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A queer uprising at Swarthmore: what does it meme?

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

On the chilly evening of March 15, snow lay on the ground from the winter storm that had recently swept across Swarthmore’s campus. Little did we know that there was another storm approaching. No, not with wind, nor sleet nor snow — oh no, nothing could prepare us for this storm, not umbrella nor coat nor boots: a meme storm was coming.

It all started in the humble abode of the Swat Danker Memes Society page on Facebook. This page is a place where over 1,000 Swatties (a surge in members came after aforementioned storm) come together to share relatable memes, sometimes post original content, and just generally have a good time.

However, this was not the case on March 15, at 4:30 pm. No, on this fated day the revelry was displaced by none other than, the discourse. It all started with fairly innocent origins when a member posted a meme that consisted of a bit of an inside joke for the queer community. Some non-queer members of the Swat Danker Memes Society, naturally, were confused about what it all meant, and one reached out to the community for an explanation —no problem here. It is what happens afterwards, however, that struck a nerve within the queer community and caused the page to gradually evolve from comment war to gay meme hellfire.

A member of the queer community rejected this request for explanation. Their declination to explain, however, was not met with the same earnest desire for learning and respect for the queer community that the original question suggested. What happened next was an overwhelming flow of online discourse on the matter of respectability politics, whether the queer community (or any marginalized community for that matter) owes anyone an explanation of their culture and many, many offshoot debates that included everything from misgendering people to US foreign policy. It was a bitter war that ended in deleted comments, screenshots, and even more memes. It was a sight to make any baby boomer stop in their tracks and go “those goddamned millennials.”

But what does it all matter? Can political debates on college meme pages have any significance? I’d first like to start this discussion by expressing my frustration that we even need this “Facebook war” in the first place. I was originally pretty upset that the queer community was just trying to enjoy a meme that was meant for them (and was hilarious, by the way) but it had to devolve into political arguments and discourse. However, at the end of the day, perhaps the conversations held around gender and the queer community were, if anything,  important for the growth of Swarthmore’s communal understanding of how to approach oppressed groups in their safe spaces. I do believe that it is perfectly respectable to ask questions about another’s culture — and that sometimes it may well generate enriching discourse that offers both parties a meaningful experience. However, as we have seen through last week’s online discussions, demanding that members of a community participate in discourse with you at your beck and call, even after they have expressed their desire not to, is where it gets dicey.

At the end of they day, a healthy dose of respect and a good understanding of your place is what is needed when approaching these situations. Sometimes, one needs to step back in an argument and ask themselves “Who am I really helping, and who am I hurting by saying/asking this? Am I simply putting unnecessary stress and pressure on already oppressed groups by saying/asking this? What are my privileges in this situation?” All it takes is a little conscientious thinking — really!

Now on to the gay memes. Yes, the glorious overflow of queer memes the following day, which was a response to the fact that all the arguing pretty much ruined the one posted the day before. This outpour of memes proved to me that we really can have nice things (sheds single tear). It may seem trivial, but I’m super pumped by the unity and hilarity of Swat’s queer community that was shown that day.

People might say that the debates were pseudo-activism and there is no real depth behind anything that occurred that day. However, I would like to disagree, activism starts with raising your voice — in whatever context, whether that be online, or in the newspaper or at a protest. No one is saying that you’re going to single-handedly change the world with a Facebook post, but social change happens after the culmination of several incessant voices who refuse to be silent in every sphere of discourse. That day, the Swat Danker Memes page happened to be one of those spheres. Believe it or not, people can tackle more than one issue at once, and being active on  a Facebook debate doesn’t mean you aren’t engaging in other forms of activism in different areas.

Also, as it relates to the specific act of the proliferation of queer memes one needs to remember that the queer community wasn’t trying to be activists in the first place: we were trying to feel good about ourselves. No one is saying that memes are some shining form of activism that are going to change the world (though that may be up for debate). But in those moments, they made the queer community feel empowered and united. It sure as hell made me feel good after feeling pretty frustrated with the whole thing. Isn’t that what matters?  

Students compete online for spot on National Poetry Slam team

in Around Campus/Campus Journal by

On April 15, Julian Randall ’15 and Javier Perez ’13 will compete in the final round of the first online slam held to assemble a team for the 2014 National Poetry Slam. If the two accomplished poets receive enough “likes” on their second YouTube video submissions, the two will join a team and compete in Oakland, California this August in the National Slam. Both Randall and Perez already made it past the first round of the slam, hosted by the Tumblr page “Fuck Yeah Slam Poetry!”, a blog co-run by the organization Button Poetry and the writer/performer Wonder Dave.

