Nonconformer – a person who does not conform to generally accepted standards or customs.
Perspective 6 of 13 | The Slavery Project
Nonconformers are an important part of society because they provide the rest of us with perspective, and most importantly – with options. They inadvertently push against the status quo which gets us to think outside of the box, to challenge what we think we know.
Throughout history nonconformers have been ‘dealt with’ by society, not typically ignored. Depending on the service they provide, they could be more or less well regarded (Beethoven, Shakespeare, Frederick Douglas) but more often than not, they were criticized, ostracized, ridiculed, or even put to death. They were made to feel like they were wrong for how they felt or for their choices. Others would see the treatment of nonconformers by society and decide to stay quiet or not reveal that they themselves did not conform. So when it comes to Nonconformers, how much have things really changed?
There are many kinds of nonconformers in our society. One kind of nonformer is our homeless population. Homelessness is an uncomfortable part of our society (just like the topic of slavery) especially in America where everyone is supposed to be rich 😉 . It could cause a person to question, why, in one of the greatest countries in the world, is homelessness acceptable, why is it that people sleep on the sidewalk when everyone would like an indoor place to rest.? This could mess with our sense of reality, depending on how large of a bubble we choose to live in. Is a better solution available?
Anothery type of nonconformer is the LGBTQIA+ community. Members of this community provide a different perspective than what we are used to when it comes to love, sexuality and marriage by simply being a human being who desires something different than the status quo. As gay awareness becomes more prevalent in our society, we as a society become more tolerant. There is a big difference between gay awareness in 2022 versus gay awareness in 1985. A BIG Difference. How people think of, regard, treat and respect people who are different from the status quo, different from the norm, different from how we are taught, goes a long way in challenging the social belief systems of the day. But take note that it is a process because change takes time.
‘Social belief systems of the day’ is phrased this way is to highlight that what we believe – as STRONGLY as we may believe our beliefs to be – are subject to change. This is important to understand because it can broaden our perspective when it comes to dogmatic beliefs that people fight over. For example Is being gay ‘right or wrong? Is ‘gay marriage’ right or wrong? “ I was always taught that marriage is between a man and a women,” said one famous transgender woman, clarifying for us that even those part of the lgbtqia+ community do not think the same things on the same topics. And that change is really, really hard.
Along the same vein, there were nonconformers in american slave society. These were the abolitionists, the runaways, the white-passing, the free blacks – all people who did not conform to the status quo, which thereby raised awareness that ‘there are people who do not agree with everyone else on this topic’, namely that ‘black people should be enslaved’. There were sanctuary spaces as well for runaways, one being the entire state of Florida. These people challenged the status quo by simply being amongst the rest of the population, but not fitting into the existing stereotype about blacks and their role in society. They did not accept the current state of affairs as their truth and then decided they were going to do something about it.
The nonconformers, as it pertains to American slavery, were substantial and took quite a set of balls to pull off what they accomplished. People like Nat Turner, who led one of the most infamous slave revolts, Box Brown who was like ‘To hell with running, I’m going to cut the BS and mail myself to freedom’, had associates place him in a large, wooden box with a destination label and off he went. Robert Smalls, who sailed himself to freedom by hijacking a confederate boat – oh and he picked up runaway slaves along the way. And of course the many abolitionists, including Levi Coffin and Mary Ellen Pleasant, that made the underground railroad possible. There were people who wrote books about the slave experience like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe and Solomon Northup, all to raise awareness, all risky because it outed them as not going along with the crowd. They were Not trending. We also know that sometimes slaves just flat out refused to do things. There was pushback and there were physical battles in day to day society. This is why extreme measures were often taken to contain the defiance, or at least attempt to contain it. In fact, anyone who was free and black had to carry freedom papers around with them everywhere they went so they could “prove” they were not a slave. Just being someone who was “supposed” to be something (a stereotype) but did not fit the description was a challenge to social norms of the day.
You see sometimes in our society the belief systems of the times are so very strong that people know with all their heart that this o n e way, is the o n l y way of living, the o n l y way of being. Blacks are inferior to whites and enslaving them is good and right. But enter the nonconformers who say otherwise. Because they fought back, they ran away, they refused, they showed their intelligence and this defied what popular opinion knew to be true. This defied their beliefs. With just their actions, nonconformers showed that there IS a Different way of being. There IS a different Knowing. There IS a Belief on this subject that is outside of Popular Opinion.
And so we learn that an american slave society faced similar interracial dynamics that we see play out today. People agree-disagree-work together-push against whatever are the popular topics of the day. Everyone was just a squirrel trying to get a nut with what they “knew” to be true at that time, going about their day to day activities of making a space for themselves in the world. There were white collar workers, blue collar workers, farmers, immigrants, slaves. And there were arguments on many, many topics, slavery being just one of them. The beginning of the women’s rights movements began in the 1840s, 25 years prior to slavery ending, so multiple social-economic issues existed alongside each other. Meanwhile, white immigrants continued to arrive from Ireland and other European countries, all with varying forms of discrimination, white poverty was also an issue faced by many (poverty never seems to go anywhere but maybe one day….) And so life was just life. As campaigns against slavery grew, more awareness was raised and slowly, there was a gradual softening toward the black experience.
This is important to understand because sometimes it is felt, when it comes to black history, that we “shouldn’t” have to deal with behaviors that are culturally biased. But each decade brings new changes to beliefs. Today’s social norms about blacks is very different from the 1800s and early to mid 1900s. Just like today’s understanding about gays is very different from the 80s. Because things get progressively better over time.
It takes time.
We need time as a society to adjust to new changes and new ways of being.
We still struggle with this concept today when it comes to how black communities express their desire to be treated equally. And certainly if a person is in the habit of only zeroing in on negative things, because that is all the news media zeros in on when it comes to black culture, then that is all they will ever see.
Women, Blacks, Gays…everyone just wants to be respected and treated as an equal with the same rights as anyone else. No one wants to be told ‘No, you cannot do __[blank]__ but other people can.
So Nonconformers are here to challenge what we think we know about people, about life, about ourselves. They bring perspective and clarity that elicits unification because they do not fit into a box. They challenge social stereotypes and cultural beliefs simply by following their heart.
Nonconformers existed during American slavery, as well as before American slavery, and nonconformers are still here Today. They serve as Beacons of Light and examples for us to embrace our personal Truth. Even if it differs from what “everyone else” thinks. Every time a person follows their heart and decides to live in their Truth, they embrace the Power Within and push back against a society that says ‘no you cant’.
Nonconformers, by means of their actions, say ‘Yes, I Can!’