Social Context and the Sociological Imagination in Our Real Life Journeys

Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance by Nancer Ballard.


How do our journeys interact with others’ journeys and larger world forces?  In this post we examine the role of social context and social awareness in a protagonist’s consciousness, decision-making, and journey—a topic that is particularly relevant to these times of a pandemic, a time in which we are acutely aware of how we affect and are affected by others, and a time when we are watching to see how other communities across the globe are handling situations which may be on our doorstep  tomorrow.

In the middle-grade novel, “The Lions of Little Rock,” Kristin Levine tells the story of racial school segregation in Arkansas in the late 1950s. Twelve-year-old Marlee is quiet and shy before she meets Liz, who helps Marlee become more confident as their friendship grows. When Liz disappears from school without warning, Marlee learns that Liz was removed from the all-White school because she was actually a Black girl “passing” as White. Marlee begins to talk to people and learn more about the social context she is growing up in. Her own parents don’t agree on racial segregation, and as these tensions grow within her own home, Marlee also sees them grow within the community. Marlee comes to understand how her relationship with Liz and Liz’s experiences are not unique. She realizes that their experiences are not fully within their control—and not only because they are children. Marlee joins integration efforts, but is unable to prevent a bombing attack on the home of a Black family. She is ignored by the police, but ultimately supported by her family. She fights to defend her relationship with Liz, but ultimately cannot stop them from being torn apart when Liz’s family moves away. She better understands her privileges and her friend’s hardships. She repeatedly takes action and discovers new communities but she also sees how her actions are not able to bring about the societal changes she wants—no matter how determined and passionate she is. By the end of the book, Marlee has developed a social awareness and has a deeper understanding of the interplay between her individual actions and experiences, and the larger forces beyond her control in the world. 

 “The Lions of Little Rock” illustrates how unrealistic it is to force complex real-world situations into the Hero’s Journey myth structure. It is unrealistic because in the real world, individual actions are embedded within a larger environment that is not susceptible to quick change for the better. The Hero’s Journey emphasizes the supreme power of individual agency (or of a group acting as one) rather than the complexity of interconnected personal and collective struggles. In many—if not most—hero’s journey stories, the hero solves their own problems through personal effort and brings about decisive changes to their world or community. The hero does not see how they are deeply embedded within a social context but see themselves as outside of and above it. For example, in Wonder Woman, in the course of completing her own journey, Diana also ends World War II and secures victory for the Allies. But such decisive, sweeping changes are rarely, if ever, possible in the real world.

In the late 1950s, the same time period described in “The Lions of Little Rock,” American sociologist C. Wright Mills articulated what he called the “sociological imagination.” Mills believed that people would feel less helpless and more empowered if they could recognize the societal and structural causes that shape their individual personal experiences. Mills suggested that people often feel stuck in their daily lives because they do not recognize how their personal troubles connect to and are part of larger public issues.

For instance, one person may feel like their fear of getting sick is a personal trouble because they know they cannot afford treatment and because if they miss work, they will not be able to buy food for their family. However, when a significant percentage of the population worries that they cannot afford to miss work or pay for treatment, each experience is part of a larger public issue. Moreover, each person who cannot afford treatment and continues to work while sick may inadvertently infect others. Thus, one person’s health options and decisions impact and are impacted by larger economic and societal factors that are beyond their individual merit, fault, or control.

The sociological imagination is most often discussed in the context of people who are at the bottom of social structures, but it can shed light on the experiences of those in advantaged positions as well. In the simple but powerful article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, author Peggy McIntosh lists forty-seven ways in which White people benefit from their privilege as members of a dominant group in society. McIntosh identifies experiences such as: “If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race,” and “I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.” Such advantages are often considered to be “the norm,” which make them invisible to the people who benefit from them. By drawing explicit attention to everyday White privileges, McIntosh encourages members of dominant groups to examine their role in a racially (or otherwise) divided society.

