If you’re thinking about setting up, expanding, or improving your mutual aid work, here’s a guide I made for mystudents, which grounds network-mapping in a strategic process of articulating principles/values for action+care:
This is the first prompt in the “What is Abolition in a Time of COVID-19?” zines both of my Florida State University classes will be making together over the coming weeks. We look forward to sharing our collective visions and practices and to learning from your own.
While I’ve often said that I was raised in the Philadelphia movements to end AIDS and prisons, I was politicized around my Grammy’s kitchen table. She didn’t use words like “harm reduction,” “mutual aid,” or “transformative justice,” but she instilled each of these principles in me and taught me how to practice them in all that they demand of us and all that they make possible.
Today makes three months since my Grammy joined the ancestors. I have returned many days in the depths of my grief to the Eulogy/Call to Action that I gave at her funeral. Today, I want offer it to each of you, that you might know a small bit of my Grammy’s love and also how to love like her.
Rest In Power, my sweet Grammy. Betty Brown, presente!
Mary Elizabeth Brown (May 15, 1923 – January 22, 2020)
“I. Love. You.”
These were the last words that Grammy spoke to me.
It was last Thursday evening. I’d flown in from Florida to sit with her and be part of the team supporting her body in releasing her spirit. Her breathing was labored, the only sounds she had made for hours were winces in pain. And then:
“I. Love. You.”
These words were not just for me. These words were for all of us.
When Grammy had nothing left in her, when she was so ready to be reunited with PopPop and all of her ancestors, she still—and always—wanted us to know that she loved us. That she loves us.
Grammy was love. And with her we knew love. [That is written all over each of our faces right now.]
We knew love in her sweet hugs.
WE KNEW LOVE in the stories she held and the ways that she stitched each one of us into her 96-year-old family quilt.
WE KNEW LOVE even when “it is what it is.”
WE KNEW LOVE in the magic she could make from bread, cheese, and mustard—and the vigilance with which she kept all of our orders in her head.
WE KNEW LOVE in what she created when she brought two things together to make something entirely new: like half tea, and half lemonade; or half red finger jello, half green finger jello.
WE KNEW LOVE in the ways that she stretched whatever she had so everyone got a part: how she could feed a family of ten off a pound of ground beef; how she always told us that she loved every single one of us (blood and chosen) equally—and meant it.
WE KNEW LOVE when she’d pick up on the shift in our step, or the way that we carried our shoulders, or the quiver in our voice.
WE KNEW LOVE when she’d ask us if something was wrong, and she’d pull yet again from the seemingly endless capacity inside of herself to offer her shoulder to cry on.
WE KNEW LOVE when it felt like like you and her were the only two people in the whole world. Grammy had the ability to make time stop like that.
Her love was her gift to each of us. Over and over and over again.
We each individually knew love through her.
And it would be easy, in grief, for our memories of her to stay there. … to stay with our individual hugs, … to stay with our individual stories, … to stay with our individual preferences for grilled cheese, … to stay with our individual struggles.
But I want to ask us to push deeper: to believe that we are strong enough together to move through our grief. I want to ask us to really reckon with the magnitude of love that we bore witness to––that we are experiencing right now in this church.
I want to ask that we not just love Grammy, but that we love likeGrammy.
Because we also knew love even when Grammy did not agree with us … and still somehow she knew how to make space for that.
WE ALSO KNEW LOVE when we could feel that our world was (and is) on fire … and still somehow she knew how to make space for that.
We ALSOknew love when the fault lines in our world ran (and run) through our family … and still somehow she knew how to make space for that.
WE ALSO KNEW LOVE when we released our need to know how it would work out … and then we entered that space she made with her.
And there, we could believe, even if just for a moment, that something new could come from these seemingly unresolvable parts … just like half tea and half lemonade always make lemon tea; … just like half red jello and half green jello always make Christmas jiggler squares.
“You‘re doing the best that you can.” … You can hear her saying it, right? … “You‘re doing the best that you can.”
These were Grammy’s watchwords. That’s how she made space.
“You‘re doing. The best. That you can.”
And I want to pause and think with you about what it means to practice these words: to not just love Grammy, but to love like Grammy.
“You‘re doing the best that you can.”
These words make space, but that space is not about distance.
They are not words of “you do your thing over there, and I’ll do mine over here.” They are not words you say when you’re looking down on someone, like, “mmmhmmm…” with all the hard eye rolls and all the sarcasm.
“You‘re doing the best that you can.”
These are words of radical honesty, of radical sight. They are words of [like my friend John Bell used to say] “don’t judge, get closer.”
