Thursday, July 16, 2015
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Introduction to The Man Who Cried I Am by Walter Mosley
|John A Williams 1925-2015.|
We know that it's important what this man is saying. We can tell that by the timbre of his cries but it could mean so many things. Black people have been hollering out in pain for centuries, fighting for freedom, dying in slavery, belittled by little men, and denied by kings and history. Sometimes these black folk have just laid down and died. But mostly they have survived with deformed psyches and distorted notions of the world. Sometimes evil has begotten evil and the one-time slave has slaughtered and even cannibalized his oppressor.
The Man Who Cried I Am called out in English and French and Dutch language. He forgot his own tongue and so found his words ill-fitted to the task at hand - though still eloquent. But even here his mastery of the master's tongue called down taunts and barbs though most people who listened only concerned themselves with the music and not the words.
John A. Williams's magnum opus earned him international acclaim when it was first published in 1967. There's little wonder why. This novel breaks down the barrier between the epic poetry of the pre-literate world and the modern-day novel; it combines history with high literature and then adds popular fiction because it is a book for everyone, all of us lost in the machinations of a world gone awry.
I suppose that one could compare this book with the other modern masterpieces like Invisible Man and Native Son . It certainly stands up to those books with its deep understanding of mid-century America and the racism and imperialism that presses her, even now, into the twenty-first century. Williams understands the politics and exclusions, the crushed spirits and incredible survivals of that world and of the black men and women (and the white men and women) who lived through it. But to contrast Williams with Ellison and Wright would be to call him a Negro writer; as if race had anything to do with his genius.
I could on the other hand try to put Mr. Williams's work side by side with Mann and Malraux or Joyce. The romanticism and existentialism and artistic sense would certainly fit the depth of the work. But here I would have you believing that this novel is merely a work of contemporary literature when indeed it is so much more than that.
To understand the profound nature of this book we should start with the father of the tradition - Homer. This novel is certainly an Iliad and an Odyssey . The battlefield is a race war exacted upon an entire continent and every representative of that continent everywhere in the world. And the journey home is more dangerous than the Odysseus could ever imagine. The heroes her are not warriors but poets trying to describe the world so that they can restore the fabric of truth that has blown ragged with the passage of centuries.
We know from the first page that Max's battle is lost. We know from the beginning that Home has been burned to the ground and that love, through ever-present, shall never keep its own company.
Williams's epic is also a tragedy without even the benefit of the final scenes. Instead characters fade away while no one is looking. Death occurring as naturally as it does in real life.
Like the Greek bard Williams treats us to a long list if the materials in his world. But we aren't presented with the oxen and arrows and swords of the ancient Greeks. Williams gives us the insults and limitations, the self-prohibitions and self-hatreds of the ex-slave. The packs of cigarettes, bottles of whiskey, acres of sex, and the myriad forms of the ever-present violence visited upon women and men who walk through the world as if it were a sleeping prison waiting to rise up and close in.
There are dozens of women who come near to our protagonist. They all have beauty and power and they are all unable to help Max escape the pain of his life. Rather than a woman waiting for him to end of the journey there are women waiting for him everywhere; waiting - but our Odysseus, max, is always, always a day late.
In these pages we experience World War II in its less heroic moments, anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism (inside and out), Jim Crow, Europe, the fiction writer's life, the political life, the journalist's life, and the faith of fools.
In a brilliantly detailed thumbnail sketch we are shown how two ham hocks and a sack of beans can keep a man going for a week or more.
There are three races present in Max Reddick's world: whites, Negroes, and Jews. Between them there are all manners of misinterpretation and distrust. But no one can be defined solely by race. There are black traitors, Jewish princes (and princesses), and white guys who live and let live.
The novel begins in the sixties with a man who is dying of cancer. Max Reddick has traveled to Europe to say his final good-byes to his friend and rival Harry Ames, who has died quite recently.
There is no future here.
Max travels from Amsterdam to Leiden in real time while in his mind he drifts back to the forties in New York and then the war in Italy. He remembers his days among the black people in Africa and Paris and the deep south. The events of the book transpire in less than three days but we get a whole life-time therein. And not just the life of an interesting, if damaged, genius but also a world of change unknown to those Americans used to celebrating the United States' mid-century battle for freedom against the communists and the fascists.