As Mills points out, recognizing privileges and disadvantages can enable us to see what seem like personal shortcomings in a larger context so that collective responses can be developed to alter circumstances through structural change. When this is not possible within the desired time frame, seeing your own experience, and others’ experiences, in a larger context, promotes empathy towards others and towards yourself. Such empathy enables meaningful changes to take place at a local level and may also bring about imperceptible but cumulative changes in the larger world.

The sociological imagination usually plays a key role in a Heroine’s Journey story. The heroine works to integrate their understanding of themselves (including their values and social position) with a world that is not of their making. The very idea of wrestling with “the feminine” and “the masculine” requires one to examine the intersection between one’s own life experience and the roles and expectations ingrained in the larger culture. In order to heal, the heroine must come to understand how masculinity/masculine values and femininity/feminine values are defined by the culture, and what role those attributes play in the heroine’s own self-definition.

The sociological imagination also frequently plays an important role in a Journey of Integrity. In this journey, the individual frequently must make a decision that involves weighing personal interests against his or her ethical values on taking action to benefit the larger world. See our post on Marie Jovanovich’s decision to testify before Congress during the U.S. Impeachment hearings. The weighing process requires the protagonist to consider how their personal experiences and actions relate to and are part of larger realities.

The sociological imagination can also be a part of a Healing Journey. For example, a story about opioid addiction could address the role doctors and pharmaceutical companies play in making opioids seem less addictive than they are, or in making them the first rather than last response to chronic pain. This recognition may be important to the healing person to prevent him or her from feeling that their addiction is just a personal weakness, or to help them to work through their denial, shame, or prejudices for being someone “like that.” Of course, someone struggling to overcome an opioid addition could also formulate their story without significant attention to the larger societal structures that play a role in access to opioids and treatment availability.

The Coronavirus pandemic is shining a spotlight on the ways in which our individual and systemic vulnerabilities and our responses affect individuals, organizations, governments, countries, and the world. Some journey stories do not include any attention to the role of social context. However, a sustained sense of Wholeness is not possible without attention to context because context is part of the Whole, and each part affects the other parts and the Whole. Context is not static, nor is wholeness. As our context changes around us, and as we ourselves change, so too must our understanding of wholeness grow.

Harriet Tubman’s Storied Journeys

written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson


Araminta “Minty” Ross, born into slavery in 1820, flees her plantation in Dorchester, Maryland and somehow manages to make her way 100 miles on foot to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she takes the free name that we know her by today—Harriet Tubman. 

Tubman’s life as an agent for the Underground Railroad is the subject of the Academy Award nominated movie, Harriet, and she also has a key role in Ta -Nehisi Coates’ novel, The Water Dancer, which tells the story of a young man with a similar background and talent who also becomes an agent for the Underground Railroad.harrietdirector

Harriet, directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Cynthia Erivo, tells Tubman’s life story as a fairly classic Hero’s Journey. As a girl and young woman, Minty Ross watches several of her sisters being sold to far away slave owners and being taken from her and the rest of her family. She marries a free African American, John Tubman, and obtains legal documents that confirm that her mother’s previous owner granted her children freedom—only to have her current plantation owner rip up the documents. Cynthia Eviro as Harriet TubmanUnable to bear a lifetime of enslavement, she flees north on foot (leaving her husband behind because she does not want to endanger his free status) and makes it to Philadelphia, a “free” state. Tubman joins the Underground Railroad and repeatedly risks her life to bring hundreds of black slaves to freedom even after her former owner places a large bounty on her head. Her ability to guide so many runaway slaves to freedom earns her the nickname, “Moses.” How does an actual person, rather than a mythical god or cartoon character pull this off?harriet-1563893309

 

Although the movie focuses almost exclusively on Tubman’s near magical successes, it provides a few hints on how a real person could become Harriet Tubman. When Tubman returns to Maryland after becoming a free woman, she discovers that her husband had presumed her dead and is now wed to another woman who is pregnant with his child. Tubman leaves him to his new family and now, single and childless, can take life-threatening risks without being psychologically torn apart by conflicting maternal loyalties and obligations. From the time that she gives up on her husband and marriage, Tubman is portrayed as being more devoted to freeing slaves than to personal relationships. 

