Identity and Action: Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements By Charlene A. Carruthers.
This has been a banner year for Black feminist nonfiction. From Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele's When They Call You a Terrorist, to Brittney Cooper's Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, to Darnell Moore's No Ashes in the Fire: Coming of Age Black and Free in America, just to name a few, there is a plethora of Black feminist writing that seeks to document political action, shape dialogues, and challenge thinking. Charlene A. Carruthers's Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements joins an already dynamic conversation with a distinct and necessary contribution.
As the founding national director of The Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), Carruthers rose to national prominence in the current Black liberation movement. Unapologetic cements her position as an important thought leader. Nevertheless, she repeatedly rejects the notion of a singular, charismatic leader in favor of highlighting the significance of relationships and interconnectedness. Indeed, while many of Unapologetic's peers lean heavily on memoir to inform their social commentary, her book reads less as a single story of Carruthers' experience and more like a text that should be used in consciousness-raising sessions, community organizing trainings, and in classrooms outlining the history of Black social movements.
Although Carruthers often downplays her own life in favor of outlining both the history of the movement and the mandate the movement needs as it moves forward, her identification as a Black lesbian feminist informs her perspectives throughout the book. Indeed, the book's subtitle --A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements--exemplifies the ways in which the personal is explicitly political and intersectional. Carruthers reclaims the often-maligned term of "identity politics," highlighting the Combahee River Collection's coinage of the term in 1977. In an era where those on the left have been chastised for leaning "too heavily" on marginalized identities, Carruthers argues that "identity politics are not inherently or necessarily divisive." Instead, she underscores that the charge against identity politics often surfaces when marginalized peoples seek power and justice and make no apologies for this. To that end, Unapologetic is just that; it does not waver in its commitment to telling hard truths or demanding justice.
Unapologetic is a short but powerful text, geared towards "all people who are curious about and committed to the struggle for Black liberation." Carruthers's lucid and accessible prose guides us throughout a series of complex and challenging histories, scenarios, and challenges. The book opens with definitions for terms such as "Black radical tradition," "Radical Black Feminisms," and "Reparations" and a preface that outlines Carruthers's journey to activism. Thereafter, the text is divided into six succinct chapters and a forward-looking conclusion. The chapters are strong enough to be read individually but form a cohesive story when read together. Indeed, time and again, Carruthers returns to the importance of storytelling in organizing work, asserting, "Stories draw out emotions. They allow us to see, taste, and feel moments. If the stories we tell about Black people's experiences of resistance and resilience are incomplete, our movements to transform them, to enact them will be insufficient and ineffective." Carruthers practices what she preaches and uses Unapologetic to reframe what we think we know about Black resistance and movement-making.
In chapter one, "All of Us or None of Us," Carruthers focuses on what is possible when we center a Black queer feminist (BQF) critical lens, which she defines as a "political praxis (practice and theory) based in Black feminist and LGBTQ traditions and knowledge, through which people and groups see to bring their full selves into the process of dismantling all systems of oppression." As an example, Carruthers tells a difficult story of community organizing through a Black queer feminist lens: a situation that involves a movement leader and sexual assault. She outlines what transformative justice and accountability looked like for BYP100 and how their actions reflect new possibilities for preventing and intervening when someone in the community perpetuates or experiences harm.
Reviving the Black radical imagination and reimagining the Black radical tradition are the focus of chapters two and three, respectively. She defines the Black radical tradition as "cultural and intellectual work aimed at disrupting oppressive political, economic, and social norms, and its roots are in anticolonial and antislavery efforts of centuries past" and cites antecedents from among the Haitian Revolution to SNCC to Maroon communities and other revolutionary movements and groups. Speaking directly to the current movement that has come of out the Obama era and beyond, Carruthers charges readers with the following: "The Black radical tradition requires an ongoing and persistent cultivation of the Black radical imagination. It is within the spaces of imagination, the dream spaces, that liberatory practices are born and grow, leading to the space to act and to transform." Carruthers challenges movement leaders to "deepen our collective political education work, to take the lead in generating public thought and discussion" and not to wait on "academics and journalists to investigate our work and dictate our next steps."