In his memories we see many recognizable characters with different names. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Richard Wright, JFK, and many others. These semi-fictionalized characters are enthralling but they pale next to the story that unfolds.
The first section of the book burrows in the gut like the cancer afflicting Reddick. It turns over a fertile soil in which he is destined to sow his final seed.
This beginning is an ode to Death, a delirium of a bitter man's last days. There's no sugar coating, no Good Negro . This is a story about a man facing a monumental enemy - his own mortality in a world that conspires against him.
The story is delivered in a bebop tempo with complex intertwining themes that would challenge Charlie Parker's improvisational skills.
One of the most enthralling aspects of the novel is that it moves exactly as a fictive narrative should: a swirling whirlpool in descending cycles, a conically flowing river of thought realized in ever-changing parallels.
Reminiscent of Moby Dick the narrative voice is elusive. It has all the earmarks of a classic first-person narrative delivered almost tongue-in-cheek in the third-person voice. But at times the thread of the story turns away from Max to delve into the private lives of separate characters and situations.
The cry of this novel does not only echo through our past. In a way it is a visionary story predicting through its cracked prism the Patriot Act and the neo-con plan to control natural resources from the Middle East to India. I can imagine that many a moderate reader would have felt the fever of paranoia upon reading this book in the late sixties. But today even the most conservative American might be ready to consider the thriller-like conspiracy that Max uncovers at the end.
This novel cannot be contained inside of an introduction or even a single reading. From the first page there is an urgency of a man who has never had enough time, of an afflicted people who stood in the waiting room until they expired and were replaced by their children's children's children. You feel Max's frustration and turn the pages impatiently wanting to know that he will find success or love or at least a moment's respite.
When he's a fool you curse him and when he's wronged you remember your own circumstances. And when you get to the end you begin rereading sentences and paragraphs to make sure that you understand exactly how these final moments play out. But then you realize that there was another level to the book, another novel buried inside the vignettes and subplots.
Another story was unfolding while the bittersweet pain of Max and his friends took the limelight.
At some point you realize that Max was not a victim but a hero. His life was not as he experienced it. He never found what the foreign (master's) tongue articulated as happiness but he lived a magnificent (even epic) existence. Fate, I finally found myself believing, conspired to make Max's greatness. He lived in interesting times and navigated thorough them. He lived to the fullest even in the last moments of life.
Who but a Homeric hero could make such a claim?
The canvas for this novel is the history of America, and much of the west, painted over by John A. Williams in economic strokes - like a kind of graffiti. The president holding out a hand in welcome has a rude pistol pasted onto his fingers. The Good Negro bowing in front of his mistress is hiding an erection while glancing furtively at a landscape that is being rained upon by droplets of blood. Peasants are freed by genocidal armies and Africa eats its own flesh under the table of European conquest.
These templates, placed upon a history we thought we knew, are disturbing and, once exhibited, they take their place in the mind next to Max's cancer. We become aware of the possibility for corruption under the veil of lies placed upon us by the maneuverings prompted by madness and greed.
The indictment was true in the year it was published, it is true today, and a thousand years from now, when America has another name and is peopled by technologically enhanced mutants that combine the attributes from a hundred species, it will still be a document extolling the best and worst characteristics of humanity.
John Alfred Williams was born on December 5, 1925, in Jackson, Mississippi. In 1950, he earned a B.A. from Syracuse University in English and journalism, and then Williams worked as a journalist for publications such as Ebony, Jet, CBS, and Newsweek. Williams later taught at the City University of New York, the University of California-Santa Barbara, Boston University, and Rutgers University where he was the Paul Robeson Professor of English.
Williams was also a prolific and renowned author of fiction and nonfiction.
Williams' books collectively tackle the theme of being black in America, and Williams was best known for using his writing to address the ignorance and malice of racism. A best seller, The Man Who Cried I Am (1967) critiques the civil rights era through the eyes of the protagonist, Max Reddick, a journalist who discovers a plot by the United States to prevent the unification of Black America and to end the "race problem" through genocide. Williams was awarded the American Book Award for !Click Song (1982) and Safari West (1998). In 2011, Williams was give the Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Book Awards.
Despite his accomplishments, Williams was not able to escape the racism he condemned in his writings. In 1961, Williams was awarded a grant to the American Academy in Rome for his novel Night Song, but the award was rescinded, allegedly due to his relationship with a white woman (who he did, in fact, later marry).