Tubman is also depicted as having extraordinarily strong faith and intuition that manifests as spiritual visions and premonitions that forewarn her of imminent danger. Although the exact nature and origin of her visions is not explained (she is religious and also had a severe head injury as an adolescent), they seem to have given Tubman a combination of intuition and decisiveness that led others to trust her in the face of formidable odds. In the movie, her former master’s mother declares that she wants Harriet caught so she can be burned alive at the stake, “like Joan of Arc”—another well-known vision-driven crusader. HarrietFeat

A final element that may explain Tubman’s intense focus is suggested in a short scene in which Tubman is shown in a stately Philadelphia home, crying while working as a domestic alongside another maid who looks at her quizzically. It’s not hard to imagine that, having risked her life multiple times and survived a perilous solo escape to Pennsylvania, Tubman would not be satisfied with a “free” life of making beds for a wealthy white family. But what can an illiterate runaway slave without any family do?  Tubman decides to become a freedom fighter.

At the end of the movie we are told that Tubman went on to become a spy for the Union Army and the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. In her later years, she worked for women’s suffrage and started a rest home for former slaves. She lived to be ninety-one.

Harriet TubmanAlthough the movie follows a Hero’s Journey narrative arc, I suspect that Tubman’s lived experience was at least as much a heroine’s journey  as hero’s journey. Her headaches, trances and visions were likely the result of the severe head injury she suffered when a slave owner threw a metal weight at another slave and hit her by mistake. She suffered from epileptic-like seizures and hypersomnia—the inability to maintain normal consciousness during waking hours—for most of her adult life. Perhaps the adrenaline produced by being in terrific danger played a role in helping her feel alive and engaged after her head injury.

PBLA2A-00003Tubman was periodically recognized for her contributions to the Underground Railroad and the Civil War as a spy, nurse, scout, strategic advisor, and troop leader. However, she never received any pay for her work in the war and was denied veteran’s compensation for many years. After being heralded by newspapers for her work in the war, she was accosted by a train conductor while riding back to New York, where her parents lived, and was instructed to move to the less desirable smoking car. She produced government papers entitling her to ride in the car she was in and refused to move, whereupon the conductor enlisted several other passengers to help him force her to move, breaking her arm in the process. Most of her life, Tubman was penniless or nearly so, and what money she had was often spent providing food to the boarders who had even less than she did.

The movie, Harriet, depicts many of the amazing feats this determined woman accomplished. I look forward to another telling that shows the complexity of strategies Tubman used to persevere through her many challenges, hard times,  tough decisions, physical and emotional stresses, simple pleasures, and heartbreaks. I would welcome another story that depicts the myriad of ways Harriet Tubman helped herself and others who once were counted as only 3/5 people to believe and experience themselves as whole.

In Ta-Neshi Coates’ novel, The Water Dancer, The Water Dancerprotagonist Hiram Walker is portrayed as a male soul-kin to Harriet Tubman. Both were born slaves and both have similar talents for feats of miraculous transportation. In the magical realism of the novel, this talent is referred to as “conduction”—the ability to move people “magically” from one place to another based on the strength of the conductor’s desire and memory. Coates portrays Tubman as a mythical figure who appears and disappears and reappears at important moments. Hiram Walker, her psychic kin, is much more humanized and his story allows Coates to explore the psychological implications of post-freedom identity and purpose. Walker, too, becomes a daring agent for the Underground Railroad and much of the book leans toward a hero’s journey until he must confront how to integrate his family and community ties into his quest to fight slavery and re-connect families separated by it. I believe The Water Dancer is ultimately more of a heroine’s journey than a hero’s journey.

And, of course, the struggle continues.unnamed

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of The Water Dancer


A Fourth Journey: The Journey of Integrity

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


The word “journey” comes from the French journee meaning “day’s work or a day’s travel.”  Thus, a journey doesn’t have to encompass years, or a whole life, or travel, or adventure beyond one’s everyday environment. Today I’m going to articulate what I have come to see as another sort of journey that I call the “The Journey of Integrity.” This journey often takes place in a relatively short span of time although its ramifications can be much broader.