YOU [a person I love] [Right here in this moment] You’re doing the [very very] best that you can [the best that you are able to do right now]
For Grammy to see that, she had to look each of us squarely in our hearts. She had to see our best. She also had to see where we were struggling. And by doing that, she could both lift us up and give us a salve for what ailed us.
She could—by loving us real, real close [AND having the patience of a saint]—help us to grow in ways neither she nor we could’ve ever imagined. …to grow in ways that always brought us closer to one another and to realizing the Kingdom of God here on earth.
To love like Grammy, we have to learn how to hold difference. And to not just give different people and different worldviews some space over there, but to actually make space. … to hold difference, in our hands and in our hearts. … and to do that without trying to force anything to bend to our will…. … to actually be withdifference. … to hold the pieces that don’t fit … to stretch ourselves across the greatest fault lines of our world to do it
And then [and this is the key] to be patient enough to stay there long enough so something alive can take shape. [to stay there long enough so something alive can take shape.] [to stay there long enough so something alive can take shape.]
I. Love. You. I see you. “You‘re doing the BESTthat you can.” [and also] “You‘re doing the best thatYOU can.”
We are strong enough to not just love Grammy, but to also love like Grammy. We can be vulnerable enough. We can become expansive enough. [to do so] We must be truthful enough. [and] We have to stay soft enough. [most of all] We must get close enough.
All of that means that we must also say to ourselves, “I‘m doing the best that I can.”
Grammy put those words in my ear when I was getting ready to fly back here for her funeral. She asked me to give myself the same kindness I wanted to give to all of you. And in that moment, I understood in a much deeper way what it really takes to love like Grammy.
To love us, Grammy had to honor the very best in herself; she also had to be real honest about her own limitations. And she had to do both in a way that pushed her [with every new child and grandchild and great-grandchild] to consistently become better and better still.
So, like her, I need to honor the very best in myself. We all do. We also need to name the places where we struggle [AND where we still have work to do…] We need to pour love into our own wounds [and ask Blessed Mother to do so, too]. We need to believe in our spirits “I can do way more.” Grammy sure did And then we need to challenge ourselves to do it. AND DO IT.
Only then can I — can you, can we — hold the same space for each other gathered here today in Grammy’s memory as she held for all of us.
Only then can we hold the same space in our lives and work as she held in hers.
Only then can we hold the same space she did … when we are really and truly triggered by something [and you know we will be] … when being triggered brings up in me [and in you] a whole range of judgements and bad feelings … when our reaction is to do anything other than to affirm the humanity and that of God in someone different from ourselves … when we are [whether we can see it or not] reacting that way out of our own hurt and pain and struggles … when we know we have in that moment the power to do real harm…
In those moments, let us pause and say:
“You‘re doing the best that you can.” “I’m doing the best that I can.” “We‘re doing the best that we can.”
Stay there. Hold that space. Hold it. and Hold it some more. See it. See it honestly. See it softly. And still… stay there.
Have the patience to stay there long enough so something alive can take shape.
That is how we love like Grammy.
Together, we can make her wildest dreams come true. We are already her vision and her hope for this world.
May Grammy rest in power as she travels to heaven to join PopPop and her ancestors. And may she remain alive in the ways that we push ourselves to love like she loved.
Her love was her gift to each of us.
Let her love bring us all the healing that we most need.
And let the way that she loved us teach us how to heal … each other, … our communities, … and our world.
To close, I would like to practice this love with you right now.
I ask you to repeat and do with me…
First: To hear Grammy’s voice in your ear and say these words to yourself: “I. Love. You.”
Second: To feel Grammy’s spirit between you and the loved ones around you and embrace each of them while saying these words: “I. Love. YOU.”
Third: To take her spirit and push it all the way up to the heavens with PopPop and all of our ancestors … to tell our Grammy in no uncertain terms that we right here down on earth, we got this and we got her: “I. Love. You.”
In 1893, Ida B. Wells published a pamphlet addressed “to the seeker after truth” at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. She imagined that at least one of the visitors to the so-called “White City” might ask of the American contribution, Is this all there is?
For American religious historians, the year 1893 and the event of the Chicago World’s Fair conjure a single strong image: the World’s Parliament of Religions. I introduce Ida B. Wells’s pamphlet in order to propose both a different entry point for religious studies—and a research agenda. Black women have long figured as the foil to America’s religio-racialanxieties. And scholars of religion have too often been complicit in reproducing these biases by treating Black women as always already “naturally” religious—and thus the ready-made objects of religious studies. Ida B. Wells refused that offloading of religion onto Black women. Instead, she tracked the contours of her own religio-racial surveillance. Through that creative and methodical work, she was able to present a searing indictment of the co-constitution of white supremacy and Christianity in the American nation. She also spoke into being the possibility of a world beyond everyday survival: toward life, liberation, and thriving.
