Margo Perkins

In political activism and literature, we are accountable for our actions

By Christine Palm

The Socratic ideal is the examined life, the position that you are accountable for your actions,” says Margo Perkins, associate professor of English. “All I ask my students to do is remember that the nature of intellectual growth is to make us change, and spiral, and re-examine things throughout our lives.”

In this way, Perkins is as inspired by her students as she is inspiring to them. And as an African American woman who chafes at society’s propensity to typecast, she is vigilant about not falling into those traps herself. To her, the important thing is not that she and her students agree, but that they agree about the importance of individual expression.

“I’ve only taught a few courses that were specifically on women’s political activism, but that ethos is woven through the other things I teach,” Perkins says. “And although in many ways this generation has been anaesthetized by constantly being bombarded by things they feel they have no control over, they’re highly responsive to the notion of empowerment. I believe the idea that they can empower themselves and seize control of their own lives and learn to ask critical questions about the world in which we live is a sort of activism.”

Perkins’s office on Vernon Street is an amalgam of her personal activist ethos and her passion for her professional field; a poster of Elaine Brown, the former head of the Black Panther Party, is juxtaposed with rows of textbooks bearing titles like Literary Theory. Perkins acknowledges that our post-9/11 era is a strange time to be teaching about activism, because “anytime you raise something critical, you get labeled ‘unpatriotic,’ which makes it even more urgent that people launch a counter-discourse. People mistakenly believe we can’t possibly go back to a J. Edgar Hoover time, but it’s happening, as people are all too willing to give up some of those hard-won civil liberties battles.”

 Activist and linguist: ”People are being victimized by this language.”

Perkins’s activist streak often butts into the linguist in her. She is fascinated by the uses of language and the ways in which our words often color what we mean. This was brought home on campus recently when she and some other professors took exception to “The Daily Jolt,” an online chat room through which some students were expressing  homophobic and misogynistic sentiments. At first, Perkins and the other teachers had a hard time convincing the students it was more than mere entertainment.

“It was hard to get them to make connections between this discourse and the fact that people are being victimized by this language. We told them that we are in an intellectual community and that what distinguishes any community from barbarism is what they decide, and how they determine the code of ethics they live by.  So while we were certainly not asking them to censor (their language), we were asking them to think about the differences between a productive, responsible dialogue—an exchange of ideas—and a Jerry Springer format where there isn’t a building of knowledge.”

In the end, the students came around to an understanding of the power of language. Perkins was heartened by the depth of discourse and degree of thoughtfulness provoked by the experience. She also cites groups on campus like VOID (Voices Organized in Democracy), whose members are involved in issues concerning the International Monetary Fund, and who have been active helping campus cafeteria workers unionize, and the Multicultural Affairs Council, which she says has been very active in raising consciousness of issues about diversity.

“In our post-Reagan era, it’s hard to mount the kind of optimism we experienced in the 1960s, but there are pockets of curiosity about activism,” Perkins observes. “People have a cultural memory of what their parents experienced in those years, because after all, terrible things were done even to children of the elite, and so there is a new form of activism. Fights are fought on a systemic level against a force that is more dispersed than many of the things we fought against.”

Perkins was astonished at the personal investment students showed in this subject in her American Studies 301 class, for example.

“The class looks at the formation of American identity and one day the issue of patriotism was on the table,” she recalls. “The class agreed we need a united front, but there were some lively discussions about what we were uniting around.”

Autobiography as activism

It’s a theme that recurs in her writing. Perkins, who holds a Ph.D. and a master’s from Cornell University and a B.A. from Spelman College in Atlanta, has written several essays on the short fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, on the spirituality of African American women, and on Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance. Her book Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties was published in 2000 by University Press of Mississippi. Working with the autobiographies of Angela Davis, Asana Chacour, and Elaine Brown, all of whom were active in the Black Power Movement, Perkins examined how individual writing styles affect and present the interpretation of events.

“My book is a look at how these three women retell the story of the Movement and their individual participation in it,” Perkins explains. “So it’s not really a history of that Movement, but an investigation of storytelling from the perspective of autobiography as a literary form.”

Because she is intrigued by both language theory and literary form, she struggles, like most writers, with the idea of “voice” in her writing. Perkins credits a graduate class at Cornell with converting her “hostility” toward language theory into an acknowledgment of its fundamental importance.

“I look back on my graduate experience as helping me see the usefulness of theory in a way that I didn’t when I was outside of that discourse. If you’re trying to talk about something in a new and fundamentally different way—and you want people to conceptualize it outside of old patterns that always trigger certain responses, then you need another language to combat an idea. You can’t couch it in the same terms that are weighted down with baggage. The theory argument is always shifting.” 

Perkins has experienced some shifts of her own. When she was growing up, she intended to be a doctor, but her lifelong love of writing prevailed. “There hasn’t been a straight trajectory to my career, because when I was an undergrad I was convinced I would be an M.D. But I had always been a reader and a writer. My mother was a teacher and she would ply me with books from the time I could read.”

Perkins pauses for a moment, looks around the book-lined walls of her office, and laughs softly. “I guess that came back to haunt us both.”

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