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The word “integrity” comes from the Latin root meaning “whole,” which is an important goal within the heroine’s journey. “Integrity” is, of course, also related to the word “integrated” which is an important element of all journeys. In Maureen Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey addresses the integration of masculine and feminine. The Healing Journey involves the integration of body, mind, and heart. In the Hero’s Journeymastery of integrated inner and outer worlds is the penultimate stage. Thus, an integrity journey can be a complete journey by itself, or can play a critical role in a larger heroine’s, hero’s or healing journey.

The key element of the Journey of Integrity is that the protagonist makes a deliberate, considered, decision to speak out or take action based on the needs or plight of others. This decision is made with the knowledge that it may up-end the goals they are currently pursuing, and/or may have irreparable adverse personal impacts that are beyond the protagonist’s control.

Sometimes the moment in which the action of integrity is taken changes another person’s life or history in an obvious way (for example, a friend’s decision to donate one of his kidneys to another). Sometimes the action is an unheralded moment that comes to have important future ramifications. Sometimes, the action has no apparent effect beyond the protagonist’s experience.

In the United States, we have been watching President Trump and his administration prohibit members and former members of the government from testifying before Congress for fear that their testimony will reflect badly on the President’s actions or reveal discrepancies between the official version of events and actual knowledge of events.

Marie Yovanovitch_USA_HOUSE_IMPEACHMENT

On October 11, 2019, Marie L. Yovanovitch, former Ambassador to Ukraine and current American Foreign Service Officer, showed us a striking example of a Journey of Integrity.  Ms. Yovanovitch chose to comply with a subpoena to appear before Congress, and to disregard the White Houses’ directive. She appeared to testify about her experience as former Ambassador to Ukraine and her work on behalf of the United States in supporting Ukraine as an independent democratic country situated between Russia and western NATO countries, which has been invaded by Russia and is fighting internal corruption.

As part of her decision to testify,  Ms. Yovanovitch’s issued  a  public, non-classified statement citing her experience as a foreign service officer during the five previous administrations, and under the current administration.  You can read Ms. Yovanovitch’s statement here.

Marie Yovanovitch did not set out to change voters’ minds about the current political situation in America. Although her ambassadorship in Ukraine was terminated, she is still employed by the government as a foreign service officer. Her decision to testify posed personal and career risks, especially since she was the first government employee to testify after the Trump administration decided not to cooperate with Congress on anything related to the impeachment hearings.

Marie Yovanovitch speaking at Ukraine Invstor Conference

On the day Ms. Yovanovitch testified, her name was the leading hashtag on Twitter. Her appearance was the subject of much discussion by radio, newspaper, television, and social media commentators. Less than a week later, most of those commentators have now moved on to discussing other superseding events.  It seems likely that Ms. Yovanovitch’s courage may inspire others to testify, or share what they know as citizens or whistle blowers.  Whether her decision to testify and the candor of her opening statement, combined with others’ actions, will help reinvigorate the country’s commitment to aligning our domestic and foreign actions with our ideals has yet to be seen.  But her decision to respectfully speak her truth in these times is a testament to what we, fallible humans, are capable of.

The integrity-driven protagonist is acutely aware of the limits of their power, and the limits on their ability to change the world through deliberate personal effort.  The world contains more moving pieces, forces, and people than any person has the ability to control. The mythic hero often verbalizes his or her limitations in order to appear humble, or the storyteller emphasizes these potential limitations in order to increase narrative suspense. By contrast, the protagonist in an integrity driven journey is profoundly aware of their and others’ human limitations and accepts those limits.

In an upcoming post, we will more formally set out the stages of the Journey of Integrity.  Meanwhile, we would love to hear your experiences with integrity journeys—either your own, or the story of someone you know, or the story of someone whose integrity has inspired you as a human being.