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.

Salim Muwakkil August 21, 2018

“We live in a time when young Black people in the United States have once again shifted the center of gravity in politics,” writes Charlene Carruthers in her new book, Unapologetic. (Photo courtesy of Beacon Press)

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.

“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.”

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.
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