I use the concept “dark sousveillance” (literally: watching from below) to bring together Black women’s long running actions of theorizing religion and race in America. How does watching from below enable one to render violence visible and also to shape what is being seen? Once you know where the blind spots are, how can you strategically stay out of the frame? What is possible to build in the shadows? The image (above) that grounds this essay plays with light in these ways. Silhouettes of arms and hands are seen as they work together to install a window, but their work is also just beyond reach, just beyond recognition, even by the onlooker in the image’s foreground. This is the politics and poetics of visibility. Ida B. Wells shined just enough light to expose the religio-racial underpinnings of anti-Black violence, but not so much that her generations-honed sousveillance could be squashed before it could realize the world otherwise.
* * *
Black people were poorly represented in all aspects of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair—from underemployment in its running to racist stereotypes that filled the exhibit halls. The pages of Ida B. Wells’s text enumerated “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition.” She outlined the willful erasure of the “progress of the Afro-American since emancipation.” She documented the Jim Crow playbook through which Black people were first isolated from necessary social supports through “class legislation,” second blamed for the abuse they survived through a perverse moral reasoning, and third criminalized for this survival through the convict lease system and the “lynch law.” Twenty thousand copies of the pamphlet were made available for distribution in the last three months of the fair. Wells set up shop at a desk in the Haitian pavilion where Frederick Douglass (who wrote the pamphlet’s introduction) served as official representative. Every day until the fair’s end, Wells put copies of “The Reason Why” into the hands of attendees, striking up conversations about race and religion in America with as many as she could.
Wells was writing against a nation that placed Blackness—and especially Black womanhood—in a glaring religio-racial frame. Blackness was (and still is) treated alternately as the ecstatic counterpoint to high Protestant “good religion”; as the hyper-religious outlier amid a secularizing nation; as the authentic fix to the iron cage of industrial capitalism; and as the stain so profane that it must be expelled from the “sacred” body public. Wells used her careful observations of the convict lease system and the lynch law to turn this whole religio-racial gaze back upon the White City’s architects (and those of the Jim Crow carceral sphere). She gave two interrelated explanations for the “twin infamies” decimating Black life. First, “the religious, moral and philanthropic forces of the country—all the agencies which tend to uplift and reclaim the degraded and ignorant, are in the hands of the Anglo-Saxon.” In word and deed, they believe that “to have Negro blood in the veins makes one unworthy of consideration, a social outcast, a leper, even in the church.” Second, the judges, juries, and court officials “are white men who share these prejudices. They also make the laws.”
By publishing “The Reason Why,” Wells rendered violence against Black people visible. But she did more than that. Through her sousveillance, Wells was determined to make plain how the stringent criminalization and mob murder perpetuated by white judges, juries, officials, and everyday citizens rested on a form of white supremacist Christianity that had legal and political power. Resisting this religio-racial order was an intellectual process of excavation and truth-telling.
* * *
“There are no victims at WWAV. We claim the power we were born with.” My dear friend and Women With A Vision (WWAV) executive director Deon Haywood uttered these sentences when WWAV was embroiled in grassroots organizing to stop the criminalization of Black women in post-Katrina New Orleans. WWAV had been founded in 1989 by eight Black women in response to the deafening silence surrounding the Black AIDS epidemic. After the storm, the WWAV foremothers worked to render visible another life-threatening blow: the rounding up of sex workers under the state’s draconian “crime against nature” statute, which mandated sex offender registration for periods of fifteen years to life. After a five-year fight, WWAV secured a federal ruling against the state of Louisiana and the removal of nearly nine hundred people from the registry.
It took me several years (and Deon repeating those sentences to me many times over) before I could hear the searing religio-racial analysis that she was levying—that is, before I understood these sentences as principles in the tradition of Ida B. Wells’s 1893 sousveillance at the Columbian Exposition. When she first spoke them, Deon was describing the grassroots organizing strategy that WWAV had settled on to challenge the “crime against nature” statute. WWAV’s NO Justice project was led, like the organization itself, by the people most targeted by mass criminalization. Together, they decided to forego the expected affective performance of carefully scripted testimonies of victimization to rally sympathy. Instead, they threw the whole of their lives up as the precondition for change. And they won.
WWAV was not a place to tell stories about the fall and about sin, about women polluted and deplored—about how sometimes these same women could be saved and redeemed. This was the first meaning of “There are no victims at WWAV.” By standing in their own power, WWAV participants refused using the grammar of the victim script to order the story of their lives. “We are not victims.”
