Between screening Black and Cuba andworking on my new multi-platform project 9 GRAMS, I’ve spent some time this summer thinking about the Black woman’s image.Of course in one way or another I’ve been thinking about it my entire life by looking in the mirror and beholding the relentless glamour of my mother and grandmother while I was growing up. In creating films that center Black women’s perspectives and – frankly- a lifetime of struggling to valorize my own, I’ve come to realize the most empowering and aesthetically beautiful representations of Black women are the ones we create ourselves.
I attended the first national Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) Convening in Cleveland, Ohio and return to say that the movement is alive and strong. This past weekend’s events called into memory our Black elders and youth, our LGB, Queer, and Trans brothers and sisters, and all others whose lives were taken along the way as we struggle for the right to Black humanity. The movement breathes because we breathe, and we work, and we sacrifice.
That said, revolutionary work is being done because M4BL was a huge success. Nearly one thousand beautiful Black faces showed up in downtown Cleveland for the weekend of July 24th to find community and collectively re-imagine the future of Black society. Culture, organizing, healing, and imagining were some of the focal points of the broad range of activities available for attendees. I had the pleasure of participating in dialogues on Black workers, self-determination through food justice and agriculture, anti-Blackness, and a panel discussion with four ex-Panthers.
What was profound for me at this Convening was the power that emanated from the space, brought on by the union of passionate Black individuals across generations. I felt this energy from my very first session, “#BlackWorkersMatter: The State of Black Worker Organizing in the U.S.” The fact of our very presence, a collective of black people organizing together when our communities are so often divided, was a sentiment that I heard many in the room echo. Panelist Kimberly Freeman Brown took a moment to publicly acknowledge the intergenerational space, a rarity in her work as a labor organizer, and let the feeling simmer for a while before beginning. One woman exclaimed in a small group discussion that she was experiencing culture shock, seeing so many young people in a space organized around the labor movement.
What made this workshop so powerful, and this held true for the Conference as a whole, was the collective memory generated by the display of ages in the room. We had elders who were more closely touched by the labors of the 20th century civil rights movement, retired union workers, veteran leaders, students, educators, young community leadership, and laborers themselves. Each of us brought our own segment of the Black existential condition from which we came. The result was a lively and impassioned discussion about the kind of labor movement we need to enable economic justice and ensure the health of Black communities. Our conversations were cut short in the interest of time, but we had built up so much momentum that most stuck around to build connections with other community organizers and share experiences. What happened in the #BlackWorkersMatter session was not a rarity. Each of my four sessions, as well as those I observed in passing was pulsing with that same creative, productive energy that will be essential in our next strides towards liberation.
A moment ago I mentioned that the Convening was a place where “collective memory” arose. Collective memory refers to a people’s understanding of the world and themselves throughout time as formed by the group’s constituents. The refusal of Black collective memory by White supremacist colonial power has been laden in the fabric of global societies since the origins of the African Diaspora. Our people have been systematically enslaved, colonized, sterilized, incarcerated, mis-educated, and murdered. Our children are born targets for law enforcement and government agencies like Foster Care. Black society is entangled in a world of social deaths that prevent our masses from attaining the cohesion and stability necessary to reconstruct that collective memory which has been withheld from us. With a revived collective memory, we may learn to know and love ourselves as ourselves and not through the lens of Whiteness.
So, when I say that was an essence of collective memory at M4BL, I foresaw a future of opportunity for our communities to grow and heal as we work across generations in solidarity. When I attended the panel led by former Black Panthers Ashanti Alston, Pam Hannah, Dhoruba Bin-Wahad, and Hank Jones (San Francisco 8), they expressed to us that they were not certain they would live to see “the movement” live like this again. This nod from our elders in the struggle is a sign that we have “connected the dots” throughout our history and are on the path to building something great.
M4BL was as educational as it was inspiring, and it reminded me of the need for Black Studies programming in communities. What better way to build collective memory than to educate the masses about Black history, culture, and ideology? When the Black Panther Party was still active, one could not be granted general membership until they had completed a political education class. In their Ten-Point Program, a declaration of ideals, the Panthers wrote, “We believe in an educational system that will give our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.” The Panthers were active in one of the nation’s peak moments of Black resistance, and they knew that education would be vital the integrity of their struggle. The M4BL Convening was a step towards this reality, as organizers shared their understanding of the Black condition. Black Studies programming with be another step towards the reification of our humanity.
On the closing of the second day of M4BL, after hearing words from the families of our recently slain, trans activist Miss Major, and other community organizers, we entered into a chant. Together we repeated, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and support one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” We shouted this aloud a few times and on our last round, Kendrick Lamar’s Alright began to play on the auditorium speakers. The crowd burst into celebration. While there is much work to do, I left Cleveland excited for what is to come. I am hopeful and optimistic, because in time, I know “We gon’ be alright.”
I identify as a woman, but I move through the world not only as a woman, but also as a White woman, a woman from a middle-class family, an American woman, an able-bodied woman, and a young woman (I could go on). These identities, many of them granting me daily privileges in society, make my experience as a woman vastly different from the experiences of other women.
Happy July! I hope this July 4th will find you safe, affirmed and celebrating your independence. This month at Progressive Pupil, we celebrate struggles for self-determination in Black communities throughout the world.
If you are reading this on The Progress: a Progressive Pupil blog, chances are you have had the opportunity to make some constructive choices about how to see yourself and your community. You have also probably had access to some positive role models either in person or through books and film. These kinds of life chances are essential to exercising independence and autonomy. Although in theory we may have compassion for members of our communities who have not had similarly constructive chances, in practice on social media it can be hard to resist the opportunity to put down people – especially extremely visible people like Nicki Minaj – who have not. (You can click photo above for her acceptance speech).
Editor’s Note: We like to keep profanity, violence, and misogyny to a minimum at Progressive Pupil, but ‘Yonce said some things that need address. There is some strong language to follow.
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller
We say to girls “You can have ambition, but not too much
You should aim to be successful, but not too successful
Otherwise you will threaten the man”
These powerful words from feminist and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have become an anthem for women’s liberation and empowerment in Beyonce’s song Flawless. The I woke up like this anthem started a short-lived craze of women posting selfies in online forums like tumblr as a showing of self-love. These women appear to feel empowered by the pride, inspiration and permission Beyonce has given them to be themselves. This selfie phenomenon would have more clout if Beyonce’s pictures were less than perfect – we see enough images in the media of unattainably perfect looking women.
As Black feminists we are made constantly and painfully aware of how little effort white women have made to understand and combat their racism, which requires among other things that they have a more than superficial comprehension of race, color, and Black history and culture. Eliminating racism in the white women’s movement is by definition work for white women to do, but we will continue to speak to and demand accountability on this issue.
Throughout the mid-70s and early 1980s, a group of Black women gathered for weekly meetings in Boston to discuss Black feminism. Their Combahee River Statement has become a key document in the principles of contemporary Black feminism. While reading the statement, I was reminded of the poem And When You Leave Take Your Pictures With Youby Jo Carrillo.