“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” — James Baldwin, 1962
In 2006, Angela Davis took the stage at the University of California Davis to deliver a critical message on change. While the talk itself is more than ten years old, the message is more relevant today than it was then. It is this precise, intense relevancy that has me fixated on her words and warnings as I, along with millions of other Americans, suffer a loss of liberties and rights, many for which we thought we’d already won. At this time and like so many times before, Americans are asking for change, demanding it in the streets, calling their local representatives, and signing petitions multiple times a day only to see their wants and needs overlooked by the State in favor of satisfying the needs and wants of corporations and their financial backers. People are not happy, and the need for social change, political reform, and societal reform has not lessened over the years, instead, how we create this needed change and enact it is the question on everyone’s mind. Sometime last year I told myself to get comfortable being uncomfortable, because that is the only way change occurs. And while we know change is hard and afflictive, everyone is asking how to make it happen.
Opening with the Civil Rights Movements, Angela muses on the collective consciousness that emerged within the context of struggle between the early 1960s-1970s and highlights imagination as a tool for social transformation, saying:
“Just as it was once possible and important for people to imagine a world without slavery — a world beyond slavery…it is now important to imagine a world without xenophobia and the fenced-in borders that are designed to make us think about the people of the south as the enemy…and one in which violence is eradicated from state practice as well as from our intimate lives. It is really important to work with your imagination, to use your imagination, to think beyond the moment.”
When humans can face the root issues and speak explicitly as to what we are trying to fix, then and only then will we be able to contemplate radical change and the path needed to make it. More important is the call to imagine a world without xenophobia. President Donald Trump asserts that he will build walls so as to direct our attention and worries towards fabricated enemies all around us, instead of seeing the corruption in our own government. In this instance, while Trump distracts and demands our focus with every new order he issues, the American people are asking for it to stop. But in order to even imagine a world that is different than the one we live in, we need to develop an individual and collective critical consciousness that holds our state and government accountable. That means expanding our circles, asking questions, and opening our minds to the alternatives out there.
“The critical impulse we need to develop involves a commitment to use knowledge in a transformative way. To use knowledge to help remake the world so that it is better for all of its inhabitants. This critical impulse means that we have to absolutely refuse to attribute any kind of permanency to that which is, simply because it is.”
Hearing this keynote could not have come at a better time. We’re one week into a Trump presidency and in that time he’s removed the voices, liberties, and protections of minorities, immigrants, refugees, women, and destroyed what remaining semblance of a democracy this country had. He’s issued a ban on Muslims, is blocking immigrants from entering the country, and is turning away permanent citizens and green card holders due to their religious affiliations. Trump’s issued orders turn the clock back on progress already made, but as Angela succinctly says, it is critical that we refuse to accept what is simply because it is, and question the actions of those around us, looking out for all of the inhabitants of the world.
Additionally, it is imperative we all commit to using knowledge in a transformative way, whether that means educating others, helping to expand people’s imaginations, or publicly challenging state representatives failing to serve the people. By embracing knowledge and recognizing that education is more than just specialized training, we welcome the ideas, insights, and experiences of those from non-traditional paths into the planning stages of problem-solving. This is, after all, the beauty of diversity and what has historically contributed to significant social change and progress. Unfortunately, the public isn’t aware of who is often driving or organizing social and political movements.
“Often those who contribute most powerfully to movements for radical social change are erased in the histories that are transmitted from generation to generation. As a matter of fact, most people don’t even know that there was a group of black women who organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott. You know, most people haven’t heard of the name Jo Ann Robinson, even though she wrote a book called The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It!
Why? Because that messes with the paradigm, right? You’re supposed to think that it’s these great, heroic male leaders who are the motors of history. What you don’t realize is that the real work happened long before Dr. King ever thought of associating himself with those struggles.”
I am frustrated thinking about the behind-the-scenes change-makers who never received recognition and whose contributions went unnoticed, despite full dedication and commitment to the movement, not because they went ignored but because entire groups of people have been denied knowledge of individuals just like them. It’s important we all understand that on the way to making change, we do ourselves a disservice when we fail to recognize and center those who’ve done the work before us. We have the privileged ability to learn from the past, craft a plan of action that works and, in doing so, we should honor those who’ve dedicated time and energy to the struggle we are still fighting.
In the history of obtaining civil rights and forcing social progress, the outcome rarely came about as it has been recorded. Along with embracing diversity and activists of the past, we also need to expel the myth of individual heroes, and messiahs, and celebrate the collective efforts of everyone. This is not one person’s struggle or responsibility and we either all win or we all suffer. This fixation on individualism breeds division and false narratives of a success that later seems unattainable to individuals facing the struggle on their own. It’s also used to discredit the struggles of communities throughout the world who’ve failed to succeed in the same way an individual from the same community may have. The story of civil rights and social change is a very different story than what most people are taught.
“It’s a story about people just like you. It is not a story about heroic individualism. It’s a story about the erasure of women’s contributions. I could talk about other movements as well. I could talk about at the Chicago movement, Latino movements, American Indian Movement, the Asian-American movements, and I could talk about the contributions that women made to those movements during my time in the late sixties and the seventies that will be lost if we don’t figure out how to rectify the tendency to tell history in this way that privileges heroic individualism.”
The change we make is not being executed by one individual but a collective movement. There is power in knowing who the hidden change-makers are so that other individuals can then imagine themselves in similar roles or see themselves in the movement.
“If we imagine these victories as community victories, and they are transformed into individual victories, then we seek out heroic examples…like Condoleezza Rice, who narrates her own history from the segregation and discrimination of the pre-civil rights era and the South and what happens is that we forget about the structural changes that were actually intended by those struggles. Condoleezza Rice can say, “Well look where I am. Look what I accomplished. I was a little black girl in Birmingham, Alabama …and now I’m running around the world making war!”
While Angela’s remarks about Condi are funny (and true), I do not want to lose the core of what she is saying in that we must fight collectively and accept the wins in the same regard, otherwise individuals can undermine and transform the collective victories we win. Examples being Condi, Obama, and other “magical” black folk who beat the system.
We can no longer live in binaries: black and white, men and women, children and adults. These false dichotomies miss the specificity which is needed to speak to the racial realities of the American people. In order to force collective change, we need to move away from notions and ideas of individualism and recognize that until all are free, no one is. And in order to ensure this change spurs lasting impact and unites our people, we need solutions that respect and cater to the fears of most whites as well as the hopes and dreams of people of color, progressive whites, and all intersecting identities. There is a lot to be done and it will seem overwhelming at times, but remember:
“It doesn’t have to be depressing and it’s only depressing if you assume that the way things are today is the way they will be tomorrow. This is not the way they’re supposed to be and they do not have to remain this way.”
So how does change like this happen? You’ve got to want it. You’ve got to want it even though you know it means pain, suffering, and sacrifice. You’ve got to want it badly enough to do something; to fight back; to question and ask why; to educate yourself; to educate others; to lose friends; to lose jobs; to unlearn the lies you have (knowingly or unknowingly) lived by; to remain hopeful in spite of it all. Learn to use the pain as fuel and find joy in the struggle, because it is constant and our victories are never permanently engraved in the social landscape.