The 2016 presidential election has been a heavily contested battle that has terrified, enraged, and essentially drained most of us all year. The especially incendiary campaign of Donald Trump and the Black community’s ambivalent and awkward relationship with Hillary Clinton have resulted in two clashing camps: those who vehemently argue that we must vote in order to prevent a disastrous Trump presidency, and those who argue that the game is so rigged that the most revolutionary thing we can do is disengage from electoral politics all together.
I’ll admit that while I understand the viewpoints of both sides, I have cast my vote with the sheer conviction that I do not wish to even risk the possibility of life under Trump. If the cynics are right and he is just a ploy to push us toward Hillary, I will play along because I believe that at most, the selection of elected officials is one of the least things that we can do in our larger struggle toward social justice and liberation. To borrow a metaphor from retired African-centered educator Rita Rogers, it is merely an “exclamation mark,” a point of punctuation meant to accentuate the larger work of our day-to-day efforts to organize, mobilize, and empower our Black communities. We should be simultaneously working on several fronts toward the generation of entirely new systems which truly serve our community’s interests. In the grand scheme of things, we can choose to engage this political system but here are several other, more long-term priorities, that we need to always prioritize in our individual and collective daily lives:
- Getting grounded in identity – A first step in supporting our communities is defining and affirming who we are in the first place. What is the common thread? People of African descent in the United States have traveled many paths to arrive at the point in which they now stand. Some are descended from slaves, some come from families that have always been free. Some have been here for almost as long as the nation has been in existence, others are more recent immigrants with strong ties to international communities. Some can trace their lineage back to specific countries, cities or towns. Others have had such history erased through centuries of distorted records or broken families. What does it mean to be a Black person in this society and why should anyone want to embrace this identity? It is constant work to battle the negative assumptions, stereotypes and biases against Black people that run rampant in the world, and the best strategy is to constantly highlight the value and worth in our common African-ness. We must remind ourselves and our future generations that to be of African descent, with all of the diverse and varied ways that this manifests in the world, is a gift unto itself. With vastly improved abilities to travel and connect virtually, we should also be strengthening and maintaining our connections with Black people across national lines, as our plights and traditions can often inform if not resemble one another. Our Blackness itself is a precious legacy and until we truly believe and promote this sentiment, most of our social, political, and economic pursuits will be self-destructive.
- Building institutions – We cannot serve our own interests while outsourcing our most basic needs to other communities. We need to be in control of our own educational, financial, spiritual, health, and media institutions. While this may smack of separatism to some, to the more entrepreneurial and autonomous amongst us, it simply makes sense. No one can represent and serve our often unique interests and perspectives as well as we can, and the numerous professional and highly-educated members of our communities are human resources that could be serving our collective benefit, not solely the enrichment and reinforcement of mainstream institutions and communities. As students, clients, customers, and patients, we should be able to rest assured that the services and products in which we invest will value us just as highly in return, not just be happy to take our money while having no real interest in our well-being. And most importantly, these types of institutions are the sources and promoters of important messages about who we are, how we should live, and what we most value. Why leave such messaging to those who have not historically had our best interest in mind? Building our own institutions takes wealth, capital, and influence that may very well come only after an extended period of engagement in the current dominant (read: White-owned and controlled) systems. But we should always be working our way into and through these organizations with the ultimate goal of gaining transferable skills and connections that will be useful once we leave to build our own. The goal is not to do well for self individually, but to always be working toward collective empowerment through institution-building.
- Healing trauma – I’m not only referring to the centuries of post-traumatic slave syndrome passed down intergenerationally due to the drastically cruel, inhumane, and brutal treatment that has been inflicted upon Blacks since the inception of this nation. Our trauma also encompasses the very contemporary sense of demoralization, isolation, and depression that ensues when one is caught in an abusive relationship with a partner that appears to provide basic needs but only does so at the cost of one’s dignity and independence. Learning to survive and navigate environments where we repeatedly receive punishment for attempting to become autonomous, powerful, or self-protective (think Black Wall Street or The Black Panther Party) leads to all types of fear- and anxiety-based stress reactions, often including (ironically) a heightened dependence upon and loyalty to the abuser/oppressor. Collectively, we suffer from a disordered and distorted sense of identity, and it’s not all based on distant history. Our own daily lives, and increasingly the lives of others that we witness through social media networks, contain plenty of examples of the types of micro- and macro-aggression that cumulatively wreck our mental health. So addressing our collective trauma, and the pain underlying our various maladaptive coping mechanisms, is critical work that must be undertaken on a constant, persistent, ongoing basis.
- Practicing compassion is the fundamental way to heal the trauma endured by Black people. I don’t mean compassion from other people – apologies from the former president Bill Clinton or neighborhood barbecues with White police officers. I am referring to the compassion and empathy that we can offer to one another, by hearing and accepting one another’s experiences and perspectives without judgment or prescription. I cannot tell you how many times I have been involved in activist or other supposedly “conscious” organizations where brothers and sisters essentially sat around self-righteously judging the “gullible” masses of Black people. There is a sick sense of superiority involved in such behavior that I tend to think stems from a deeply embedded sense of insecurity and powerlessness to actually exact concrete social change. And while I empathize with the frustration that this can cause, I have never found it useful to engage in the type of cynical rhetoric which divides our community into the “woke” and the “not woke” without acknowledging the larger context of White supremacy, which is always the real problem at the root. Compassion allows us to see that as Black people, we’ve all suffered and learned to cope in different ways and though we may disagree on strategy, we are all on some level seeking safety, happiness, and belonging. White supremacy seeks to dehumanize Black people and radical compassion allows us to resist this dehumanization by insisting that no matter what, the real problem is our oppression, not our people.
Depending on your stance, these suggestions might sound like common sense or they may strike you as radical. Either way, they are a part of a bigger picture regarding the perennial issues facing our communities, and they remind us that our need to keep pressing toward holistic and complete freedom and empowerment goes way beyond the issue of who lives in the White House. Let us keep working, each and every day, in whatever ways we can, toward this ultimate prize of individual and collective liberation. With these core elements in place, we will survive and thrive through even the most contentious political seasons.