They also did this after systematically being denied the ability to be victims. Do you know how many times women call the cops because they are being beaten by their partners and there are no services, no nothing in their communities, and then they are the ones who end up in the back of the cop car? “We are not victims.” This second meaning of “no victims” exposed the racialized and gendered logics that undergirded the victim narrative—logics that got a boost in New Orleans from the enduring (and sometimes overtly) religious feel of the anti-trafficking movement and from post-Katrina relief efforts before that. The stories shared at WWAV all bore witness to a single uncomfortable religio-racial truth: In the newNew Orleans, as throughout American history, a Black woman was what a victim was not.
* * *
Thinking about Ida B. Wells’s “The Reason Why” and WWAV’s “No Victims” together has also helped me to hear a subtle yet persistent inflection of the question, Is this all there is? When do the surveillance and sousveillance stop? When do we get to live and thrive, not just survive?
The point of this work is not simply to shift the scholarly religion gaze away from Black women’s bodies and onto their intellectual labors to render visible the religiosity of white supremacy in the United States—though that is important! Nor is it even just to appreciate and understand the tactics of excavation through which these Black feminist practices have been able to endure. “The Reason Why” and “No Victims” both lay bare the violence of America’s religio-racial problem in order to build the world otherwise. Truth-telling leads to praxis. Ida B. Wells did this with passing strangers across a desk in the Haitian pavilion; WWAV did it in the street-based needle exchanges turned sex offender story circles turned front porch conversations. These are the intimacies of being and being-together from which new worlds emerge.
I emphasize this momentum, indeed obligation, to bring Black feminist theory into everyday practice in order to keep in check a certain romanticism. Truth-telling is bone-deep, essential work. It is also survival work. We must never mistake the work undertaken in order to persist for the world-building transformation of living and thriving. Grappling with this obligation to praxis in my own scholarship and activism has forced me to ask two questions: (1) How does one square the impulse to avoid reducing Black life to the quotidian terror that structures the everyday, with the brutal facticity of anti-Black violence and death revealed throughout history? And (2) at what points do attempts to imagine otherwise actually serve to undermine the ever-shifting intersections of intimate, community, and state violence? These questions require new answers every day.
Many hands make light work. “The Reason Why” and “No Victims” are challenges; they are also invitations. What theories, methods, and longstanding interpretations of religion will be called into question through a sustained engagement with this dark sousveillance (that is in many cases watching us)? How are our projects extending, even if unwittingly, the pernicious gaze of co-constituted white supremacy and Christianity that this Black feminist tradition so swiftly diagnoses? What new forms of scholarship and praxis might be engendered if/when we critically engage these generations-honed theories of race and religion? How can we work as accomplices for life, liberation, and thriving otherwise? Where will we shine light? What must be kept out of the frame? What can we build together in the shadows?
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the leaders of the quarter-century-old Women With A Vision (WWAV) collective launched a coordinated campaign to expose and challenge the criminalization of Black cisgender and transgender women working in New Orleans’ street-based economies. For the simple act of trading sex for money to survive, hundreds were convicted of a felony-level Crime Against Nature by Solicitation (CANS) and forced to register as sex offenders for periods of fifteen years to life. After five years of organizing, WWAV successfully overturned the statute, thereby securing the removal of more than 800 people from the Louisiana sex offender registry list. This article brings a fine-grained analysis to WWAV’s process of organizing against CANS in order to trace the making of this criminalization crisis and to clarify the terrain of the organization’s victory. It argues that WWAV organized through a distinct southern Black feminist tradition in order to disrupt the use of CANS as a technology of post-Katrina predatory policing. By refusing their erasure from the city of their birth, WWAV staff and participants not only rendered visible the mundane terror of targeted criminalization against Black women; they also opened new horizons for Black feminist struggle and collective liberation.
This article draws on a decade and a half of engaged organizing and research alongside Waheedah Shabazz-El and Faghmeda Miller, which we are in the process of turning into a book-length manuscript. Waheedah and Faghmeda are both Muslim women living with HIV. Each were diagnosed at dire moments in the AIDS epidemics in their respective countries––the United States for Waheedah and South Africa for Faghmeda. Both women have gone on to transform their personal struggles to access treatment, care, and support into public lives of meaning for thousands. As such, Waheedah and Faghmeda’s lives and work not only shed light on the complexities of resistance in the midst of extremis; their stories also illuminate the complex interplay between HIV vulnerability and forced removal, between Muslim women’s leadership and traditional religious authority, between public figures and private selves. In this essay, written in close collaboration with Waheedah and Faghmeda, I explore questions of women, religion, and activism through their lives and witness. I begin with the moment of their diagnoses, set amid the disassemblage of apartheid and the scale up of mass incarceration and develop––though our connections with one another––a portrait of the complex nexus of HIV, gender, Islam, and activism in the African diaspora between Philadelphia and Cape Town.
