Produced by Little Village in partnership with Witching Hour and Englert Wavelength
Below is an excerpt from Walker’s essay, published in Little Village’s February 2021 issue.
What is Black Liberation? What does it mean to be free?
Black people have been fighting for liberation since we arrived on the shores of what would come to be called the New World. And as the generations passed, we found that it never ends; the struggle simply evolves.
And here today, we find ourselves engaged in yet another fight — one whose precursors stretch the expanse of history. A new fight with ancient roots, looking to finally achieve what has been promised to all people in this country: freedom. And as the Movement grows stronger, it is met with fervent resistance.
Why does America fight back so hard against a people trying to claim all that they have been promised? Perhaps it’s a natural instinct to fight against the other, to resist change even if that change can benefit all people. It may be both of these things and more. Perhaps America fears that the treatment of Black bodies is a reflection of her own brokenness; a projection if you will — of a compromised morality that is given life by the corrupt mythology that whiteness is somehow more grand, more noble or more worthy.
It’s a struggle as old as the Scriptures. We’ve grown accustomed to identifying a winner in every battle. But as the systems and institutions become more oppressive, it is America as a whole that suffers. All of us share in the pain of the oppressed.
And because we are all intrinsically linked — while still stubbornly affixed to a “side,” in the struggle for racial justice — the realization of liberation is elusive precisely because there is a side on which to stand. Those who are for liberation, and those who are in opposition. There is no middle; no moderate neutrality.
And since our humanity is indistinguishable from that of any other living, sentient creature — save for the dangerous demarcations created by man — the act of liberating ourselves from the larger whole of American life presents a philosophical conundrum: As we extricate ourselves from a society built on and sustained by our oppression, the imperative question is what becomes of a society when its lifeblood evaporates? Better a question to be pondered by the oppressor, as it’s surely not the concern of the oppressed.
When Gandhi was asked what he thought of western civilization, he responded, “It would be a good idea.”
In order to move from folklore to form a more perfect union, we must address the remnants of our Original Sin — the Birth of a Nation — and all of its permutations.
“But things are getting better,” they will say. “Progress takes time.” They will chastise us because a Target was looted. And we will shake our heads in disappointment. Because we know the real story:
- Westerners have looted entire continents. And they have used our bodies for free labor. And when we called for freedom, they locked us away in metal cages.
- Black men are 6.5% of the total U.S. population and 40% of the prison population.
- 1 in 3 Black men will go to jail or prison in their lifetime.
- And one of the leading causes of death for young Black men in this country is homicide and interactions with police officers.
Don’t lecture me or my people about how to protest. Don’t preach about the sanctity of property. Don’t proscribe how a people — upon which unspeakable harms have been visited — should express their pain, one that spans the centuries and, like a tsunami, gains power as the tides of progress continue to recede. If we can be so uncaring for Black bodies in this country, I don’t want to hear about your Starbucks.
Who will survive in America?
My family story seems to begin in rural Alabama, where my grandmother Shirley Ann was born. I imagine a shack of a house, along a dirt road out in the country. She would be raised by parents, who were raised by former slaves.
My grandmother was tall and strong. Her skin was the color of the Great Pyramids and was dotted with freckles. The way her prominent cheekbones conducted her face made you wonder which Native tribe we shared a bloodline with. If she didn’t smell like Obsession perfume, she smelled of hot grease, or Comet scouring powder. She kept a pristine, three-bedroom apartment that was open to all people; a hostel for the whole hood.
She was devoted to her God and committed to serving others. Her heart was so kind. Her laughter alone could lift broken spirits.
But the beast that was the American South during that time, swallowed many of my ancestors whole; robbing them of their dignity, relegating their lives to field hands; and turning unruly men into strange fruit that hanged from the poplar trees.
Thoughts of revolution were quieted, but never extinguished.
As my grandmother sought the warmth of other suns, she found herself in Chicago. A single mother with seven kids to raise. She moved one more time to Iowa where she remained thoroughly enveloped within the challenge of whiteness for the rest of her life. She stood in between the world and me.
I was born to a single, teenage mother and an absent father. We were on welfare and lived in a government-subsidized housing complex: Oak Park Village. I rode the city bus to school and ate the free lunches.
My mother was bright. She was kind. She was gentle. She could get close to anyone by making them laugh. That was one of the ways she demonstrated her love. She could talk to anyone about anything, and she could make anyone feel comfortable. Black as midnight and as beautiful as they come. She raised us with love. She raised us to love ourselves, whoever it was we would become.
My mother was murdered at the hands of an unknown assailant. The case was never solved. She left two kids behind who had to make sense of this white world with little understanding of our past, and a dim outlook of the future. We went on to be raised by Grandma’s hands.
But did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
No, no, no…
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
My story did not begin in Iowa, and it sure as hell didn’t begin in Opelika. It all started in the Motherland, and in an act of unforgivable violence, my people were stolen. We were shipped across the seas to a strange land. We were whipped, our families were torn apart, our women were raped — and we were forced to learn the new language of our oppressors and forbidden to speak the one that connected us to home.
But they never gave up hope. Their hope was built on things eternal: dreams of freedom.
With every hushed attempt to escape this wilderness in the dark of night, to a northern land that promised just a little more freedom than what they were given, they gave birth to a liberation movement.
They hid in the swamps, evaded the bloodhounds and outfoxed the bounty hunters. And one treacherous journey after another, guided by the stars of midnight, they gave life to a liberation movement.
They swallowed their pride in front of white faces and stepped aside when they walked past their former masters on the sidewalk. They drank out of separate fountains and sat in the dregs of the railcars. They feigned meekness and supplication unto a white power structure that would seek to oppress them forever. And with every fake smile, and every direct action plotted in the basement of an old Baptist church, they gave hope to a liberation movement.
But then they took Medgar. They took Malcolm. They took Martin, right before our eyes making martyrs of these gallant young kings; showing us that you could still lynch a nigger with a bullet. And with every ounce of blood spilled, they gave fire to a liberation movement.
And as we lift ourselves out of the abyss, we are not seen as equals, but as something foreign. Troublesome. Ungrateful. Hostile. A gang of brutes with misplaced energies. We hear that equality has already been achieved. They point to Obama, not as a point of pride for an entire race of people or one small step for a broken country, but as their own penance; atonement for the past. They trade real action for tokenism and performative gestures.
And almost equally dangerous, are the so-called silent allies. Those who wish the brutal reality in which we live to be changed, but are unwilling and too fearful to aid in the process; they refuse to lay anything on the line.
As one King reminded us, “in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
They may go so far as to put a Black Lives Matter sign in their yard, or change their profile picture to an all black background. But while these acts of solidarity are appreciated, allyship calls for more.
Real friends of the Movement must seek to understand their privilege and use it to protect Black bodies and advance the aims of this freedom struggle.
Real friends of the Movement must train their ears to hear the dog whistles that Black people know all too well. They must push back against this rhetoric and call it out for what it truly is: the witchcraft of politics; code words that keep them from saying the bad part out loud.
Real friends invest in the Movement, and they support our leaders not in private, but publicly; they support them out loud. They amplify our voices and take our stories into spaces we can’t access, into places we have yet to reach.
As America makes her way back to the altar of judgment, many are starting to ask: What must I do to be saved?
Stacey Walker is a community organizer, essayist and local politician. He focuses on racial equity, and other social justice issues. He recently served as an advisor to President Biden on criminal justice issues and continues to use his expertise for good. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 291.