On Hope and the Will to Fight
I am often asked the question about how I remain hopeful, given our current national romance with self-destruction. In a world that continually induces our rage – through the kind of structural disregard and state-sanctioned cowardice that stood by as 19 precious kiddos and 2 devoted teachers were murdered at school last week, through the malignant social disregard that forces birthing people to have children, only to then abandon the newly arrived to bad policy and catastrophic happenstance, through an anemic response to the continued terrorization of Black folks, Asian folks, Latinx folks in acts of racial terror – what does any one of us look like when we choose hope? Because hope and lament are not a house divided. They walk together. A hope born of lament is perhaps a more honest hope anyway.
I am angry every minute of every day. After two years of living mostly in quarantine, in a drastically dystopic America, I have become intimate with my sense of despair. I frequently doubt whether civil discourse – writing, reading, public debates, factual journalism, facts themselves – will move the needle on this path to utter moral desiccation that so many white folks and cismen have chosen against the wishes of the rest of us.
Not only do I, do we, confront a society where those with all the power, bathe in a narrative of grievance and victimization only to emerge dripping with contempt for the rest of us, but we also confront the problem of internalized self-hatred, of what we do when – having exhausted ourselves throwing upward punches that never quite land – we ball the fist tighter, and settle for striking the blow at those most proximate to us. We choose violence by adjudicating horizontally problems that are imposed vertically.
For Black women across time immemorial, this means that we are not just being pummeled structurally from above. We also deal with the rage of those in the communities we work for. I am specifically talking about a growing body of angry Black men, who weaponize their failed patriarchal anxiety against us. For me, that has meant dealing with a couple of weeks of harassment via Twitter and Youtube, from Black men angry at the notion that the anti-knowledge projects they engage in via the Black manosphere constitute dangerous forms of radicalization akin to those who pervert Islam into a religion of violence or those who express the logical ends of a white supremacist project, through violence. In other words, everybody is mad, and somehow, in community with Black folks, Black women have become the target of Black men’s anger, over being locked up and shut out, of white men’s renewed quest for total and complete power. The Black men who are angry (notice that is a statement with qualifiers) feel resentful that white men are doing it again. But more than that, they notice that white women are fully on board (let voting practices tell it) with this renewed consolidation of white power.
One can hear, in the brothers who call me every iteration of “Professor Chunk” and the “Nutty Professor” and wish for my death via heart attack and diabetes, this clear sense that if Black women would willingly happily submit to a project of Black male patriarchy, then maybe we would have a fighting chance against white supremacy. Black patriarchy they think is the solution to the onslaught. Actually, don’t get me to lying. That’s not what they think. They think that Black women must get out of the way if they are ever to have any shot in this epoch, here at the end of the world, for finally tasting what it feels like to rule the rest of us, just like white men do. That is what they want — just one long season of experiencing the world like white men do. They crave it and they will choose violence against anyone who stands in their way. The end of such foolhardy logics will be violence. It’s mostly rhetorical but it will move into the realm of the material, because “speaking things into existence,” is a real thing, for good or for ill. Having read Treva Lindsey’s latest work, I know that the physical violence against Black women is actual, but the kind of organized attacks on Black life that this online anti-freedom project portends are downright terrifying.
I do not wish for any Black man to be my enemy, but I cannot afford to overlook enemy behavior any longer. But Black feminists care about freedom, and about that, we recognize and we wreck all imposters, come to impose a false version of it onto us. Which is to say, sometimes, the first war we end up fighting is with the enemies who look just like us.
Given these warring Black worlds and a world on the brink of war, what in the hell is there to be hopeful about? Why, in the face of these continual assaults on Black life, from within and without, should we not give in to despair?
Here’s one answer. Both the history that is true, and the future that could be possible demand of us, hope.
I think often when I am asked this question of Ida B. Wells. Born into slavery, in 1862 in Mississippi, and freed as a baby in 1863, after losing her parents in Yellow Fever pandemic, Ida grew up in the middle of Reconstruction, and experienced young adulthood in the liminal post-Reconstruction era. That meant that by the time she was 30 years old in 1892, she had experienced slavery, a Civil War, a historic period of desegregation and Black advancement, wherein Black people voted, held office, and rode desegregated public transportation, only to have it all snatched away violently by the time she was 35. Ida B. Wells spent the rest of her life fighting for an end to lynching and the right to vote, but we cannot forget, that she lived in a historical era of racial regression, rather than progression.
There was never a guarantee that every generation of Black people would experience more rights than the last generation. That has really only been true, perhaps for the World War I Generation. Raised by these very people, Boomers struggle to understand this version of the world, wherein the progress narrative they believed – that the Black folks worked for, that the white folks exploited – is crumbling beneath us faster than we can find steady ground.
Ida B. Wells and all the women of her generation, including my perennial problematic favorite Mary Church Terrell, all started their lives having experienced the end of slavery and the promise of progress only to find themselves in their waning years fighting like hell, to restore what had been, not merely lost, but rather taken.
There are two ways to relate to these stories: one is to conclude that history has always been the same, nothing ever changes, all is slavery, and so we just give in to cynicism and self-interest. Clearly y’all know I think that sounds crazy.
A better choice would be to follow the path they laid out for us. We build while we can and we fight when we have to. What we never do is accept the empire’s narrative of who or what we can be or do. These women found joy; they experienced victory. Ida B. Wells significantly moved the needle on lynching. And she lived long enough to be able to vote. Mary Church Terrell who was born in the year of Emancipation, lived to be 90 years old, long enough to see the Brown v. Board of Education decision come to pass. Imagine a life where having experienced the Plessy Decision in your early 30s, you spend the next 60 years fighting, and you win.
(No, Brown v. Board didn’t solve all our problems. But let us suspend disbelief and cynicism and recognize the clear ancestral lesson. If we don’t fight, we don’t win. When we fight, sometimes we do. And sometimes we even live to see it.)
So I anchor myself in the stories of those who have come before. But I try to see their narrative in all its complexity. I try to understand myself as a Black person in a long historical arc of struggle. It helps to make both the struggle and the path clear. I try to resist the immaturity of believing that life is all wins and no losses. I remember the old church folk who used to thank the Lord for rain, if for no other reason than it helped them to appreciate sunshine. The Black freedom struggle is a journey, not a destination. It has had its victories. It will have its defeats. It will also have more victories. If we keep fighting.
And I remember that though freedoms that I felt I would have my whole life are actively being snatched away, the freedoms I have enjoyed were a gift from my ancestors. That they dealt with the ebbs and flows of freedom is a gift, too, a reminder not to quit just because the story took a turn sharply away from our false sense of security. When I recognize the gifts of the past, I come to understand the abundance available in the present, and I have a sense of renewed possibility for the future. Both my own and futures I will never see. The 21st century already feels like a wash, but the 22nd century soon come.
And if I care about that future and those who will live in it (many of whom are already here), I will sustain my fight so that I may participate in the gift of freedom to them. Perhaps that is my hope. Not just that we will achieve justice, but rather that we will be found worthy ancestors, precisely because we have offered something other than hopelessness to those to come.