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via littleblackbook by lex on 11/4/11
Making Majority: Majority Consciouness and BlackFeminist Protest Poems
For the RaleighReclaimers
Nov. 3 2011
Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Let's make somenoise to stay warm out here!!! Make some noise if you are part of that 99% they keep talking about onthe news! Make some noise if youlove how our people in Oakland took over the highway and closed down a majorport in their general strike yesterday! Make some noise if you grew up working class. Make some noise if you are queer. Make some noise if you are in collegenow or if you have a college degree. Take a deep breath and make some noise if you are ablack feminist!!!!!!! Andmake some noise if you are a white person…
Yeah. Majority is complicated. And it can be exhilarating. And it can be facist. And it can tell the truth. And it can lie to our faces. The truth is that we areprofoundly interconnected. We arebigger than ourselves. We aresharing something that we don't know how to describe, right this second withall the people who live now and all the people who have ever lived. We are sharing something right now withevery energetically linked piece of matter on the planet. We are huge. We are more than 99% we are cosmiceternal quantum dust crashing into itself. The vibration we just made from shouting is more thanwe can know it is.
Atthe same time, majority is complicated. I live in Durham, North Carolina. A majority people of color city with a majority white occupymovement. Majority is complicated. Because the tricky statistics ofmajority has been used as a tool of white supremacy to create norms for a longtime, it is not merely a coincidence that one of the largest, most compelling,media-effective and participatory convergences of direct action that I havewitnessed uses the colonizing military language of occupation. This is where white descendentsof settler colonialists get off calling themselves native North Carolinians,for example. And this is animportant question, not just of terminology, but also of mathematicalunderstanding, because it is not merely a coincidence that the most marketabledirect action we are participating in right now coincides with many actualimperialist occupations by the US around the world and the ongoing occupationof this land that something now called the United States stole throughgenocide. I'm a blackfeminist nerd, I teach about blackfeminist poetry and when it comes to our power, when it comes to our revolutionI care a lot about what words we choose and what numerical reality weimply. But I don't want to throwthe baby out with the bathwater. It matters to me that what makes folks love this movement of reclaimingour lives and protesting against the violence of capitalism is a deep andgrounded energy, tapped into a planetary connection which is actually not thesame thing as whatever energy has caused white people to believe that they arenormal, straight people to believe that they are normal, middle class people tobelieve that they are entitled to whatever the abject poverty of women of coloraround the world and finger breaking work of working class people in this country invisibly buys us. These two things, the majorly transformativepower of interconnected struggle and love and the majorly status quo affirmingreproduction of normalcy, in my mathematical opinion , are not equal. They are not equally powerful. The first one just might get us theunimaginable world we deserve, and the other one will at best case get us backto the messed up place we were 5 years ago.
Itis the statistically significant difference between saying. "Hey! Iam part of the 99%. Everyone elseis just like me and I am just like everyone else and I deserve the job andeducation I always thought I was entitled and damn the 1% fat cats for stillbeing able to maintain what I always thought I deserved and could get if Iworked hard enough and was smart enough and white enough and straight enoughfor long enough." It is thedifference between saying that and saying "I am part of this planet and I am interconnected with all life. I refuse to continue to contribute myenergy to a system that is killing all of us. I refuse to consent to the fragmentation of capitalism and Icommit to building power creatively with everyone and everything that isdifferent to me towards our common survival which could also be calledlove. I am interconnectedwith everything and I am promising with my body to reclaim the truth. I am connected to you from a deeperpalce than I can see and I am doing my best to act accordingly."
Y'allsee how these are not the same things? And I care about this movement. And so I am bringing what I love most into this conversation, that whichhas brought me most clarity and refined my actions. Also known as the longstanding intersectional super stars ofkeepin' it complicated all days in all ways…I am bringing Black Feminist Poetsinto the mix, towards the movement we deserve. Drawing on a very different tradition of MajorityConsciousness coming out of the anti-colonial movements in the Caribbean and inAfrica and in Asia, Black Feminist in the United States were part of the thirdworld consciousness raising movement, affirming the reality that the majorityof the people in the world are people of color, the majority of the people inthe world are women, and yet, the most consistently oppressed category ofalmost person on the planet is this same powerful group: women of color. So as you think aboutthis, think about your interface with the movement of the 99% not so poeticallycalled "occupy" and think about what the role of women of color has been in thesegment of this movement that you have seen. Think about whether and how the absence, presence,form of labor, forms of leadership, interventions of women of color have beenreceived by the false majority and whether that honors the majority of peoplein the world. On NewYear's day 1989 thinking about the prospect of a black presidential candidateto the White House (named Jesse Jackson), Black feminist lesbian warrior mother poet icon Audre Lorde feltcompelled to bring out fractions. About how the US and USSR (at the time the main interlocuters in thedebate about the destiny of the planet) were only 1/8 of the population,actually. And that African peoplewere also 1/8 of the population and that ½ of the people in the world wereAsian. Lorde breaks it down,slowing to the methodical tempo of white supremacy and then speeding up :
"So most people in this world/
are Yellow, Black , Brown, Poor,Female
And do not speak English."
