Liberation: the act of setting someone free from imprisonment, slavery, or oppression; release. The power to shape your own existence in this world.
In the preface to his 2002 book Freedom Dreams, Robin DG Kelley asked, “How do we produce a vision that enables us to see beyond our immediate ordeals? How do we transcend bitterness and cynicism and embrace love, hope, and an all-encompassing dream of freedom, especially in these rough times?” Kelley continues, “Trying to envision “somewhere in advance of nowhere,” as poet Jayne Cortez puts it, is an extremely difficult task, yet it is a matter of great urgency. Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down. We not only end up confused, rudderless, and cynical, but we forget that making a revolution is not a series of clever maneuvers and tactics but a process that can and must transform us.”
As an organization dedicated to the embodied and economic liberation of people of color, with those most vulnerable at our center, we have spent the duration of this year concerned with what liberation looks like in contemporary society. Since the moment of encounter in and with this land, and its original inhabitants, inequity has underpinned the relationship between systems, people and power.
In the liberal tradition of political philosophy, known widely as the age of Enlightenment, Thomas Hobbes is heralded as one of the most influential thinkers to describe the tension between people and their government. “Hobbes and others understand freedom as the right of the individual to do what he wishes without fetters or impediments, as long as it is lawful under the state,” Kelley writes in the forward of Angela Davis’ 2012 collection of essays The Meaning of Freedom. “The right of nature…” Hobbes writes, “is the liberty each man hath to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature; that is to say, of his own life.”
Nature, in this context, refers to the “natural rights of every human being which are not dependent on the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and are therefore universal and inalienable.”
Kelley remarks further: “This “negative” liberty or freedom places a premium on the right to own property, to accumulate wealth, to defend property by arms, to mobility, expression, and political participation.”
Hobbes could not conceive of a world without “absolute war, or the threat thereof” because of the context he comes from. Civilization and humanity, for philosophers of the Enlightenment era, were considered the province of white Europeans and rarely took up the cause of indigineous communities of the day.
Now, more than three centuries later, we are still trying to define and describe what liberation looks like outside of the confines of colonialism, racial terror, and exploitative economic practices. There are many pathways to liberation, each defined by the individual and communities they belong to. Within these pathways, there are multiple uses and tools towards that goal. This edition of the WIRE will look at some of the ways liberation is defined and applied today.
In a recent article in Scalawag Magazine on voting and Black disillusionment, Mississippi Votes’ executive director, Arekia Bennett commented, “If Black Liberation is our North Star, then electoral justice should be the lighthouse on our way today. The people who are suited to address the real material conditions of our people’s lives may not be our faves. But I have faith that people are gonna do what they’re supposed to do.”
Black suffrage in the United States is a long and storied history. Voting and citizenship were denied to people of color, at large, until 1870 and in the century after Reconstruction local and political actors —white nationalists— sought to suppress access although the 14th and15th Amendments granted full citizenship to those born on U.S. soil and prohibited states from voter disenfranchisement “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Further, it wasn’t until the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, that women at large were given the right to vote.
“Even after the 19th Amendment passed, promising that the right to vote would ‘not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,’ women of color continued to be barred from casting ballots in many states with tactics like poll taxes and literacy tests. Suffrage battles continued for decades — often against a backdrop of intimidation and violence,” writes Lakshmi Ghandi in a History.org article on the subject.
After the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which granted access to Black people, and POC at large, to vote, there was an increase in voter parity and elected officials of color in political office.
But how do these advancements stack up to the broader goal of liberation? Many people of color find themselves disillusioned by the idea of voting, although they may participate begrudgingly under the auspice of harm reduction. In a 2020 essay by IndigineousAction.org, they state “you cannot decolonize the ballot.” There are many other articles and opinion pieces published by people of color with the same rhetoric.
Elsewhere, Americans say that what’s at stake for their safety, lives, livelihoods and futures makes this election, in particular, feel like “the most important of their lifetime.”
The Washington Post reports: “We shouldn’t be where we’re at in 2020,” said Tasha Grant, 44, a nurse who voted in Charlotte on Thursday and hopes her vote for the Democratic nominee, former vice president Joe Biden, will ensure that her children grow up in a safer, more accepting world.” Many others in the piece echo this idea: they understand that voting is not the end-all, but exists as one powerful tool in decreasing social, economic, and ecological harm in our communities.
In W.E.B. Dubois formative 1899 study of the Black condition, The Philadelphia Negro, he notes that the Negro slum is not a matter of deteriorated housing or overcrowding or crime but notices that it is part and parcel to the conditions created by and after structural conditions racial capitalism and slavery created. W.E.B. Dubois, and his contemporaries, concerned themselves with understanding the economic conditions of Black life, and strategies for improvement. The traces of these philosophies around ending class and racial injustices are still found in our conversations today.
