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updated: 1/17/2017 10:19 PM

Feminist author's stories honor MLK in Naperville

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  • Feminist author and cultural critic Roxane Gay highlighted North Central College's Martin Luther King Jr. Week "The Power of Our Stories" with a keynote address Tuesday night.

      Feminist author and cultural critic Roxane Gay highlighted North Central College's Martin Luther King Jr. Week "The Power of Our Stories" with a keynote address Tuesday night.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Feminist author and cultural critic Roxane Gay tells a Naperville audience at North Central College it's important to remember anger and civil disobedience as part of Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy along with nonviolent protest.

      Feminist author and cultural critic Roxane Gay tells a Naperville audience at North Central College it's important to remember anger and civil disobedience as part of Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy along with nonviolent protest.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Roxane Gay speaks to North Central College students Tuesday in Naperville as the keynote address of the college's Martin Luther King Jr. Week.

      Roxane Gay speaks to North Central College students Tuesday in Naperville as the keynote address of the college's Martin Luther King Jr. Week.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

 
 

North Central College turned to stories to honor Martin Luther King Jr. during this week of remembrance and to a storyteller whose writings have been hailed as the "quintessential exploration of modern feminism."

Roxane Gay, a feminist author, cultural critic and Purdue University creative writing professor, gave a lecture to about 300 people Tuesday to highlight the week themed "The Power of Our Stories."

The inspiration to focus on personal stories came from King himself, said Dorothy Pleas, director of multicultural affairs for the private college, where King spoke to students in 1960.

"One of his lasting legacies was his ability to use storytelling to get people to connect to his vision," Pleas said.

So this year, in King's honor, the college planned its first "Diversity Monologues" to let students express their stories and invited Gay to share some of her work from her books "Bad Feminist" and "Difficult Women."

Before her speech, Gay said the public needs to be careful not to romanticize King's story and to remember his nonviolent approach focused on civil disobedience for a purpose.

"It's interesting to see how his legacy has been whitewashed," Gay said. "A lot of people want to believe that he was not about protest when everything he did was about protest. And he was very angry, but his anger was completely justified because he came up in a time of segregation."

At a time of political division, Gay advised audience members to interact in person -- instead of online -- as often as possible. Online discussions, she said, are encountering "growing pains" and often turn into a "funhouse mirror" image instead of a true depiction of problems and solutions.

Reading from an essay in "Bad Feminist" called "The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion," Gay explored the purpose of so-called "trigger warnings," or alerts at the beginning of online stories that they contain material some readers might find graphic, sexual or traumatic, potentially triggering an unwanted response because of their past experiences.

Gay said feminist communities often use trigger warnings when writing about rape or abuse. But use of the messages is complex, inconsistent and never truly can protect a person from her past -- or the nation from its history.

"Life, apparently, requires a trigger warning," she said. "This is the uncomfortable truth -- everything is a trigger for someone."

But Gay told her audience that some triggers can be avoided. For example, she advised anyone worried about civil rights after the election of Donald Trump not to focus on his inauguration Friday or on his tweets.

Those statements could seem hurtful to some, and hearing them won't accomplish anything, Gay said. Instead, she advised her audience of students, feminists and fans to note Trump's inaugural address, his policy proposals and his first 100 days of action -- and then to come up with new stories of opposition and new "concrete ways" to work toward equality.

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