Williams was prolific, producing nearly two dozen works of fiction and non-fiction over the course of his career. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, James L. de Jongh has written that John A. Williams was "arguably the finest African-American novelist of his generation."
A scholar, a racial advocate, a husband, and a father of three, John A. Williams will be missed; his work and his legacy will live on.
An Important Note from Activist-Artist Brother Dinizulu Tinnie:
There is nothing quite like a renowned author reviewing the work, especially the "signature piece," of another renowned author, especially when the renown is deserved.
Mosely is inspired by Williams to poetic heights of his own, but, much more relevantly, he masterfully places the Williams novel very accurately in the historical and social context from which it emanated, which, arguably, was the whole reason for creating it in the first place.
The novel has been described as the quintessential bourgeois literary form, a by-product of the printing press, that invention inspired by Marco Polo's discovery of print technology in China which had so much of a role in bringing about the European "Renaissance," the period which saw merchant and banker class in the cities begin to usurp the power of the Old Order of monarchies and nobility, the Protestant religious revolt against Catholic Church orthodoxy, and, notably, the beginnings of European exploration and imperialism. The novel was the first time that what we call literature was produced in prose, rather than verse. Perhaps most significantly, however, from the sociological point of view, the novel was (and is) a celebration of individualism: It narrates the trajectory of individual characters through a world which ultimately becomes one of their own making, a conquest of surrounding forces, or a good try at it, and, equally important, the reading of the printed novel is an individual experience (much like the individual reading and interpretation of the Bible that the Protestants insisted was more authentic than the standard interpretations that were being foisted on the public by the deeply corrupted Church of Rome). Born was the bourgeois definition of "freedom." This was a radical departure from the old sense of literature (or, more precisely, "orature"), which was the collective experience of communities listening to epics and other tales recited in verse by traveling bards, going all the way back to Homer and beyond.
In the wake of slavery, colonialism, and general continuing oppression, Africans. for our part, forcibly, and often willingly, embraced concepts, inventions, and traits that were quite foreign to our traditions, not least European languages themselves. But the wonder of it all, which History will remember much more than the violence with which western Europe imposed its cultural ways on other peoples (most notably displaced and colonized Africans), is the way that Africans took these foreign importations to heights unimagined by their originators. (I often cite the saxophone and the basketball as prime examples, but this applies to even deeper elements like religion and language, including the language creation known as the novel.)
Historically, not only did enslaved Africans "invent," as it were, a new literary (i.e. printed) prose form with the publication of "slave narratives," beginning with those of Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano, but literate African Americans would ultimately adopt (and adapt) the novel form in novel ways, quite different from its European origins. Critics have pointed out Frederick Douglass's use of "I" in his nonfictional writings and speeches to be always collective, rather than individual. He speaks for the entire enslaved African American population, enslaved and other.
In much the same way, Walter Mosely enlightens us, John A. Williams' classic fictional novel turns the individualistic, bourgeois novel form on its head, and makes it a kind of anthem of a collective experience which, like Max Reddick's cancer, just won't go away, doing its accumulative daily damage. "The Man Who Cried I Am" is an aptly titled metaphor for all that Black men and women have endured, and continue to endure, in this social and political environment. And yet, as Mosely lets us know with eloquent artistry that only helps to prove his point, Williams' main character experiences a heroic, "even epic" life, as, in a very real sense, beyond rhetoric, each of us do.
We might be reminded of Albert Murray's "The Omni Americans," which pauses, so to speak, amidst all of the noise and bad news, to celebrate a side of the African American life that is not given much attention in public (verbal) discourse, but plays out every day in actions, whereby, to paraphrase, barbers and beauticians, tailors and seamstresses are held to standards of performance worthy of the pharaohs of Egypt. (Need we mention performance on, say, the basketball court, or in that quintessential African American creation called "jazz," where the individual and the collective are so inseparable that the fate of the whole tribe rides on the ability of each player to not only compose in the moment but execute the composition flawlessly? This is Ubuntu -- "I am strong because my Village is strong; my Village is strong because I am strong" -- spoken in the poetry of notes and action rather than words, especially printed words.)