In a 2020 article for Revolt on the subject of economic empowerment, Julian Mitchell writes:
“The foundation of racism has always been fueled by the mechanics of classism, which serves as the basis of why Black bodies were classified as property before being properly recognized as people. Slavery industrialized Black bodies in a way that created accumulating wealth for multiple generations of white men and their families. Slave owners turned their portfolios of human capital into venture capital that ultimately funded industries and birthed lucrative businesses, establishing an economic model that continues across markets today.
If race was neutralized, perceivably making all races equal in the context of skin color, classism would then determine value and social positioning according to worth, calculated by accumulated liquid (cash flow), equity and tangible assets. Therefore, the distribution of power would be anchored in the differences in wealth amongst communities. Due to the existing racial dynamic, this notion of equality still places white people atop the class system due to collectively acquiring exponentially more wealth over time; continuing as the top priority for available opportunity, resources and services alike. Understanding this, it is even more imperative today for Black people as a collective to emphasize the importance of wealth building as an essential act of revolution required to achieve the true freedom and equality we desire.”
Mitchell’s ideas echo that of Booker T. Washington, who encouraged rejection of political action in favor of building capitalism within the Black community. “Economic independence is the foundation of political independence,” Washington asserted, “…we must act in these matters before others from foreign lands rob us of our birthright… Land ownership is the foundation of all wealth.”
Writer Aaron Ross Coleman objects to this concept in his 2019 article for the Nation by stating “Black Capitalism Won’t Save Us:”
“[B]lack capitalism — a series of meager tax breaks and incentives touted as enabling a black entrepreneurship that would supposedly redress generations of racialized American plunder. It was a farce — a decoy made of Styrofoam and plastic. But its minuscule price tag and rhetorical appeal made it a political masterstroke that grew into the go-to policy for American presidents.
‘Carter did it, Reagan did it, Clinton did it, Obama did it, [and] Trump is doing it now with Opportunity Zones,’ [Merhsa] Baradaran told me. ‘Opportunity Zones is black capitalism. It’s been denuded of the word ‘black,’ but it’s essentially the same idea.’
‘We’re pretending like we’re helping distressed communities through capital, but it’s actually not capital for the communities themselves. It is development incentives. It is rich private-equity firms and hedge funds getting tax incentives to do stuff, build stuff, and to create stuff in these distressed communities. They get the upside, and they’re protected from the downside because they are going to get tax credits. That is an extension of Nixon’s brilliant decoy,’ she continued.
‘It looks like we’re helping, but we’re actually not,’ Baradaran said. ‘All it does is prop up a few black businesses to sort of allow for the segregated market to continue breeding inequality.’
Coleman continues: “If we needed any evidence of the futility of black capitalism, last spring, the nation’s leading stratification economists at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity published a hefty report rebutting the “harmful narratives” that buying black, banking black, or fostering black entrepreneurship will close the racial wealth gap, concluding that “it is time to move beyond these fallacies and confront the root causes of the racial wealth gap. Otherwise we will whistle in the wind, and the racial wealth gap will remain unchallenged. […]
Closing the gulf requires dealing with inequities in housing, employment, investment, and assets. This task requires recognizing black people not as consumers or entrepreneurs but as citizens — as members of a society with a national debt to which black people have claim. To access their citizenship, black people need not spend more money at certain stores. They need not start more businesses. They need not settle for tax breaks. The debt of black Americans’ citizenship has been incurred many times over, and the bill is past due.”
Audre Lorde once said, “Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.” Lorde is oft quoted, and misquoted, in conversations about liberatory possibilities for freedom that can exist now — not in the distant future.
Theoretical analysis, while helpful for understanding our conditions, needs an embodied practice in order to live out its true purpose. Ed Whitfield expounds on freedom dreams in an unfree world in his essay What Must We Do to Be Free: On the Building of Liberated Zones, where he cites Audre Lorde’s famous criticism, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
“This has often been misinterpreted to mean that tools that are of use to oppressive systems cannot be used to build liberating systems,” says Whitfield, “What she clearly explained in the same paragraph of the same essay was that ‘. . .this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.’ I would make her point differently. I think that you can tear down the master’s house using some of the master’s tools. Tools are just tools. They amplify, or multiply human effort and they don’t have to be used the way they were intended or for the purpose they were created. I think that the real problem is that it is difficult to tear down the master’s house while you live in it. And that, for many of us, represents the challenge.”
#LiberationEdition Part 1: This is part one of a two-part series, featured in our October 21 edition of the #UjimaWire, about tools and methods towards liberation. In writing this essay, we found ourselves engrossed in the many ways BIPOC communities have forged various paths towards liberation. Stay tuned for our next edition where we will examine spirituality, organizing and expatriation as avenues for our collective freedom dreams.