Slavery existed in this country from 1619 until, they say, 1865. And even if slavery was abolished in 1865, which it wasn’t really, from 1865 to 2014 is only 149 years. From 1619-1865 is 246 years. This means that the overwhelming majority of this country’s history has been a history of slavery.
Bob Moses, some of you know, a major movement leader in the Civil Rights era, he often talks about what he calls the “Dark South” of America. And he says that we would be much better off if we could see and taste the Dark South of America. But we are encouraged to ignore and forget and that’s why we still live with the ghost of slavery. That’s why this country (as a whole) does not see the great racial disparities in incarceration, in education, and that’s why we can’t understand the structural racism that persists. And so we cannot celebrate Dr. King’s birthday and pretend that the struggle we associate with him has been relegated to the past. We cannot accept the simplistic narratives of history that are so often invoked in connection with Dr. King. We cannot afford to believe that we inhabit a post-racial society.
In fact, racism is more than the threat of the economic, social, political and professional advancement in our quest for freedom. We have messages of the persistence of racism on this planet from Nelson Mandela. Mandela was an extraordinary freedom fighter for many reasons, but perhaps most of all for his humility. And for his unrelenting insistence on community and on collective agents. When he was asked how he wanted to be remembered, he always said he wanted to be remembered as one of the many other men and women who contributed to our ongoing struggles for freedom.
Mandela is often portrayed as one who simply wanted to forgive and forget. His relationship with DeKlerk, who was head of the apartheid government, his friendship with a guard during the time he was imprisoned on Robben Island who was eventually invited to attend his wedding to Graca Machel. His relationship to the then-all-white Springbok Rugby Union team, which of course won the World Cup in 1995. In all these relationships he demanded and compelled transformation.
Yes, it is true that he offered his hand to them, but he also demanded something in return. They could not remain the same proponents or beneficiaries of apartheid. They would have to begin the process of purging themselves and their society of racism, exploitation and violence. This was the meaning of the Peace and Reconciliation process. It was not simple forgiveness. It was not forgetfulness. It was transformation. It was a revolutionary transformation. Transformation of self, transformation of social relations.
With all its difficulties, with all its contemporary difficulties, South Africa has come so much further than the U.S. in acknowledging and understanding its past. We here in the U. S. still have a very, very, very, long way to go.
We pay tribute today to Dr. King and to Nelson Mandela but let us also acknowledge the invaluable contributions of Amiri Baraka, he was the poet laureate of our movement. And his spirit will animate us as long as we remember to stand up, resist and move our collective energies in the direction of freedom. Having spoken about three powerful figures, whom we celebrate for their amazing lives and work, let me pose the question about how we move from the heroic individual to ordinary people, who are the ones who always do the real work of demanding the transformation of our societies. The chains of racial segregation was not disestablished in the U.S. primarily because of the work of legislators or leaders or presidents, but rather because ordinary people adopted a critical stance in the way they perceived their relationship to reality.
Apartheid was not dismantled from above. Slavery was not legally abolished because political leaders felt like passing the 13th amendment. Social realities that might have appeared unalterable, impenetrable, came to be viewed as malleable, as transformable. And people learned how to imagine what it might mean to live in a world that was not so exclusively governed by the principle of white supremacy. And this collective consciousness, this collective imagination or ordinary people emerged always in the context of political struggle.
It has been argued that the very concept of freedom, which has inspired so many world historical revolutions, that that concept of freedom, must have been first imagined by slaves. We know that the only nonracial democracy in the world was created not by the United States of America, not by France, but rather by Toussaint Louverture and people of African descent who were enslaved in Haiti.
