The Power of the Written Word: Amanda Bennett Draws from Literature and Rhetoric in Campus Activism
Most UA seniors spend their final year finishing degree requirements and preparing for careers, Amanda Bennett has achieved national recognition for her work on the WE ARE DONE campaign.
Bennett, a double major in English and African American studies, spearheaded the WE ARE DONE protest in November 2015 with a group of her fellow students, catapulting The University of Alabama into the national spotlight alongside University of Missouri, Emory University, and other schools battling institutional racism. WE ARE DONE petitioned the University administration with a list of demands advocating a greater emphasis on diversity and inclusion.
This campaign propelled Bennet into the public eye and subsequent national conversations on race. In February, she participated as a panel member in a live chat on race with The New York Times.
“Right after the protest, I was contacted by The New York Times and featured in an article about young black activists across the country,” Bennett reveals. “The article came out February 1, and the writer of the article contacted me and asked, ‘Would you like to be part of a live chat that’s going to supplement the article?’”
Bennett stood out as a leader and an activist, in a national wave of collegiate protests, due to the specific nature of the WE ARE DONE campaign. The primary tenet of the movement is to bring Alabama’s distinct circumstances to the forefront of conversations about inclusivity.
“I think that UA’s story is unique,” Bennett reflects. “We thought, well, if Mizzou can do it, why can’t we? What if we tailored our demands to this University while considering its history, its current climate, and issues with ‘The Machine’? We are making an intersectional protest and movement.”
That focus on intersectionality largely stems from Bennett’s own experiences as an African American woman, an experience that reflects the lack of strict polarity when discussing issues of race and gender.
“I think that racial issues are far more complex than we’d like to think they are,” Bennett avers. “There are many dichotomies: ‘this is good, this is bad’; ‘This is right, this is wrong’; however, these judgements are just a matter of perspective.”
Perspective, Bennett says, is an integral part of learning to understand racial divisions, which she has had the opportunity to learn in both her majors. Her exposure to black literature played a huge role in the initial formation of the WE ARE DONE movement.
“Knowing the power of rhetoric, and being aware of historical movements in literature like the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, and even the Abolitionist Movement was critical to conveying our message efficiently,” Bennett explains. “African American studies, not only taught us the history of different social movements but also how to take what we liked and to adapt it to our own.”
Black literature offers activists many cues to a myriad of perspectives on black culture, Bennett reveals. At the same time, no single book is ever definitive of an entire group.
“We tend to have one or two black texts, like The Color Purple or Beloved, and say, ‘Hey, that represents the entire black experience from 1830 to 1860, or 1900 to 1935,’ and that’s just not true,” Bennett explains. “We would never say that As I Lay Dying is representative of every single white person in America from 1900 to 1960. That’s just ridiculous. We have to stop viewing black texts as representative of an entire group, but rather as an ethnographic way of saying, ‘Here is one person’s individual experiences and beliefs—what can we take from it in terms of understanding human experiences?’”
In addition to her studies, Bennett is a writer, which affects her approach as an activist. Her experience as an opinions writer for The Huffington Post has shown her the influence words can have, even in the realm of activism.
“It is important to go out there with a megaphone and yell and really stir people up passionately,” Bennett explains. “But the hard work comes when you have to write and to think about how to express what you believe in a visceral way, but also to express those beliefs in a way that readers who may not have the same background can understand.”
Effective expression and written communication, Bennett says, was the key to achieving the success the movement sought: “It allowed us to have a much more strategic and diplomatic approach to activism,” Bennett relates. “I know that not everyone, of course, is black or has a knowledge of black studies. But if we can convey what we’re asking for, which is a fundamental human right, in a way that people can understand, they’ll be far more willing to listen to what you have to say.”
WE ARE DONE succeeded in the establishment of an Intercultural Diversity Center, located on the first floor of the Riverside Annex, as well as sparking a campus-wide conversation about racial inequalities, which Bennett believes is an important first step to creating a more inclusive campus culture. While Bennett doesn’t think the fight is over, she looks forward to the continued progress at Alabama, which she’ll witness as a graduate student at the Capstone.
“I think the University is evolving, but to a limited extent,” Bennett suggests. “Institutions in general always figure out a way to limit change, so other activists will have to create new ways to attack the system. Maybe next year someone will think of a new way to attack it. Today’s UA activists should not be discouraged. There’s always going to be a way. As long as there is human innovation and thought, there’s always going to be a way.”