Naming: An Act of Justice

In his last post, Michael wrote,

One of the principle ways literature and, more broadly, language, helps us see is that it enables us to name. With language we can clothe shapeless and silent abstractions with the shapes and sounds of letters. When we name, we gain access to and, in a limited but surprisingly powerful way, authority over some of life’s great mysteries.

When I read that, I had a moment of yes, someone has finally said what I have felt all this time, but didn’t know how to say. I thought about it over several days, wondering what it meant, and I realized that it is only one way to understand the idea of “Naming.” I also look at Naming in another way.

I look at Naming as an act of justice.

When we know someone’s name, she cannot be lost in a sea of opinions, defined by the demographic she represents, or written off as a lost cause. When we know someone’s name, his story, his peculiar suffering, his small triumphs, his accumulation of life that brings him to now, cannot be ignored. She might be wrong. He might be foolish. But when they have names, when I really look at individuals, they become invaluable.

The article “Why #FitchtheHomeless Backfires” took an aspiring social movement and turned it on its head. It was simple: the writer actually talked to the homeless. As people. Though the article does not list them by name, it is clear that the author knew them, and in the face of their raw words, the reader knows them too. Suddenly the video, initially a humorous middle finger at the rich and powerful, falls in line with the same attitude it’s trying to protest. “The Homeless” isn’t one homogenous, worthless group any more than the “Uncool” of the company’s quote. And this is an act of justice.

Street Children,” by Ben Faccini, brought me to tears, not because it manipulatively exploited children’s poverty to command our attention, but because it didn’t. The author ends the article this way:

It is easy to say that the young lives of untamed children and adolescents have nothing to do with us, or that they live in a dimension we cannot understand. And yet each street child I have met has had a unique story, and a richness of experience that holds lessons for all. Maybe that is why it pains me all the more that street children are ignored, barely acknowledged. They’re forced to exist in a world parallel to ours, and, out there, in their other world, in their bus stations and gutters, in the filth and vileness of their refuse dumps, they survive as best they can, with the same emotions we all share. Our greatest insult to them is to remove their humanity even further by not recognising a part of ourselves in them. We diminish ourselves by refusing to look them in the eye.

These aren’t the children with carefully sad faces from the infomercials that play late at night, silent as they hold the hand of a white man who asks only for your sympathy and money. The children of “Street Children” are individuals with humor and resourcefulness and stories we don’t want to hear. The sympathy infomercials elicit is easy because it asks so little from us. “My Life is a Story,” the campaign Faccini participated in, asks more—that we accept responsibility as a society, that we regard children who have suffered as valuable (rather than pitiful). That we learn their names. And this is an act of justice.

I’ve also read countless articles like “The Life of Illegal Immigrant Farmers” and “The Invisibles” and “The Deported.” In the face of our policies, opinions, and ideals are individuals with names and stories. They are people who want about the same things any of us do. When we learn their names, we “recognize a part of ourselves in them.” And the issues dissolve, reshape before our eyes.

Journalism often takes up justice as its mission, so as the weight of what these articles accomplished became clear to me, I wondered about the duty of literature to this kind of goal. I realized that in our creativity we find our humanity, we tell our stories, we name both our situation and ourselves. Literature demands us to understand the complexity, diversity, and integrity of humanity in a way that even journalism cannot. And when I started to think about literature that has accomplished this, my first thoughts weren’t for the important contemporary works that captured my mind in college. It was for the middle-grade literature that captured my heart.

I re-read children’s literature all through college to give me relief from the heavy, heady novels I sped through each semester. One novel was Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. The ache of injustice and the strength of the main characters that runs through that book communicate undeniably what it would be like to be a young black girl coming of age in 1930s America. I think of other books, too—like Weedflower, a novel that follows a young Japanese-American girl forced into the USA’s WWII internment camps and how she befriends a young Native American boy whose home was invaded to make way for the camp. I think about Speak, a novel controversial because it so painfully explores the wreckage of a girl’s life after she has been raped. There are so many more than these, and they aren’t more valuable than those difficult books from my college classes, but they are special because they allow children to step outside of their own small, special world and see it from someone else’s eyes.

This comes after, and confirms, a revelation I had recently. I’m almost ashamed of this revelation, because it is so glaringly obvious. I’ve been reading Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology and as I read the section about Latin American Christology, I came upon this:

When we begin “from below,” with the “historical Jesus” and his ministry in first-century Palestine, we find ourselves face to face with one who proclaimed the near advent of God’s kingdom of justice and freedom, who blessed the poor, forgave sinners, had table fellowship with the outcasts, befriended women, collided with the self-righteous custodians of the law, and evoked the suspicion and anger of the Roman authorities with his message and ministry. If we focus on the concrete ministry, suffering, and death of Jesus, we cannot avoid the conclusion that the God revealed and made present by Jesus enters into solidarity with the poor.

“Solidarity with the poor” is not the same thing as giving money to the poor, or fixing the poor, or saving the poor. It is telling, reading, and accepting their stories. It is recognizing them as valuable. It is looking “the poor” of this world in the eye and knowing their names.

One way this can be done is through writing. When I read and write with integrity, I expect to see people fully realized, expect the voiceless to have a voice. I want to know the stories that people all over the world have ached to tell. I want to know their names. It isn’t everything, but it’s one kind of justice.

Elizabeth King

About Elizabeth King

I am currently living it up as a preschool teacher in China. I divide my reading time between theology textbooks, contemporary literature, and Newbery Medal winners. When I'm all grown up, I want to write like Madeleine L'Engle.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Protected by WP Anti Spam