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I grew up in inner-city Columbus, Ohio, and attended Northland High School, where fear and struggle were students’ primary motivations. When I look back, I realize just how unhealthy it was for me to understand that I would never want my own children to live in an environment like mine at the very time that I was living there. No one should have to live in a place where their friends are subject to being murdered, where flying bullets often mark their parties, or where the bullets that miss their bodies still puncture their understanding of their self-worth.
Most of us simply wanted to make it out of this situation. Some of us wanted desperately to change it from within. None of us ever really questioned why a situation filled with violence and suffering existed at all.
It is not a question I considered until I arrived at Harvard. For the first time, I was part of a community where the absence of a socioeconomic burden was possible. I often hung out with folks from privileged situations but endlessly found myself peeking over white picket fences, examining the variety of luxurious cadences and dispositions performed by these individuals. Predictably, I never found myself able to assimilate, for my heart was with my brothers and sisters back home. My father manually installed a white fence in our backyard when I was a boy. He knew it could not save me from the violence that would later rupture me and the people I loved. I was doomed, inevitably and immeasurably.
I soon realized that those luxurious dispositions displayed by my privileged peers did not symbolize freedom — because they were on the opposite pole did not intrinsically mean they were in a fundamentally ideal situation. Instead, it was the freedom to exist without the aforementioned burdens perpetually looming in every bat of my eyes that I found most illuminating. I was able to wonder in ways I had never wondered, venture places that would remain distant potentialities for those back home.
This gnawed at me more than anything — knowing and feeling the freedom that was out there and not being able to simply give it to the people I loved. It was because of this realization — which came around the end of my time at Harvard — that I ultimately decided to address the question that had been quietly waiting for me: Why do these conditions exist?
Such a simple question requires one to be both analytical of the world and ever-critical of the structures which create it. For oppressed peoples, it establishes, as Paulo Freire calls it, “conscientization,” or the process of learning and understanding one’s oppression and subsequently learning how to fight it. However, no matter your age, background, or societal position, you are never too far from harsh realities to be critical of the forces at play.
For those who benefit from a repressive system, be brave enough to reckon with a system that imposes violence and perpetual suffering unto others. The questions are clear and ready to be asked (For example, why do Black and third-world peoples suffer while others do not? What must be done to liberate them?). We must do everything we can to solve them. Lives are, quite literally, at stake.
It took me wrestling with this question to realize that the conditions only reflect the social systems within which they exist. In the year since I graduated from Harvard, I have been to numerous public protests (at one of which I was detained), kneeled for the national anthem before my team’s basketball games (as I now play for Ohio State University), and, most recently, started a book club with the goals of reading texts that are critical of oppressive structures and dynamics, and engaging in liberating discourse. All of these efforts were in the name of challenging and rejecting a system that has caused immense suffering for my loved ones and me. Yet, the reality of oppressive conditions is visible to all. It is up to each of us to change them.
Seth Towns ’20 was a Sociology concentrator in Winthrop House and former Harvard men's basketball player.
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