On Tuesday, November 8th, it felt like half of the country—at least 62,403,269 people, if we consider the number of voters who cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton—woke up to a reality of which Black folks have always been aware: America and its democracy have a violent, time-honored record of racism and misogyny that has never been properly addressed nor dismantled.
Perhaps even more alarming is the comfort with which people act on their racist and misogynistic bias, even when it is against their best interest. Treating women and people of color—particularly Black folks—as less than human undermines the humanity of the culprit as much as its victim. This was demonstrated again on Tuesday, November 8th, 2016. Seeing oppression gain power and escape accountability is always hard to watch and is always painful. My skepticism and the skepticism of my peers in the wake of the 2016 election made sense—what’s the point of speaking out, voting and doing the work of organizing our communities for justice while living in a society that we know doesn’t love us?
This election cycle, the #WeBuiltThis Campaign employed art, digital organizing and the rich history of our ancestors to move young Black voters to action, mobilizing them to build local power and hold problematic politicians accountable at the state and local level for their role in the siege on Black bodies. Now is the time to continue the critical work of creating campaigns like ours—cultural organizing efforts by and for Black millennials, reaching back to the same leaders and ancestors on whose legacy we’ve always leaned as a community to make sense of the circumstances we face and to co-create the next phase of our movement in a national political climate our generation has never seen before.
“Being Black in America is inherently political.”
In a 1963 speech called “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” the late artist, writer and revolutionary James Baldwin mused about his responsibility as an artist who was also cognizant of the oppressive conditions under which Black folks were living in America. He said, “There is a kind of saving egotism about the artist’s condition, which is this: I know that if I survive it, when the tears have stopped flowing or when the blood has dried, when the storm has settled, I do have a typewriter which is my torment but is also my work. If I can survive it, I can always go back there, and if I’ve not turned into a total liar, then I can use it and prepare myself in this way for the next inevitable and possibly fatal disaster.”
Being Black in America is inherently political. Baldwin’s relationship with his typewriter typifies the way we ought to perceive our own relationship to the work of building, educating and mobilizing for our community. This work is the means by which we champion and advance the lives of all Black people. This political system in which we are forced to exist can demolish our pride, threaten our rights and even kill us on a whim and without consequences. Our duty to our ancestors, ourselves and our children is to resist state violence. We must survive and fight back using all the tools in our organizing toolbox.
I decided to become an organizer in 2011 after I registered my first voter in Portland, OR as a fellow in PolitiCorps. Before I was familiar with organizing in the context of building progressive political power, I was just a pissed off and scared teenager.
Even as a child, I knew that my reality and the way I was treated outside my home was different because I was Black, I was a woman and I lived in a community with limited resources. But I also believed that if I worked hard enough, I could refute my reality and earn access to the resources and quality of life I wanted. It wasn’t until Hurricane Katrina that I realized there is a force greater than myself with the power and incentive to prevent me from thriving, and even surviving, at every turn. I realized that there’s an ugly, multifaceted system—white supremacist capitalist patriarchy—that is alive and well. No amount of hard work or respectability can shield me or anyone I love from its reach.
I had to remind myself that it has never been a presidential loss that brought me to my life’s work of organizing. I chose to do this work when I saw our country abandon poor Black Americans in the Superdome and on New Orleans’ bridges in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I chose to do this work after hearing Don Imus laugh as he referred to girls who look just like me as “nappy headed hoes” on a national media platform. I chose to do this work when UPN canceled Girlfriends and Moesha to replace them with younger, whiter shows. I chose to do this work when George Zimmerman was acquitted after murdering an unarmed Trayvon Martin in cold blood. I again resolved to do this work when Sandra Bland was found dead in police custody.
Young Black folks are coming of age in a time when our water is being poisoned and our right to vote is being suppressed by elected leaders. Our peers are being murdered by police and locked away in cages by an unjust criminal justice system. Speaking truth to power and organizing are our torment but they are also our joy and our duty. Our generation will continue to grow up and stronger in our ability to impact change and create the world where all of our Black lives matter. We built this and we will keep building.
While people are burning down churches and painting hateful symbols on the sides of buildings, we will celebrate the victory of one of the country’s youngest mayors, Michael Tubbs in Stockton, CA; of the youngest state representative in Michigan, Jewell Jones; of the second Black woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate, Kamala Harris. We will honor the organizing success of BYP100 and Color of Change, who mobilized thousands of new, young and Black voters to turnout this election season. We will continue to move fearlessly and ferociously in the direction of justice. We will manifest the world for which our ancestors organized. We who believe in freedom can pause and recharge, but we must never rest.