The performance of the African American Classical Music idiom known as "jazz," is, arguably, our modern-day version of anointed and gifted traveling bards gathering our villages to recite the epic tales of who we are and the heroes/sheroes and heroism that have made us so. It is also our evening Village palaver beneath the sacred iroko tree. To turn the printed word, the individualistic bourgeois novel form into an experience of "jazz" is a heroic feat and coup in itself, a kind of reversal, we might say, of the Roman Prometheus myth, this time stealing fire from the Devil, so to speak, rather than the gods, and delivering it to humanity for our betterment.
In that African American tradition, Mosely acquits himself with distinction of his own on behalf of Williams, not so much as the individual genius that he has every entitlement to claim to be, and to showcase, but more as the Village djale, or griot, poetically reciting to us an inspiring epic of one of our heroes of yore, and in doing so becoming one himself, yet only one of many in our Village, and in a nation, where no life is unimportant, and every life, just experiencing the saga of survival, is epic, is crying "I am!"
This revisiting and review by Walter Mosely of the John A. Williams classic could hardly be more timely than in this launch year of the International Decade for People of African Descent. This might be timely encouragement for many in the international community, and of the generation which has come of age since the novel's publication, to (re)discover its multilayered, multifaceted richness, so well described here by Mosely, and its climactic revelation at the end, which is lasting food for thought.
Thanks again for sharing,
Posted by Black Educator at 4:19 PM
Thursday, July 09, 2015
Ella Taught Me: Shattering the Myth of the Leaderless Movement
Ella Baker Institute
Fri, Jun 12, 2015 | colorlines.com
Who gets to tell the story? This is a question implicit in the work I do as a historian. But the question I have been wrestling with lately is more immediate: Who gets to shape the narrative, define the history-makers, and capture the words and images of the current black-led, anti-state violence movement evolving in the United States right now?
Even the act of naming a movement like this has its power. Last month The New York Times Magazine bestowed part of the defining privilege on a young former sports writer, Jay Caspian Kang. Kang reduced the growing movement to the personal story lines of two young, earnest and committed social media activists, DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta "Netta" Elzie. While their work has made a critical contribution, Kang frames that work in a way that misrepresents the larger movement. With a narrow range of sources, Kang’s piece concluded that “Twitter is the revolution,” that “our demand is simple: stop killing us," and that the emergent movement is “leaderless.”
The New York Times Magazine profile was problematic on each of these points.
Borrowing from my research on Baker and my own participation in social movements, I want to refute the notion that this movement is leaderless. As some contemporary youth activists such as #BlackLivesMatter co-founder and Dignity and Power Now founder Patrisse Cullors have asserted, their movement is not leaderless, it is leader-full.
The Revolution Will Not be Tweeted
Many of our sisters and brothers are masterful users, but social media does not have magical powers. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are tools like any other invention. The printing press revolutionized movement-building and revolution-making. So did the radio, telephone, television, personal computer, cell phone and a whole variety of media.
Social media tools can lend themselves to many different—and contradictory—purposes. They can bring attention to injustice, communicate the logistics of demonstrations—and they can sell you just about any worthless new commodity on the planet. And while Twitter is a uniquely open platform to exchange ideas, argue, celebrate, commiserate and mobilize, a Twitter following does not take the place of an organization.
Twitter is personality-driven, anonymous when convenient and an opportunity for spectatorship as much as engagement. We don’t know how many of our followers are actually supporters, just as we don’t know if all our Facebook friends actually like us.
And even re-tweeting frequently comes with the caveat, “retweet does not constitute agreement.” Moreover, these recent technologies are also the site for ever more sinister and sophisticated forms of government surveillance.
This is why leadership and organizing cannot be simply tweeted into existence. Movement-building is forged in struggle, through people building relationships within organizations and collectives. Social media is only one part of a much larger effort.
While the mainstream media is all abuzz about social media as if it were a stand-alone entity, it tends to ignore or render invisible the critical work of leader-organizers who are more focused on street action than virtual action. This bias toward social media work woefully distorts not only how we understand this evolving movement, but also how we see social movements in general.
Ella Taught Me
Those who romanticize the concept of leaderless movements often misleadingly deploy Ella Baker’s words, "Strong people don’t need [a] strong leader." Baker delivered this message in various iterations over her 50-year career working in the trenches of racial-justice struggles, but what she meant was specific and contextual. She was calling for people to disinvest from the notion of the messianic, charismatic leader who promises political salvation in exchange for deference. Baker also did not mean that movements would naturally emerge without collective analysis, serious strategizing, organizing, mobilizing and consensus-building.
