Culture » August 21, 2018
How Young Black Radicals Put the World on Notice
Charlene Carruthers’ new book, Unapologetic, showcases a queer women-led black liberation movement that’s upending past paradigms.
“Our work revisits the boundaries of gender and blackness and challenges binaries of male or female, lesbian/gay/ bisexual/queer or straight, and transgender or cisgender.”
As a member of the baby-booming ’60s generation, I’ve been nostalgic for the days when America’s youth filled the streets with protest—and not just for nostalgia’s sake. Society has only made incremental alterations to the status quo that provoked our protests. There have since been occasional explosions of civil disobedience, but the impulse toward social protest that energized the black movements of the past has seemed lacking. Perhaps that energy was siphoned off by black America’s embrace of electoral activism and channeled into campaigns like those of Harold Washington, Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama.
But that changed sometime in the late 2000s. Charlene A. Carruthers, one of this new movement’s precipitators, tries to sketch its trajectory in her new book, Unapologetic: A Black, Queer and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements.
Did it start in 2007, with the Jena Six protests? Or with Troy Davis in 2011? Trayvon Martin in 2012? Mike Brown in 2014? Regardless of when, “we must come to terms with the context in which it exists,” Carruthers writes. “It is a period when black people are living under the heels of a neoliberal state, a global crisis of capitalism, and further entrenchment of anti-blackness through policy and culture alike. It is a time of unprecedented levels of state surveillance, unequal and questionable definitions of terrorism, and an obscene expansion of the militaryindustrial complex.”
Alongside the memoir When They Call You a Terrorist by Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Unapologetic helps flesh out this movement’s context. The slim, passionate volume chronicles Carruthers’ political evolution and features important lessons learned through an education in Saul Alinsky-informed community organizing, providing concrete tools for a new generation (though the lessons sometimes distract from the book’s narrative pull).
Carruthers offers kudos to mentors like Cathy Cohen, Barbara Ransby, Joy James, Beth Richie and others, but makes note of the significant generational change going down, writing that “uprisings of young Blacks have put the world on notice that something is shifting in the United States.”
If there is any single quality that differentiates this new era, it’s the role of sexual orientation and, to a lesser extent, gender. Both Khan-Cullors and Carruthers describe themselves as queer, and Carruthers writes, “Our work revisits the boundaries of gender and blackness and challenges binaries of male or female, lesbian/gay/ bisexual/queer o r straight, and transgender or cisgender.” By contrast, the black liberation movement of the ’60s was thoroughly enthralled with patriarchal leadership, leaving the important contributions of women largely unacknowledged. Heterosexual rigidity, too, was considered a “black thing,” another legacy of the emasculation of black men under slavery.
Kindred groups and movements like Assata’s Daughters and #SayHerName also challenge patriarchy and gender binaries, highlighting state-sanctioned violence against women and girls, including transgender women.
Unapologetic also lays out the specific struggle for justice being mounted in Chicago, renowned for troubled cop-citizen relations. The intense reaction to the horrific 2014 police killing of black teenager Laquan McDonald exemplifies what Carruthers calls the Chicago Model. It is distinguished by its intergenerationality rooted in a “strong history of community building” alongside “agitation and high-impact work by leaders from feminist and queer threads in the Black radical tradition,” a hybrid local-national-global lens, and alliances between “multiple institutions with varying political alignment.”
This new era of black liberation is still struggling to find its voice, regarded with suspicion by older activists uncomfortable with its heavily female leadership and LGBTQ friendliness, criticized by others for a lack of pragmatism in its demands (which include reparations, defunding police and a guaranteed income). These new leaders must still convince a skeptical black community that the time is right to sing a new song. Carruthers is an unapologetic member of that choir.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Salim Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago's historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.