Most of you, probably all of you,know this intellectually. It goeswithout saying. So whydoes Audre Lorde bother to bring the math into it, in a poem, in English. The language I am using now,which as she points out most people on the planet do not speak. Because the question of majorityis always at stake. This is whythe "I am the 99% campaign" has been so important as a way of actually talkingabout the experiences of most of the people when television and the songs ofthe radio seem to come from the experiences of only the super-rich in order toencourage consumerism. If I wereto believe the "I am the 99%" posts that I have seen on the internet it wouldseem that the majority of the people in the world have massive studentloans. And while I certainlyworked my way through college and took on major student loans in the processand I think it is very important to unpack meritocracy and throw off the shamethat is associated with debt. We also have to remember privilege. It is not that the majority of people in the world areoppressed by student loans. Themajority of the people in the world are oppressed by capitalism such thatcollege is not an option. Themajority of this generation of college students may have student loans, butthese two things are not the same.
Because another important thing about Lorde's poem isthat she maintains difference. Sheis not arguing that everyone on the planet is the same, she is giving us thefractions. There is actually somuch difference on the planet that is completely left out of theconversation. So the liberatoryquestion is not how can we all lump together as the same thing, the realquestion is the one Audre Lorde asked in her essay on the creative power ofdifference, and which, incidentally Angela Davis, black feminist freedomfighter raised at the Wall Street encampment a few days ago:
"Howcan we come together in a unity that is complex and emancipatory? Differencesmust not be merely tolerated but seen as a fund of necessary polarities betweenwhich poles creativity can spark like a dialectic."
And indeed, as many people before mehave said the most important and exciting thing about this whole movement thatwe are participating in is that it truly has brought different people who arenot generally in the same spaces and not generally speaking to each other,together in powerful ways, and asked all of us to be creative in our listeningthrough the demands of direct democracy. It inspired Angela Davis to say last weekend that "Theold majorities are the new majorities," that there is something, awakened,referenced, remembered by this contemporary movement that precedes it, that themajority that we invoke is not simply the breakdown of American wealth amongthe living, but actually includes our collective ancestral power, including thepower and resilience of the indigenous inhabitants of this land and includingthe power of the enslaved people who build and bled into this structure andloved anyway, and including all of those movement warriors who have burnt out,gotten sick and died, been killed via hate violence or by police. It means when we invoke majority we arealso saying, we are all here, our mandate for changing the world is certainlybigger than those of us who have the time to be here physically and is biggereven than the combined bodies of those of us who have survived this system tothis point. Our mandate to changethe world is old and it honors our ancestors and it calls up their energy.
NikkiFinney, a black feminist lesbian poet from South Carolina believes that thereis such as thing as ancestral rage. That oppression in the present not only disrespects and dishonors thoseof us living through it, but it also disrespects the work and truth andbrilliance of those who came before us, who deserved better than what theyexperiences and who expect more from us than this. In her first collection of poems On Wings Made of Guaze, Finney has a protest poems that speaksout against the Atlanta Child murders, a rash of murders and disappearances ofBlack children in Atlanta, the city where I grew up, and where Finney lived atthe time of the murders which began in 1979, the same year that closer to home in Greensboro, the KKKopened fire on economic and racial justice organizers at a rally in the middleof the day. Which is alsothe same year that in Boston 12 black women were found dead day after day in 3short months. In each case thepolice did not respond to the murders as murders. In the case of the Greensboro massacre the people who wereattacked were the ones brought up on charges. What does one do in a year like 1979 where the lives ofblack women, black children and black activists are so clearly devalued by thestate, and how is it related to what we do this year, when Troy Davis issacrificed to the right of police officers to threaten people to get falsetestimonies and to fulfill their so-called justice agenda by choosing anoppressed person to prosecute for any crime that happens? When those who are having to face themusic about the low value of their lives are more and more of the population that used to feel safe and worthyall the time.
