voice that would be heard in the political landscape of their nation. This was a fight for justice.
I am not comparing Selma to Delano. Nor am I comparing the plight of two demographic populations. They are different points on the map of civil rights, implicated in different ways. Yet both are crucial moments in history and play significant roles in the larger struggle for justice. But too often we are prone to hone in on one moment of a larger narrative and are tempted to declare it the quintessential defining moment, or cause, or fight worth fighting. (How many remember and went to see last year’s film on the life of Cesar Chavez?) And while there are certainly moments that cause a louder stir than others we cannot allow ourselves to be swept away by those loud and grand moments to the neglect of so many other moments that both set the stage for events like the march in Selma and which by occurring simultaneously lend their support to the larger cause.
There is a scene (several actually) in which white politicians are pleading with Dr. King to delay the march, to not incite southern politicians, to wait for a better time when the risk of violence is not so palpable and present and the political climate is more receptive. They argue that the time is not right. Dr. King’s response is simply that they cannot wait, that the time for waiting has long past. So, I ask this question: As churches move towards greater inclusion of marginalized groups, like LBGTIQ folk, which bodies, which voices and struggles are being overlooked for the moments that are loud and grab attention easily. Perhaps more to the point, which bodies and voices are intentionally being over looked because the time in not right? Who is being asked to wait until the climate in churches is more receptive? Perhaps it is for those bodies that we must now stand and march.
By: Jared Vázquez, Ph.D. Student at the University of Denver-Iliff School of Theology. Jared is a theologian and philosopher who works to address existing disparities in theology and ethics that eclipses queer bodies and Latin@ bodies.