Faghmeda Miller did not get to vote in the first democratic elections in South Africa on April 27, 1994. That day, she boarded a plane to Malawi with her husband, Juneja. They had been married just days earlier in the Cape Flats neighborhood to which her family had been displaced under Apartheid’s Group Areas Act. The liberatory celebration of the rainbow nation touched Faghmeda personally: she was about to begin a life she had long imagined with a man she loved dearly. Those most intimate of freedom dreams, however, never materialized. Less than seven months later, on November 18, 1994, Faghmeda was made a widow. Her husband had died from what she would later learn was the steady deterioration of his immune system due to undiagnosed and untreated HIV.
About a month after the community gathered to make the janaza funeral prayers for Juneja, Faghmeda could tell that something was wrong with her health. Her parents insisted she fly back to Cape Town. When her health continued to deteriorate, she was admitted to the hospital and then released to her parents’ care for recovery on the
condition that she return in a month for a follow up visit. At that visit, the physician who admitted her was confused as to why Faghmeda’s health was still not rebounding. That physician called in colleagues for consultations. Those doctors one-by-one hovered over Faghmeda discussing her case as if she were not present. One took her blood. When Faghmeda asked why, the doctor did not answer. It was not until her admitting physician inquired that Faghmeda learned that her blood had been taken to do an HIV test. Two weeks later, her physician called her at home and insisted she come into the clinic. Stunned, with an HIV diagnosis in hand, Faghmeda’s mind turned to her late husband. Juneja went fast; Faghmeda assumed she would, as well. But she kept waking up, day after day, alive.
Across the Atlantic, the United States was a breeding ground for an epidemic of prisons. Amid the massive contraction of the neoliberal state, prisons had become a “spatial fix” for a people stripped of employment possibilities and welfare support. The population behind bars soared––about fourfold overall, but eightfold when just women were counted. In 2003, Waheedah had been caught up in a narcotic sting for a drug problem that itself had been the result of surviving an abusive relationship and having no social service support to help her heal. Legally, she was blamed both for the abuse and for the way she coped: six months in the Philadelphia Prison System was her state-ordered “treatment” plan.
That sentence removed her from the Philadelphia neighborhoods in which she had been born and raised––streets where she had found Islam through the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and his son Warith Deen Muhammad… streets she had also had to flee when she fled her abusive husband. That flight took her away from the Muslim community that was her safe haven and spiritual home. In the barracks of the women’s jail on the far northeast of the city, she found several Muslim sisters she had known back in the day and again took her shahada with them. Supported in this way, she began to advocate for other women inside, especially around health care, which was her chosen profession. In conversation with the city health workers, she agreed to take a free HIV test. Then, in a room with no curtains, she was given her results. HIV positive. Waheedah was crying and everyone was walking by. That day, Waheedah vowed she would tell no one. In truth, she willed herself to die. But she, too, kept waking up alive.
I first met Waheedah the day after she was released from prison. I was doing outreach with a new coalition of ACT UP and mental health activists dedicated to protecting the health of people behind the walls. Our call to action came after a series of deaths from medical neglect in the Philadelphia Prison System. We joined together in anger and through direct action to force independent oversight of the city’s prison’s operations. Once that was in place,we had to know where else to put pressure. And to do that, we had to know what was happening inside. We devised a simple outreach strategy: talk with family members before and after visits with their loved ones. There was only one bus that went to and from State Road where the sprawling prison complex was located, and it only came every twenty or thirty minutes. That gave us a lot of time to talk with families. Sometimes we also met people like Waheedah, who had been released directly from court by a judge and were on their way back up to the prison to retrieve their property.
This story, like the vignettes of HIV diagnosis that open this essay, helps to put a point on an important distinction between HIV risk and vulnerability. While HIV risk is often measured in individual terms and by specific behaviors, thinking in terms of HIV vulnerability attunes us to the ways in which structural conditions impact health and wellbeing. Central to both Waheedah’s and Faghmeda’s stories of HIV infection are profound social and political ruptures from systems that trafficked in land dispossession and forced migration. In Faghmeda’s case, the Group Areas Act uprooted people from their homes and scattered them throughout constructed ghettos. In Waheedah’s, mass incarceration had precisely the same effect. What happens when people are removed from their communities? When social networks are disrupted? When resources are extracted? When services disappear? What do you do when no matter how hard you try the ends just never seem to meet?