Randall, currently studying abroad at Goldsmith’s, University of London, submitted his poem “Open Letter to An Abercrombie Salesman” for the first round of the competition, a piece that some of us at Swarthmore have had the fortune to see live. The piece insightfully exposes the superficiality and conformity of our consumer culture and Randall delivers it with characteristic energy and sincerity.

For his second submission, to be posted this Saturday, Randall said in a Skype interview, “I did one that people have seen before but with an ending that only a few people have seen.” Randall will be submitting his poem “Valentina,” a piece about an undocumented girl that changed his life. “I loved that girl so much but I never got to say goodbye or good luck,” he said. The new ending captures that sentiment beautifully with the words, “Valentina, every time I do this poem it’s a prayer that you’re still listening, that you’re still somewhere.”

The poem that promoted Perez to the final round is “a poem about wanting to achieve a sense of freedom,” he said over Skype from Kingston, Jamaica. Perez is now traveling around the world for a project through a Thomas Watson Fellowship to work with incarcerated youth with poetry and spoken word. He has voyaged thus far in South Africa, Australia, Guatemala and Zambia, and will go to Brazil after Jamaica. “Freedom on the Inside,” the poem he submitted to the first round, is both specific and universal as it explores freedom and transcendence of imprisonment with powerful lines like, “Before those four walls become your skin, turn them into a cocoon.”

In the final round, Perez will submit a personal piece about his mother in which he crafts an explosive comparison between his mother’s cooking and her experience of war and turmoil. At one point in the poem Perez asks, “can you taste her memories,” and the answer is a most definite yes; the metaphors at work are incredibly evocative and the language strong and effective.

Randall and Perez are far from home, and both believe that the experience of travel has contributed to their poetry. “This is my first time out of the country ever,” Randall said. “I’ve been doing a lot of poems about what exactly home is—the places and the people that I’m missing.” He also believes that having more unstructured time is “freeing up” his writing process.

In addition to writing, Randall has been busy performing slam poetry with Noel Quiñones ’15 at venues in London, an experience that has proved culturally fascinating and extremely rewarding. “We could not have asked for a better reception,” Randall said.

Perez also feels that travel has enhanced his art. “Traveling is one of the best things a poet can do,” he said over Skype. “Poetry is all about connecting and reaching something more, on a deeper level that gets past all the divisions that we add. You’re reaching for something that’s universal.”

Through his project working with incarcerated youth, Perez has performed in a variety of settings, from middle class suburbs, to townships, to prisons. The connections with his different audiences have been particularly significant to Perez. “I’ve literally moved people to tears and that is a humbling experience,” he said. “To know that you can create something that is clearly addressing some wounds and different emotional states. You’re moving people. To do that all across the world is one of the greatest privileges I’ve ever had.”

While neither Randall nor Perez is a stranger to slam poetry competition — both have competed in College Unions’ Poetry Slam Invitational — an online slam still poses a different set of challenges. “It’s strange — it’s a really strange feeling,” Randall said. “It’s weird to put your work out there and maybe a thousand people are looking at it and you can’t see their faces.”

Perez agreed, expressing that “the anonymity of it” is an adjustment. “I’m really all about the live aspect of this. It’s one of the biggest reasons why I’m so attracted to it.” Perez’ love of old-school live slam poetry has even earned him the nickname “The Vintage Poet” over the course of his travels.

Despite reservations on the lack of a live audience, both Randall and Perez are enthusiastic and excited about the prospect of competing at the National Poetry Slam. “If we go, I’m going to see all the people that I know through YouTube,” Randall said. “It will help us get connected to more and more people which is the point of all this.”

That vital connection, from poet to audience, and from poet to poet, is essential in the slam community, and essential to Perez and Randall. “I would never have done poetry if I had never seen Jav,” said Randall. “I’m excited about the opportunity to be a part of history with one of the best dudes I know.”

To vote for Javier Perez and Julian Randall, go to the page www.youtube.com/teamwonderdave this upcoming week and “like” their submissions between April 15 and April 18. “I hope people check it out,” said Perez, “even if they don’t vote, just to get into the art in one way or another. It’s a beautiful world.”


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