Henkel: What does democracy look like?

Henkel: What does democracy look like?

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All across our state, our nation and our world, people have been marching and asking that question. For too long, our ideals of liberty and justice for all have ringed falsely in too many ears, of our friends and neighbors, sisters and brothers.

The Black Lives Matter marches — like so many movements in American history — are an expression of our democracy. For some of us, these are hard truths to face and difficult conversations to have. For others of us, it is long overdue to face the plain facts of racial injustice in America. Whether race is a thing we’ve chosen not to see, part of a culture that helps us belong to a community or a topic that reopens wounds that are generations old, I hope that we remember that it is never too late to see justice prevail.

For me, as one of many participants in these marches, this is a time to act, and a time to think about what kind of community I want to live in. It is helpful to me to remember that this is not the first test of our democracy. The history of race in America is complicated, full of pain and hope, struggle and progress, slavery and freedom. We have tools available to understand these struggles, to help us work through them in ways that point us toward our ideals.

At the University of Wyoming, I am the director of the Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research. I am also a member of the Board of Directors of the Wyoming Humanities Council. The humanities are the study of the human experience. How do we live, what have we been, what could we become? How should we express ourselves in our communities? How should we interact with our beautiful Wyoming natural world? These questions get asked in research and in classes about American Studies, History, Languages, Law, Literature, Political Science, Philosophy, Critical Race and Class, and Gender Studies, Religious Studies and more. The humanities speak to our most profound needs, like a commitment to ethics, discovery and critical thinking.

Using the tools the humanities provide for us doesn’t have to mean any big heroic acts. The road to racial justice can begin by having good information: reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, or W. E. B. Du Bois’s magnificent book about the era after the Civil War, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, or watching Ava Duvernay’s beautiful and haunting film 13th. This good information might lead us simply to care when we see others in pain and to listen when people tell us their stories.

The tools to help us understand the world in which we live are also in our communities. The Wyoming Humanities Council has recently distributed about $400,000 from the Federal CARES Act to the network of cultural organizations in the state — like the Washakie Museum and the Wright Centennial Museum, nonprofit organizations like Sankofa African Heritage Inc. and InterConnections 21, Native American educational institutions like Maker Space 307 and Native American Jump Start, and more. These organizations are always valuable, but in times like these — when we need to know the context of a situation, when we need to act ethically, when we need policy makers who value facts and when we need to know that our leaders have wisdom — these organizations are vital.

In a few months, the Humanities Council will publish a book called Democracy Under Construction: A Reader from Wyoming Humanities. The book includes historical and contemporary pieces. We chose this title because when we put the book together, our state capitol in Cheyenne was under renovation. The cover has a picture of the capitol surrounded by scaffolding and a blue Wyoming sky behind it. It is a perfect metaphor for democracy: we are always under construction. There is a struggle in our story and there is hope. We have a history and we have a future, and it is up to us to learn that history and to shape our future.

The exciting and also hard part about this is that everyone must be a part of the democratic process — by marching, by thinking and talking together, by helping to shape our laws. Our democracy hasn’t always lived up to our ideals, but if that process is working well, we have to figure out ways to make our communities thrive, together. That’s a challenge, but it’s one part of asking what democracy looks like.

Dr. Scott Henkel is the director of the Wyoming Institute for Humanities Research and associate professor in the Departments of English and African American and Diaspora Studies at the University of Wyoming.

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