Baker, a lead organizer in multiple groups dating back to 1930, a colleague and critic of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the impetus for the 1960 formation of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), knew this better than anyone.
Although she objected to the top-down, predominately male leadership structures that were typical of groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and the NAACP in the 1950s and '60s, she realized the necessity for grounded, community-based leader-organizers such as sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer and Cleveland, Mississippi-based local organizer Amzie Moore. Baker was not against leadership. She was opposed to hierarchical leadership that disempowered the masses and further privileged the already privileged.
When Oprah Winfrey complained that recent protests against police violence lack leadership, she was describing the King style of leading, or at least the way in which the King legacy has been most widely branded: the reverend as the strong, all-knowing, slightly imperfect but still not-like-us type of leader.
Baker represented a different leadership tradition altogether. She combined the generic concept of leadership—"A process of social influence in which a person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task"—and a confidence in the wisdom of ordinary people to define their problems and imagine solution. Baker helped everyday people channel and congeal their collective power to resist oppression and fight for sustainable, transformative change. Her method is not often recognized, celebrated or even seen except by many who are steeped in the muck of movement-building work. Yet Baker and her hardworking political progenies were essential.
I underscore this because while some forms of resistance might be reflexive and simple—that is, when pushed too hard, most of us push back, even if we don’t have a plan or a hope of winning—organizing a movement is different. It is not organic, instinctive or ever easy. If we think we can all "get free" through individual or uncoordinated small-group resistance, we are kidding ourselves.
This is not a news flash to serious organizers, past or present. The veterans from the 1960s and '70s (SNCC and the Black Panther Party as two of the best-known examples), held meetings, workshops, debates, strategy sessions and reading groups to forge the consensus that enabled thousands of people to work under the same rubric and, more or less, operate out of the same playbook, splits and differences notwithstanding.
That collective effort required leaders who were accountable to one another and were not singular. There were many organizers in groups such as SNCC who modeled Baker’s brand of what sociologist Charles Payne has called "group-centered leadership."
Rather than someone with a fancy title standing at a podium speaking for or to the people, group-centered leaders are at the center of many concentric circles. They strengthen the group, forge consensus and negotiate a way forward. That kind of leadership is impactful, democratic, and, I would argue, more radical and sustainable, than the alternatives.
Who's Up Next
We see many examples of group-centered leadership among today’s young organizers. They combine their own vision and experience with respect for the collective will. For example, in contrast to the amorphousness, transience and sometimes-awkward anonymity of social media, if you join Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) you know what you are signing up for. You know that the fast-growing group of 18-to-35-year-olds has been leading anti-police violence protests from the Bay Area to New York. You know it embraces a black feminist approach that seeks to build transformative leadership, employs nonviolent direct action and operates through a black queer lens.
Thus, through organizational process, BYP100 has staked its claim on a set of ideas, politics and tactics. It has a leadership philosophy, structure and specific requirements for membership. At the same time it is open, democratic, accessible and collaborative with other organizations. Groups like BYP100 are playing a critical role in movement-building, yet they are often invisible to the mainstream and even alternative media.
Another example of the work of leader-organizers being erased from current movement-building narratives is the crude appropriation of the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) banner. Three black women immersed in labor, immigrants’ rights and social justice organizing conceived of the term in 2012 in the wake of the Trayvon Martin murder case. The term became ubiquitous in 2014 after a series of high profile, racist police and extra-judicial killings.
Unrelated groups and social media users then changed the phrase to “All Lives Matter,” diminishing the originators’ intent. In the whole process the slogan was lifted and re-appropriated as if it had dropped from the sky. The initiators had no identity, no context, no grounding. Fortunately, one of those initiators, Alicia Garza, an organizer with Domestic Workers Alliance, wrote a powerful piece pushing back against the revisionist narrative that would delete her role and that of her two co-creators, Cullors and Opal Tometi. They did not make this statement to claim authorship in an individualistic way, but rather to locate the roots of BLM in a place, community and lived experience.
About two months ago I had the privilege of co-hosting a Chicago gathering of about 50 young, anti-police violence organizers from around the country, including the three BLM creators. Those gathered were a serious, eclectic, savvy collection of 18- to-35-year-olds (and a few of us older supporters) from 12 states. They embodied the kind of grassroots, unapologetically radical leadership that would have made Ella Baker very proud.