Amid these profound social disruptions that drove vulnerability to HIV and a whole host of other health issues, the HIV epidemic was still too often understood in terms of individual risk and personal blame. Waheedah and Faghmeda both learned early on that the way you were supposed to tell your HIV story was to foreground the event of HIV diagnosis, not the life you lived before or after. Describing the moment of diagnosis put gut wrenching pain on display; it also separated the storyteller from her social context. The diagnosis story was a surrogate for the infection story. That is, it was a way for listeners to figure out without asking: “How did you get it?”––and also for storytellers to offer the proper scaffolding for that invasive question. In that moment, the observer could serve as judge and jury. Both Waheedah and Faghmeda knew that, and both were exceptionally well rehearsed at telling their respective stories. HIV infection was carefully sutured to the violations experienced in the moments of testing and diagnosis, to the complex and often contradictory layers of a life before, to the crippling pain in the wake of diagnosis, and to the curious fate of accepting (even willing) death while instead being given life.
Waheedah was a convert to Islam, who made the transition from the Nation of Islam to Sunni Islam during the Second Resurrection. Her addiction history carried shame within the Muslim community, as all consumption of alcohol and drugs has been prohibited through progressive revelation and centuries of legal argumentation. In her narration of her diagnosis story, Waheedah, thus, cast herself as a believer who had strayed and then returned. That return was dynamic. She retook her shahada in jail and immediately started mentoring other women in Islam. After her diagnosis, she kept all of her HIV literature in her Qur’an, because it was the one thing that no one would touch––out of respect for her and for Islam. Seeded in this narrative were small and great refusals of the stigma that was heaped onto her by people determined to let one blood test eclipse her decades of work before and after that event. There was also a no less forceful probing of her religious commitment.
Walking with Waheedah through her journey after release drove me to undertake training in Islam. That is how I met my teacher, South African Islamic Liberation Theologian, Farid Esack. While studying with Farid, I became acquainted with Faghmeda’s story of being the first Muslim woman anywhere to come out publically as living with HIV. I then traveled to Cape Town in 2015 to work with her in documenting her life and work. At face value, the contrast between Faghmeda’s and Waheedah’s stories could not be greater. Faghmeda was a self-described “shy woman” who was married amid the disassemblage of Apartheid governance. When she was given her HIV diagnosis, Faghmeda’s doctor pointed to her hijab in shock: How can devout Muslims contract HIV? The implication was that there was something that Faghmeda was not sharing about herself or her community. What was putting Muslim women at risk for HIV? In conversation, Waheedah, Faghmeda, and I began to ask what we could learn about gender, HIV, and Islam at the intersection of their stories.
“HIV is a curse from God.” That dictum has been repeated over and over again by the world’s religious leaders seeking to label and condemn entire communities on the basis of so-called disordered desire, be that from sex, sexuality, gender, or substance use. This one-for-one relationship between desire and God’s judgment is what led prominent Muslims like Malik Badri to double down in the wake of a global AIDS pandemic and claim that Islam itself was HIV prevention (a position Amina Wadud vehemently critiqued at the Second International Muslim Leaders’ Consultation on HIV/AIDS in 2002 and Farid Esack has worked to build a global theological response against).
The juxtaposition of supposedly being cursed by God and nonetheless continually waking up alive was theologically generative for Waheedah and Faghmeda both. How can you continue to be alive when God has cursed you? What does life even mean? What exactly is being condemned? Those questions were not meant to be answered in some hermetically sealed space of theological reflection. They were worn and reworn through the grooves of everyday life in which Waheedah and Faghmeda both had to figure out how to survive their diagnoses. Both went to the only places that they could find where people living with HIV were gathering. Faghmeda joined a support group run by Christians, because there was nothing of the kind in the Muslim community. Waheedah found her way to the gayborhood, and specifically to the inside/outside HIV in prison organizing program my dear comrade John Bell and I were running at the time.
There are things that become possible when the direct pressure of suffering relents, even just a little bit. When alone and terrified, Waheedah and Faghmeda both underscored how any support was soothing. However, when buttressed by support and coached through their darkest moments by people who had already fought those battles in Christian and gay communities, both Waheedah and Faghmeda began to imagine building the Muslim sisterhood they wish they had had when they were first diagnosed––sisterhood they still both desperately needed. To build that sisterhood, Waheedah and Faghmeda both had to publicly “come out” as women living with HIV.