To that end, Carruthers invites us to consider what would shift in our understanding if we discussed the Black radical tradition from different points of entry. Using the stories of Recy Taylor and Bayard Rustin, among others, as examples, Carruthers posits that, "understandings of the Black radical tradition would be more complete, and our movement would better understand how to craft effective liberatory strategies for all." Taylor was kidnapped and raped by a gang of white men and boys in Alabama in 1944. Although Taylor is only now becoming enshrined as a part of the civil rights movement, her case garnered international attention and sparked a worldwide anti-sexual violence movement in its day. Indeed, activist Rosa Parks was part of this action more than a decade before the Montgomery bus boycott that would make her famous. Yet, as Carruthers suggests, "the campaign went beyond [Taylor] and took on a new life with little regard for her well-being or security." Carruthers uses Recy Taylor's story as both visionary and cautionary tale; at once it outlines that we have succeeded at intersectional movements that consider multiple systems of oppression and that we have failed in prioritizing the safety and healing of victims and survivors. Likewise, Carruthers wonders how our understanding of the Black radical tradition would shift if we centered the life, story, and contributions of Bayard Rustin, an openly gay Black man who was the architect of many actions during the Civil Rights Movement, including the 1963 March on Washington. Carruthers insists that it is our duty to reclaim radical history accurately and expansively as we move forward towards collective liberation.
Carruthers outlines what she identifies as three key collective commitments for movement building and regeneration in chapter four. They are:
1. Building many strong leaders
2. Adopting healing justice as a core organizing value and practice
3. Combating liberalism with principled struggle.
Each commitment is key to sustaining any social movement; taken together, they constitute a powerful force for change. Carruthers advises movements to build strong leaders as "community organizing toward liberation requires people in ongoing and substantive public relationships with each other, people with shared interests, to work toward shared goals." She again rebukes the notion of the singular leader in favor of a cadre of capable, interconnected leaderships. Her call for adopting healing justice is an invitation to "invest time and money in healers at least as much as we invest in field organizing" as way to make the work of organizing sustaining and truly transformative. Carruthers identifies healers as "not only those who work in medicine but also those in generative somatics, psychotherapies, and religious and spiritual fields." The commitment to combating liberalism through principled struggle might seem anomalous with the other cornerstones of movement building Carruthers outlines. However, Carruthers identifies liberalism as "one of the greatest threats to movement building," further noting that "at face value, liberalism is a general philosophy in which liberty and equality are inherent. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, liberalism requires no specific commitment to collective work, justice, or transformation." In other words, radical movements and liberal politics are fundamentally at odds with one other.
After outlining the three cornerstones of movement building, Carruthers poses five questions that make up chapter five. These questions get at the heart of what is at stake in contemporary organizing. They are directly related to the realties of today's movement, rather than nostalgic opining about the Civil Rights or Black Power movements, yet they are connected to previous movements in the shared desire to achieve collective liberation. Carruthers argues, "everyone invested in collective liberation must answer the following questions critical to determining the health and success of our movements: Who am I? Who are my people? What do we want? What are building? Are we ready to win?" Taken together, the answers to these questions form the core of a self-determining movement. They seek to clarify who we are connected to, our purpose, and our fervor.
In chapter six, "The Chicago Model," Carruthers takes her hometown as an example, asserting that, "if we drew a map of the creation story of the Black radical tradition, Chicago and its people would appear at nearly every critical point in time." More specifically, she highlights successful organizing campaigns that underscore the Chicago Model, such as the reparations won against the Chicago Police Department in 2015 and the fight to oust former Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez in the wake of the murder of Laquan McDonald. Carruthers notes that the Chicago model is "intergenerational, with a strong history of community building... it continues to be shaped through agitation and high-impact work by leaders from feminist and queer threads in the Black radical tradition. Third, Chicago organizing is historically local, national, and global. Last, it requires the involvement of multiple institutions with varying political alignment." She notes that the Chicago model is not a one-size-fits-all organizing model, but rather one of many possibility models for organizing.
Carruthers closes the book with a mandate for activists, organizers, and movement leaders. Citing Mary Hooks of Southerners on New Ground, the mandate calls for Black folk:
To avenge the suffering of our ancestors To earn the respect of future generations To be willing to be transformed in the service of the work.
Undoubtedly, interesting questions, conversations, and debates will be prompted by the provocative questions and answers Carruthers offers us.
Reviewed by Susana Morris
Susana Morris is an associate professor of literature, media, and communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She is the co-editor, with Brittney Cooper and Robin Boylorn, of The Crunk Feminist Collection (Feminist Press, 2017).
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|Publication:||The Women's Review of Books|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2018|
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