Turning Theory Into Practice
In my 30 years of working in many different groups, campaigns and movements, I have been a part of efforts, not always successful, to strike the balance between mass mobilizing and organization-building; between inclusivity and accountability; and between strategic actions and spontaneous ones. Groups I've worked with have formed rotating steering and coordinating committees instead of electing officers. They've met regularly and devised ways for there to be lots of talking, learning, processing and thinking out loud together. Communication was always key and accountability has been crucial.
I have found that without organizations, coalitions and leadership teams, there is no collective strategy or accountability. An independent or freelance activist may share their opinion, and it may be an informed one, but if these words are not spoken in consultation or conversation with people on the ground, they are limited as a representation of a movement’s thinking and work.
When a leader-organizer puts him, her or themselves on record as being a part of a larger whole, that group can say, "You can or cannot speak for us. We agreed to X and you did Y. We were were counting on you and you opted out just when we needed you." That is accountability.
In turn, the collective can support those who act as representatives or spokespersons at any given moment. This rough formula gets complicated the larger and more diverse a movement gets. Still, the fundamental idea works.
We Need Structure
In 1970, in reference to the predominantly white Second Wave feminist movement that was just getting off the ground, feminist activist Jo Freeman* wrote “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” In this essay she argues that the notion of a movement without either structure or leaders obscures and privileges in corrosive ways. In a leaderless movement anyone can name, negotiate, convene and demand while simultaneously eschewing the label and responsibilities of leadership. At the end of the day these people are beholden to no one.
In order for activists to craft specific goals and demands wedded to a solid justice agenda built on the needs and aspirations of the most oppressed sectors of our communities, leadership, accountability and organization are necessary ingredients.
That said, let me also caution against the tyranny of leadership to offset Jo Freeman’s “tyranny of structurelessness.” One should not have to formally join an organization, pay dues, or be subject to group mandates to play a respected role in social struggles.
In fact, it is the job of radically democratic organizations and leaders to make sure that entry points and creative spaces remain open. Groups can become closed, defensive and even conservative if they don’t remain inclusive and pliable.
The democratic centralist models of the Old and New U.S. Left offer cautionary examples of organizations that were far more centralist than they were democratic.
In addition to the "leaderless" misnomer, there have been a number of skewed characterizations of the current movement in news and social media. There is not rigid ideological agreement among the half dozen or so black-led groups that have powered anti-state violence work since officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson in August 2014. there is, however, coherence to the debates and a consistent political framework within which these organizers are operating.
For example, while no one would argue that cops should continue to be allowed to kill unarmed civilians with impunity, some of the most savvy young leaders realize that jailing individual cops does not solve all our problems. Moreover, the “one rogue cop” mantra, repeatedly asserted by mainstream media, betrays the deeper analysis that many movement leaders share, which is that the problem is wider and systemic.
Beyond Police Violence
Not only do the black-led anti-racist/anti-state violence activists define systemic problems in U.S. law enforcement, they see problems in the laws themselves, especially those that have created our current economic crisis of joblessness, underemployment and the obscene concentration wealth at the top. The choice of some of these organizers to link anti-police violence to the “Fight for 15” labor movement for a $15 minimum wage is brilliant because it foregrounds the economic grievances at the core of black anger, from Ferguson to New York to Baltimore. as the title of one news article proclaimed and a study by the Brookings Institute documents, the ferguson uprising was "a story of black poverty and white supremacy.”
Let’s remember also that Eric Garner was harassed and then killed by Staten Island police because of his participation in the informal economy. His crime was selling single cigarettes, a retail enterprise crafted to secure a very modest margin of profit for the struggling father of four. Underlying the overwhelming majority of police killings of black people is a story of poverty, underemployment, illegal economic activity, class vulnerability and struggling communities. When protest leaders have chanted "black lives matter," the real power in their collective voice is that they are insisting that the lives of the Mike Browns and Eric Garners of the world matter, as distinct from the better protected and less vulnerable black political and commercial elites.
If we listen closely, the message of some of the sharpest leaders of this generation reflects not only a class and racial analysis but an intersectional gender analysis as well. On May 21 several groups called for a National Day of Action to End State Violence Against Black Women and Girls to counter the erroneous notion that only black males are victims of police and state violence.