There is something so profound about the will to expose one’s own pain so that others might feel less alone in theirs. And it is also is important not to romanticize the need to do so. For both Waheedah and Faghmeda, going public was born out of an everyday battle for survival. It was also a decision that would bring great personal and social cost––the more exceptional forms like becoming lightning rods for public shame and stigma, but also the more mundane ones like being expected to always be strong and to always carry so much. Nevertheless, a simple question undergirded both women’s brave work to render their suffering visible: When do we get to live and thrive, not just survive? That question pressed Waheedah and Faghmeda beyond the particularities of their own pain and into the structural contexts that prefigured their vulnerability to HIV.
After her release from the Philadelphia Prison System, Waheedah started doing work with our prison health care coalition to fix treatment and conditions for the women she had left behind and those she would never meet. She walked advocates who were not formerly incarcerated through the everyday context in which healthcare was delivered in the labyrinth up on State Road, helping us all to identify the links in the chain where possibility soared and injustice festered. With her guidance, the work of this Philadelphia County Coalition for Prison Health Care (PCCPHC) became a deliberate and willful process of nurturing the ties that save in order to sever those that kill. One of those life-giving and life-sustaining ties inside was “Dr. D,” the prison’s infectious disease specialist. She moved mountains for her patients, especially those who were newly diagnosed. And she did so with a keen sense of how to keep HIV status under wraps amid the always present systems of surveillance in which information was currency.
PCCPHC decided to present Dr. D with an award as part of an annual black AIDS luncheon––both to honor Dr. D’s work and to show her how many people on the outside had her back. Waheedah wanted to be the one to present that award, and she wanted to do so anonymously as a formerly incarcerated woman, not one of Dr. D’s former patients. The award ceremony was carefully curated. Waheedah spoke on behalf of the coalition and to a room filled with familiar faces and strangers alike. With a precision learned as a woman leader in the Nation of Islam and in tenant organizing battles, Waheedah indicted the health care inside and celebrated Dr. D as a soldier in the struggle. Her voice cracked. Looking into Dr. D’s eyes, award in hand, she turned to the audience and called her own bluff. “I cannot stand here like I don’t know this woman. My name is Waheedah Shabazz. I am a woman living with HIV. I was diagnosed in the Philadelphia Prison System in a room with no curtains. Dr. D saved my life.” Later, Waheedah would describe how she felt as “light as a feather” when the burden of that secret was lifted.
For Faghmeda, too, it was the community she found after diagnosis that paved the way for her public disclosure. At first, she told no one but the members of that Christian support group. Gradually, this community coached herthrough how to tell her parents. “You need to give them space and time to get used to this idea.” Her mother told her sisters and brothers, even though Faghmeda had asked her not to. It was terrifying in the moment, but, she says, it ended up being a blessing when her family worked through their fears together so that they could came together around her in unwavering support. By then it was the end of 1995; Faghmeda had survived her first year living with HIV. She started to reach beyond herself, to wonder what this life would be.
About a month before World AIDS Day 1996, her Christian support group held a public gathering. Faghmeda’s parents came with her. A member of the Islamic Medical Association, Ashraf Mohammed, was also in attendance and approached Faghmeda’s father. In a brief exchange, Faghmeda’s father’s explained that he was in attendance to support his daughter. Faghmeda was standing near her father and listened carefully while Ashraf explained his desire to host a World AIDS Day segment on Cape Town Islamic station, Radio 786.
After the event, Faghmeda discussed going on the radio show with her parents and then with her siblings. Every Muslim in Cape Town listened to that program, including her extended family members. To go on the air would mean disclosing her diagnosis to her entire community; the weight of not speaking openly was starting to tear at her insides. And so, the week of the show, Faghmeda decided she would go on the air to talk about Islam, AIDS, and herself. She was terrified the moment her scripted portion stopped and the phone lines opened. But then people started calling in, sharing their experiences with family members who died from AIDS-related illness and how much pain it still caused them when they thought about the stigma these family members endured… Faghmeda was blown away by the outpouring of support from her community, and also extremely hurt that none of her own family members had called in. When she walked out of the recording booth, her mother was sitting in the lounge. She hugged her tightly. That evening, Faghmeda cried about having HIV for the first time
These moments of disclosure laid bare the precarious and nonetheless durable intimacies through which worlds
otherwise could grow––worlds in which it might be possible to live and thrive, not just survive. What would happen if relationships like Waheedah’s and Dr. D’s were able to take root and come into bloom? What if the fleeting exchanges between Faghmeda and radio show callers-in could be extended into the everyday lives of families, communities, and the nation? How did the work to nurture the ties that save help sever those that kill?