NikkiFinney invokes a majority constructed of time and the natural world to dosomething related to what we are doing here today and in the next couple ofdays when we move whatever little money we have out of the big banks and intothe community credit unions, asking for a new set of accounts. In a poem that she dedicates to "thechildren of Atlanta, the children we claim who died, who are dying because theyare Black….for the children whose lives we claim and whose deaths now claimus" Finney calls on a higher senseof balance and justice than what the world bank would use to classify debt andwho is a drain on the system. Forthose, who like me, were not born yet in 1979, we have to remember that 1979 isthe same year that Ronald Reagan won the presidential election with a campaignthat centered on the characiture of the welfare queen and the untrue projectionthat the majority of people on welfare were black women who were cheats, thatthe primary beneficiaries were black children who were a drain on the nationalbudget and didn't deserve anything. It is a major year for the growth of what we now understand as globalneoliberal capitalism, a system of debt-making in the name of restructuring onthe planet. 1979 is also the yearthat the major institution that laid the groundwork for what we know of as theRadical Right was created, calledthe Moral Majority. See whatI mean. Majority is complicated,and everyone invokes it when they feel like it So what kind of Major are we?
Nikki Finney calls on the world towitness the violence against Black children saying:
don't ever come to us again
heart in hand
hoof in mouth
ancient eyes in full bloom
don't even look this way
asking to replenished
to be restocked
we are paid in full
and for the next millenniums
incensed enough we are
until this world ends
and something else begins
paid up we are
tell your hands world
sign it out to your fingers
insist that your eyes remember
how this time
we have overpaid you
we owe nothing
pass this word on
to the rivers behind you
for the next one thousand years
we are paid in full
In the economic frame of 1979, thisis a big deal. In fact in thecurrent economic frame where most of us are in debt, and those of use who don'thave the credit to get any more debt are positioned to conceptually owesomething to the society that profits off our lack of choices this poem is veryrevolutionary. Look at theviolence we are experiencing, Finney's poem says, what kind of balance is this? What kind of accountability. Forget it. We do not owe anything. Not only because our lives havebeen unjustly sacrificed in many ways, not only in honor of those ancestors whowere forcibly removed from this very places, or those other ancestors who wereforcibly brought to the place and built it for free without freedom, but alsobecause we are beyond the economic calculations that make up our lives. We are more than a market. And as Finney's poetics reveal,we persist beyond that which would crunch us into numbers as debt. The "We are" of the poem moves out thenormal position within a sentence. In the second to last stanza of the poem she offers "incensed enough weare, paid up we are" instead of we are incensed enough, weare paid up. The "we are" thestubborn miracle of our existence, is still there, yoda like, after thedescriptive action. And actually,the original construction that she starts with "we are paid" leaves poeticambiguity about who we are actually , the first line "in full we are paid" is an archaic construction that leavesquestions about what is the subject of the sentence. We, paid. Is paid an action, an adjective. Is full a place to be. Looking at Finney's poem about reckoning accounts makes me wonder aboutthe economic arguments we have been making from a poetic standpoint. We have been affirming thatwe are the 99%. Individualizing: "I am the99%" Now is the time to lookcritically 99% percent we are. To truly examine what we are part of beyond the desperate gratitude ofbeing part of something is the task before us. What is truly major about this, and how does it impactwhat we do. To use Nikki Finney'slanguage who claims us, where is the accountability that transcends howdisgruntled we are about our bank accounts? Who do we honor with these actions?
Whatthis movement is demonstrating is that where we place our bodies is a questionof accountability, honor and claim. In Philadelphia and other places explicit solidarity with, andleadership by homeless Philadelphians who have been criminalized for claimingspace in the streets has been crucial. What does it mean for people with homes to place their privileged bodiesbetween the action of the police and the right of a homeless person to sleepsomewhere. What does it mean forthe outrage at police acts of repression and violence in several cities to belinked in the news media, in the form of images and focus, on the fact that somany white people are being arrested, so much of the population that the daybefore they became protesters, were inequitably over-served by the violence ofthe police against more traditionally oppressed communities? Tear gas canisters and billyclubs, rubber bullets and the training language among the police that thenon-violent orchestrated protests around the country should be treated asriots? One way the Wall Streetincarnation of this movement responded to some of these questions was to usethe mass of people reclaiming the street create a direct action in Harlem,specifically challenging the violent racist practice of the police stopping andsearching black people on the streets. June Jordan, black feminist poet with intimate andviolent experience with the actions of the New York City police department,again invoked what I call black feminist math, the alchemy of poetry andproportions to look at the meaning of police violence, in one of her mostfamous poems; Poem on PoliceViolence:
On the heels of the acquittal ofpolice officer Thomas O'Shea forthe murder of a 10 year old unarmed black boy named Clifford Glover who wasrunning away from O'Shea. The agreement by a jury that Thomas O'Shea was justified in his actionbecause of how threatening black children are to grown white policeofficers with guns. Thomas O'Shea was recorded saying whilehis police radio was on: "die you little motherfucker" as he shot 10 year oldClifford in the back. In court hedefended himself by saying "I didn't see the size nor nothing else. Only the color."