And in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing, black feminist organizers actively supported the protests around Martin while simultaneously spearheading a defense campaign to draw attention to the case of Marissa Alexander. Project NIA in Chicago and the Crunk Feminist Collective were two important sites for this effort.
More recently activists have publicized and rallied around the case of Rekia Boyd, a young unarmed Chicago woman killed by an off-duty police officer. The black feminist analysis that undergirds these campaigns and is articulated by organizers such as Charlene Carruthers, Angie Rollins, Brittney Cooper, Jasson Perez and others standing in defiant opposition to the biased logic of male-centered programs and to the reactionary and the ill-informed pronouncements of Fox News’ Juan Williams who sought to link the Baltimore protests to the supposed breakdown of the patriarchal black family.
If one is paying attention, one knows the myriad of problems that oppressed people, specifically poor black folk, are experiencing everyday. Solutions, however, are harder to come by.
When we chant “We want our freedom!” that demand can mean many different things, especially as demonstrations become bigger and more diverse. That is why the title of Jay Kang’s New York Times Magazine article—“Our Demand is Simple: Stop Killing Us”—is so problematic. The demands organizations including BYP100, Dream Defenders, Justice League, Black Lives Matter, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, We Charge Genocide, Critical Resistance, BlackOUT Collective, Ferguson Action, Organization for Black Struggle and Hands Up United are making are not simple at all.
Organizers who are grounded in collective work know that we could indeed witness a reduction in police killings but still feel repression, poverty and violence in so many other ways.
People are demanding jobs with a living wage, more funding for schools, access to college, social programs, food justice, and a reversal of the multi-layered process of mass incarceration.
Moreover, the newer organizations are in advance of previous movements by including the language of anti-sexism and anti-hetero-patriarchy in their political statements and, in some cases, their mission statements.
Some young activists are visionary abolitionists who want to push for a society without prisons. So while reducing and eliminating police killings of black civilians is certainly a goal, freedom has a much higher bar. As Dream Defenders’ organizer Phillip Agnew puts it, “This is part of a progression of resistance to economic systems and social systems that stamp out people who are black, brown, oppressed [and] poor.”
|The Originators of #BlackLivesMatter Movement.|
While problems confronting black youth in the era of neoliberalism and post-industrial cities are complicated, they are not undecipherable.
The post-industrial era and the age of global neoliberal policies means cities and neighborhoods have been abandoned. Some of the areas where police have recently killed black civilians are reeling from more than 30 percent unemployment. They're challenged by a booming underground economy that puts participants and bystanders at greater risk of being jailed or killed.
In Chicago’s North Lawndale, in West Baltimore, or almost any neighborhood in my hometown of Detroit, there simply are no jobs and no real grocery stores. There is dilapidated and abandoned housing and dramatically dwindling services. The one problem, from a crude capitalist standpoint, is that there are still people in these post-economic areas but their labor is no longer needed in the steel mills, factories or private homes. These superfluous, redundant bodies are the dilemma of 21st Century racial capitalism.
As Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her recent review of Martin Ford’s new book, "Rise of the Robots, " “[T]here should be no doubt that technology is advancing in the direction of full unemployment.” (Emphasis mine.)
Ford makes this point by quoting a co-founder of a startup dedicated to automating gourmet hamburger production: "Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient. It’s meant to completely obviate them.”
So, jobs are being pushed out of neighborhoods, out of the U.S. and out of existence. Those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, which has been a racialized hierarchy in the U.S. since slavery, are bearing the brunt of this economic trajectory. So I ask, How do we turn it around?
There are answers. It will be a fight. We need multiple tools and tactics. And we need leaders of the Ella Baker variety to make it happen. I am confident that they are on the rise.
Barbara Ransby teaches African-American Studies, Gender and Women’s studies and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she directs the Social Justice Initiative. Her most recent book is "Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson." A longtime activist, Ransby was an initiator of the African American Women in Defense of Ourselves campaign in 1991, a co-convener of The Black Radical Congress in 1998, and a founder of Ella’s Daughters, a network of women working in Ella Baker’s tradition. Find her on Twitter at @BarbaraRansby.
*Piece has been updated with the correct spelling of Jo Freeman's surname. It's "Freeman," not "Freedman."
Posted by Black Educator at 9:52 AM