I am so happy that a film like 12 Years a Slave has been so widely distributed and nominated for an Oscar. But I am also disturbed that it has taken so long. I can count the number of films on slavery on one or, at the most, two hands. And I’m also disturbed that, while I loved the film, it seems that the main character of this wonderful film could only be a free person of color who is kidnapped into slavery, as if it was his prior freedom which invited us to identify so powerfully with Solomon Northrup. What if he had always been a slave? What if he had never been offered the opportunity to learn how to read or write? What if he had been a Mormon? And why, perhaps with the exception of the character played by Alfre Woodard, who was absolutely amazing in that film, she plays the “wife” of a slaveholder. But why are all of the other women only portrayed as suffering beings. Without agency of their own. 12 Years a Slave has been praised for its presenting on-screen (for the first time) something that we might call the realities of slavery. Slave subjectivities with which we might identify. But I want us to remember that the surge of Black women writers in the last couple of decades of the 20th century was fueled by the desire to have us understand what it might be to be a slave. Subjectivities under slavery. Both resistant subjectivities and defeatist subjectivities. And so I mentioned interventions by Black women writers like Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones and also musicians like Nina Simone and I do this because it is still extremely important for us to resist the imposition of masculinist ideology.
21st century activism in the cause of freedom, and the cause of freedom calls for a feminist approach. I have devoted much of my life to a struggle we call “prison abolition”, which follows from the abolition struggle in the mid-20th century that focused on legal segregation which in turn follows from the 19th century abolitionist struggles that focused on slavery.
Bringing feminism within an abolitionist frame and vice versa, bringing abolition within a feminist frame, means that we take seriously the feminist adage that the personal is political. Let me say there is what we might call a “deep relationality” that links struggles against institutions and struggles to reinvent our personal lives and recraft ourselves.
We know, for example, that we replicate the structures of retributive punishment in our own emotional responses. Someone attacks us verbally or otherwise and what is our response? A counterattack. The retributive impulse of state punishment is inscribed in our own emotional responses. This is a feminist insight regarding the reproduction of relations that have enabled something like the prison industrial complex.
Legal scholar Michelle Alexander points out that mass incarceration inside the U.S. constitutes what she calls “the new Jim Crow”. She points out that there are more Black men in prison, and under the authority of correctional agencies today, than were enslaved in 1850. From this new Jim Crow there is also much more, as the linchpin of the prison industrial complex racialized mass incarceration represents the increasing profitability of punishment and represents an increasingly global strategy of managing bodies of color. Immigrant bodies and bodies perceived as immigrant no matter how many generations they have lived in the U.S. or in Europe for example.
The prison industrial complex produces these bodies as surplus bodies, as disposable populations put into a vast garbage bin, add some sophisticated electronic technology to control them and let them languish there. In the meantime, create the ideological illusion that the surrounding society is safer and more free because the dangerous Black people are locked up. In the meantime, corporations profit and poor people suffer. Public education suffers because it is not profitable, according to corporate measures. Public health care suffers. If punishment can be profitable, then certainly health care should be profitable, too.
So it should be pointed out that countries like Israel use carceral technologies developed by the prison industrial complex not only to control the thousands of Palestinians and prisoners behind bars, but also to control the everyday lives of Palestinians who live on the West Bank and in Gaza and inside Israel. These carceral technologies, separation walls for example, are material constructs of Israeli apartheid.
I have spoken about the importance of feminist approaches to activism and by this I’m not only referring to the need to be aware of the way gender underwrites ideologies of inequality based on race and class and gender and nationality and ability and sexuality, that also refers to the need to make connections between phenomena that are often viewed as separate. Incarceral technologies in the U.S and Israel for example.
Our activism can only be ethical if we are not afraid to make those connections, if we are not afraid to speak out against governments and presidents and corporations no matter how powerful they may be. In the 1950’s and 1960’s , Dr. King was called a Communist by those who thought that the best that Communists deserved was death. In the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, Nelson Mandela was called a terrorist. And he was not taken off the U.S. terrorist list until 2008. That is to say each time he visited the U.S. an exception had to be made. Today, we celebrate these two figures as indicative of what our future holds for us and their adversaries have proven to be on the wrong side of history.
Finally, I cannot guarantee that we will fully achieve the social justice goals for which we are now passionate advocates. But I can guarantee you that if we commit ourselves to struggle for a better, more ethical, more egalitarian world, the planet will definitely become a more hospitable place, not only for humans but for all of the other species with which we share the earth. Thank you very much.