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Imagining we are responsible for change

Monday, November 20, 2017

I hope somebody deals with that,” Angela Davis mused from the stage.

Thursday night was emotional. Some of it was a combined frustration at technology and humanity. Bad GPS, plus my inexperience with the app, sent successive Ubers to the wrong street, while I shivered, shouting through the phone in my numb fingers “The Pratt St lay-by of the Baltimore Convention Centre” at two different, but equally harden Jamaican drivers, unable to find me the old-fashioned way, one determined to hang up as quickly as he could. “You don’t know where you are,” he chided, prompting my obscene agreement that I was in his, unfamiliar city.

I’d missed the city bus to the station. I ended up missing my train. Even though I’d torn myself away from the unexpected series of re-encounters with fellow activists from my youth in the US, now all-grown-up public intellectuals and programme directors.

This year’s National Women Studies Association’s conference made its focus the 40th anniversary of the Combahee River Collective Statement, a germinal US statement of the “intersectional” politics that women of colour have brought to this thing called feminism. The idea that we are many things at once, a combination of privileges and oppressions; that our own oppressions may feed our organising, but our commitments to justice can’t be narrow and single-issue.

The Underground Railroad’s Harriet Tubman led hundreds of enslaved Africans to freedom along that South Carolina waterway. Co-authored by a lesbian elder I learned politics from, the Statement taught young queer me that who I was, was “inherently valuable.”

The conference opening plenary, moderated by NWSA president Barbara Ransby, was a conversation between Angela Davis, the Afro-headed icon of my childhood at the intersections of gender, race and internationalism, and Alicia Garza, half her age, one of three young women who gave birth to the iconic Black Lives Matter movement.

It was an expect-stormers event, my Trini neighbour here and academic, Michelle, warned me. The room was full of students my age when I first read the Combahee Statement. One asked about armed struggle.

Each woman gave loving transgenerational tribute to the other’s individual significance, and to the intersectional movement work she is a part of. Both confirmed repeatedly the importance of the politics of imagination—how critical the ability to imagine the future you want to create is.

Davis reflected on young people taking for granted what could not have been imagined 40 years ago; Garza on the importance of having as her grounding the sense that making change is possible; Davis in turn on her generation learning new ways of imagining from Garza’s.

Davis reminisced about her early sense—something I recall well in the Caribbean—that “revolution was imminent…We were convinced that things had to change, and we acted with that urgency. But there was a lot that we didn’t know…We did not know how to model the world we wanted to create.”

Garza shared her lessons that organising is a process, not a destination; and that engaging with power is not about seizing it, but transforming the way in which power operates, and our relationship to it.

These are core challenges for our Caribbean, post-Independence. What to do with power. What future we imagine. How to work on justice intersectionally.

What struck me most powerfully were Garza’s homage to learning from Davis that “I can be Black and I can be queer at the same time,” a reminder of how many BLM leaders aren’t straight; and something Davis said only parenthetically, about learning to work for change, intersectionally.

That it means abandoning the stance that “I hope somebody deals with that.”


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