So June Jordan asks:
"Tell me something
what you think would happen if
everytime they kill a black boy
then will kill a cop…
you think the accident rate wouldlower
And she goes into the math of it;
"18 cops in order to subdue on man
18 strangled him to death in theensuing scuffle (don't
you idolize the diction of thepowerful: subdue and
scuffleoh my) and that the murder
that the killing of Arthur Milleron a Brooklyn
street was just a "justifiableaccident" again
How do we live in a world where ourbodies are not equal. Where thelife of a police officer and the life of a black child are not equal. Where to be honest, the white body of acollege student and that body of color of a college student are not seen thesame as police or school administrators. Where safety means different things for those of uswho have survived sexual violence. Where the bodies of homeless people and the bodies of students, wherethe bodies of students and the bodies of workers do not balance out into anykind of equation. How do we useour privilege? Where do we place our bodies? Who should get arrested? Where should we stand in order tostand up for each other? Who should do what kind of work? 18 to one or one to one? Beyond Jordan's propositions aboutproportions are the places where she falls out of rhythm and reveals thatactually what a life is equal to cannot be quantified. It only be approached by poetry. She says
"sometimes the feeling like amazeme baby
comes back to my mouth and I amquiet"
"sometimes thinking about the 12thHouse of the Cosmos
or the way your ear ensnares thetip
of my tongue or signs that I havenever seen
like DANGER WOMEN WORKING"
Our bodies are possible futuresthat end when we are sacrificed by the state or by each other. Amazement. Signs that we have never seen. Our bodies are places where lovegets actualized and electrified. That one body that you live in, the body of a personthat you love is not interchangeable with anything on a one to one or eighteento one basis. How do we hold themath and the meaning together in a way that honors everyone here and everyonewho is not here for any reason and everyone we remember and everyone we hope willbe born. Majority is complicated.
Andfinally how do will fill this time, activate our purpose, understand theinterconnected issues that my not be calculable into unpaid bills orpercentages of debt to be decreased, or lost retirement savings or years leftto work? How do we hold the ongoing violence of genocide in mind whileinsisting and benefiting from the language of occupation on stolen land? How do we account for the needs of themajority of us who are survivors or co-survivors of sexual violence and manyother forms of trauma in an anarchist or directly democratic space likethis. The last blackfeminist poem I will bring is Ntozake Shange's With No Immediate Cause.
Where she reminds us what is goingon in our society most of the time:
"every 3 minutes a woman is beaten
every five minutes a woman is raped
every ten minutes a lil girl ismolested"
She goes through her dayencountering the traumatic repetition of system violence, using the statisticsgenerated by the movement to end violence against women to create anothermajority, the perpetual presence of violence, and the perpetual traumaticreawakening of survivors to the trauma they have experienced. As a survivor and a person who ishorrified by any act of gendered violence, she has to wonder if each person sheencounters participated in the routine practice of violence at some minute,three minutes ago or 30 years ago. And when she reads her newspaper outraged that they report:
"there is some concern
that alleged battered women
might start to murder
their husbands & lovers with no
We should think about those in thismovement of the 99% who dismiss the concerns of survivors of sexual violenceabout what it means to truly create safety, not only from the police, but alsowithin our progressive movement where gendered violence is still an issue as itis within all communities. Weshould think about what it means to dismiss those concerns in favor of more"immediate" priorities, like how to look badass and have an encampment. We should think about those whodespite the critique of the language of occupation brought by indigenousactivists and allies again and again feel like at this point the brand is moreimportant than our outrage. That the immediate issue is the banks and thatsettler colonialism is an issue that is somehow over, when the land is stilloccupied, when genocide is a traumatic violence that we experience right now inthe present through the continued disrespect and refusal to acknowledgeindigenous presence and history all over this continent. And we should learn from Shangewhen in response to the nonsense about no immediate cause, and theadministrative inconvenience that the self-defense of survivors of genderedviolence would cause she says,
"I spit up I vomit I am screaming
we all have immediate cause
every 3 minutes
every 5 minutes
every 10 minutes
We have cause to stand up for eachother. Immediately. And ethical majority, meansacknowledging that time is full with reasons to listen to each other, tosupport each other, to transform ourselves towards true solidarity with eachother across so many differences. Thankyou for finding immediate cause to act on what you believe in. Thank you for filling your time withthis experiment of how we can live and for how long together. For asking how solid our solidarity canbe. You are more than 99%. You are the whole future. You are doing this in the sight of ourancestors and the trees that used to be here and the sun that could rise. And history will ask us what was thismostly about, will ask, while making major history, what kind of a majority didwe make together? And whenit adds up and we answer I hope all my black feminist ancestors and elders willbe prouder than a math problem, proud like a poem beating in the middle of yourheart, in the ground and all around. I hope you will be proud of who we were. This complicated majority. All of us.