every day I get up and I do one thing to move in the direction of freedom

Every day I get up and I work on my long list of small tasks dedicated to moving us toward liberation, toward the revolution, toward supporting a comrade, toward righting an injustice. In times like these, every night I lie down to sleep and I wonder if I’ve done enough, if my small contribution can possibly be weighed against the thousands of lives lost that day to the combined weight of coronavirus, racism, capitalism, imperialism, settler colonialism, and heteropatriarchy. This is an ugly kind of math, and one that I can never win. How can the phone call I’ve made, the letter I’ve written, even the hours I may have spent or the miles I might have marched measure up to these lives? And yet, it seems to be the only kind of math I know how to do at the moment.

The more relevant kind of math, the one I know from decades of activism, is that change and movements are made for the most part by small, regular, granular level actions. While the scale of what we are organizing against is massive and horrific, what it takes to bring it down, I think, is steady work. Maybe it is wrong to use the term work here – maybe I mean effort. Or steady dedication. Chipping away at. After all, the systems of injustice and oppression are also made up of a series of smaller things: rules, people, policies, particular institutions, attitudes, habits, actions, and so on. They are not singular, enormous horrors but composites of smaller things too.

 I know I am not the first to say this; I am not saying this because I think it is news. I am saying this to remind myself and recall myself to this truth. I am writing for myself because I am writing myself back to this truth.

Because in the mode of crisis, it is hard to remember. And these days I feel I live in a crisis. This is no accident but part of both Trumpism’s strategy as well as endemic to capitalism. This week alone there was the tense national election in the US; the hurricane that hit my comrades in a Honduras already devastated and made fragile by narco-dictatorship and neoliberal plundering; and the surge of coronavirus cases in the ongoing pandemic. People close to me need support for other private troubles; the source of these troubles are almost all located in larger systems of structural oppression intensified by certain news cycles. In the crisis mode, it is hard to remember that I’m working together with others for big, long-term changes, and also small gains. It’s hard to remember that I exist in larger communities of talented, visionary, resilient people, and that we want it all – small immediate changes now, and big stuff, and everything in between even as I recognize no change will last forever. I am lucky to exist in communities with these people, I am honored to learn constantly from them, and overjoyed to have the skills and resources to be able to find ways to support their work.

Crisis is the vision of the right wing that does not value Black life, Indigenous life, or life itself; it is their mode. I was reminded by Hoda Katebi that we already have our own, better plans; I was reminded that, as Mariame Kaba says, “hope is a discipline”; I was reminded to listen to all the wisdom right around me insisting that even cracks of light in a dark time are necessary and vital forces.

I will continue to wake up every day and commit to organizing in movement with other people or somehow acting in solidarity with others or supporting my folks. I will continue doing one thing every day to build a better world, and I will know that in doing so, I am building some version of that world. This struggle is long and it will never be done but struggling together is how we get free.

An illustration of various masked people in shades of blue hovering across the image, connected to each other by white constellations. One person is holding a sign that says “the future is collective care,” one person is sitting in a wheelchair, and other people are holding megaphones.
“We keep each other safe in the streets by building connecting beyond the physical” by Molly Costello in collaboration with Lifted Voices.

cite Black theorists

cite-black-women_3_orig

Cite Black Women t-shirt from the Cite Black Women Collective

On page 8 of Keeanga-Yamahta Taylor’s book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation she says something that stopped me in my tracks: “Black revolutionary Stokely Carmichael and social scientist Charles Hamilton coined the phrase ‘institutional racism’ in their book Black Power.”

Although I understand the phrase institutional racism so well that I have actually taught its definition and usage regularly, this is the first time that I have ever heard its origin, and specifically that its origin is attributed to Stokely Carmichael. I am dumbfounded.  Of course, there can be no question that I am to blame for this. But there is also a much larger question here about sociology. I use and teach “institutional racism” in the ways

Stokely_Carmichael_in_Alabama_1966

Stokely Carmichael in Alabama in 1966

that sociologists around me use it, and the ways that I learned it. I have never before heard it attributed it to anyone specific, much less to Carmichael and Hamilton or the Black Power movement. We seem to have simply claimed it as something we do, as part of our larger systemic way of looking at the world. In fact it’s often used interchangeably with “systemic racism.” And that may well be a good and important thing. But it should not come at the cost of erasing the contribution of Black scholars, Black people, and Black movements to our theorizing and scholarship. While we can and do debate the ownership of any one person to a word, no one hesitates to cite Judith Butler when they use the phrase “gender trouble” though these words surely had other connotations and meanings before and after this scholar. We cite Marx when we simply refer to “capital” or the “means of production” and sometimes Foucault gets all of “power.”

This is a question of our citational practices and how they reify existing power structures. This is about how we continue to actively create a white academy. Sara Ahmed discusses this (and provides one alternative possibility) in her nourishing book Living a Feminist Life, which does not cite any white men:

Citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings. My citation policy has affected the kind of house I have built. I realized this is not simply through writing the book, through what I found about what came up, but also through giving presentations. As I have already noted, in previous work I have built a philosophical edifice by my engagement with the history of ideas. We cannot conflate the history of ideas with white men, though if doing one leads to the other then we are being taught where ideas are assumed to originate.

It is for this reason, among others, that the Cite Black Women campaign was created. As the Cite Black Women’s Collective says, “It’s simple. Cite Black Women.” But also: put in the work. Find the citations and place Black women in the center of your syllabus and your sociological research and even your informal political thinking. The collective has a praxis:

  1. Read Black women’s work
  2. Integrate Black women into the CORE of your syllabus (in life & in the classroom).
  3. Acknowledge Black women’s intellectual production.
  4. Make space for Black women to speak.
  5. ​Give Black women the space and time to breathe.

And a rad t-shirt (pictured above), which supports the Winnie Mandela School in a working class, Black neighborhood of Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. I’ve already briefly discussed how amazing Winnie Mandela was on this blog. The collective has also organized conference events (including ASA)  and #CiteBlackWomenSunday.

Look, this is not just about “you.” I certainly need to do better at this too. The fact is, unless a person has been making a conscious effort to do this for several years now, it’s likely that many of us need to be putting some work in to do better at this. The point is that we all need to do the work because it isn’t going to happen without it – no one is going to start getting the credit they deserve for their contributions to our discipline and to our thinking without all of us practicing the racial justice that we preach. Here is a short list of Black scholars who influenced sociology to get you started.

a spell for writing

Some days I have so much to say that I can’t find a way to say anything.

Other days I run so dry of words that I have to read a book.

Learning to tell the difference feels like magical self-awareness, but it is a simple spell.

  1. Breathe deeply and know that both will pass quickly.
  2. Spend a few minutes letting it all out on the page.
  3. If nothing comes out, spend a longer time letting the ideas flow in.