Refusing to vanish is bone-deep, religious work. As Waheedah explained, “For me, it all ends up on that day, when I have to account for what I did in this life. I want to be able to account that I praised God, that I worshipped God, that these are the things that I did.” By rendering visible the complexities of HIV and gender injustice and daring to build community otherwise, Waheedah and Faghmeda understand themselves to be embodying the most fundamental ethical principle in Islam: the obligation to command good and forbid evil.
How did this slow and steady work of two Muslim women living with HIV bring into being new horizons for being and belonging together? What new meanings of Islam, gender, and AIDS were being made in the process? Faghmeda could see the ripples of their work on the greatest and most intimate scales. “We are both Muslim women, we are both African, we have been oppressed by our own religion. And the fact that we were actually given a platform? Yes, we were rejected by some people, but we continued to talk about what matters most to us and that is HIV and AIDS… Many of our people still believe as women, you don’t have a voice. But we know better. We do have a voice and we are making use of that voice.”
Laura McTighe is a postdoctoral fellow in the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth and the co-founder and associate director of Front Porch Research Strategy in New Orleans. She comes to her work in the academy though twenty years of grassroots organizing in movements to end AIDS and prisons. Through collaborative ethnographic methods, her research centers the often-hidden histories, practices, and geographies of struggle in America’s zones of abandonment, and ask how visions for living otherwise become actionable. Her current book project, Born In Flames, is a collaborative ethnography of race, religion, and the spatiality of opposition in post-Katrina New Orleans, which she has researched and is writing alongside the leaders of Women With A Vision (WWAV), a Black feminist health collective founded in 1989. She is also completing a second book-length project, Refusing to Vanish, on Muslim women’s AIDS organizing in the African diaspora, of which this article for The Revealer is a part. Her next major project, “Moral Medicine,” a historical ethnography of the women’s carceral sphere.
Faghmeda Miller was born and raised in Cape Town, and was the first Muslim woman in South Africa to have publicly disclosed her HIV status in 1996. Faghmeda is currently working as a Health Promoter at the University of the Western Cape, managing the Care & Support group. She is involved in HIV & AIDS awareness programs both on campus and in the broader community. Faghmeda has done several television programs locally and internationally, and appeared in various magazines, newspapers, documentaries and on radio stations in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Faghmeda’s documentary “The Malawian kiss” tells her story, and shares how she continues to educate others about the virus. In 2000 Faghmeda received the Femina “Women of Courage” Award and was nominated for “Women that made difference” in their community. Faghmeda’s message to newly diagnosed HIV positive people, “HIV is not curable but it is manageable therefore do not think it is the end, rather see it as the beginning of a new life, don’t give up, persevere”.
Waheedah Shabazz-El, an African American Muslim woman and retired postal worker was diagnosed with AIDS in 2003. Waheedah is a founding member and currently the Organizing Director for Positive Women’s Network-USA. Waheedah is a Steering Committee Member for HIV Prevention Justice Alliance, Board Member for Pennsylvania AIDS Law Project and Goodwill Ambassador for Philadelphia FIGHT. In July 2010 Waheedah delivered the closing Plenary Address at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna Austria. Waheedah has been the recipient of countless awards noting her commitment to AIDS Activism and Human Rights, including an invitation to the White House announcement of the National HIV AIDS Strategy where she met President Barak Obama.
I was born in Baltimore, but I “grew up” in the Philadelphia movements to end AIDS and prisons.
What drew you to your field?
Reading the work of philosopher, theologian, and priest Gustavo Gutiérrez. I first encountered his writings on liberation theology when I was in my late teens and early twenties. I was blown away. Gutiérrez took all of the Catholic sacred texts that I had been steeped in since childhood and showed me how they could become windows into entirely different ways of being—how a line as simple as “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God” could be read as proof of God’s “preferential option for the poor” and as a mandate for living faith through liberation work in the here and now. That was life changing for me. I now engage “texts” such as front porches and prison letters, but I still read them (as Gutiérrez did the Beatitudes) as archives of the past that press on our present demanding justice.
How would you explain your current research to someone outside of your field?
We need more stories. Stories that are not in history books. Stories about the intimacies of struggle. Stories that are told in hushed voices around kitchen tables after supper. Stories that are shared while passing time waiting for the bus. Stories that have been banished to the recesses of prison cells. Stories that make us dig down into the present and understand that we are, indeed, “the ones we have been waiting for.” How do we speak these stories? How do they speak us? How do we turn them into lessons about organizing and about power? How do we learn from the generations-honed work of building independent forms of knowing and thinking amid constant surveillance? How do we carry forward the seeds for transformation that have already been sewn?
What is your favorite thing about being a student at Columbia GSAS?
As an activist and scholar, my research brings the theories of knowledge already unfolding on the ground into substantive conversation with those crafted through academic modes of inquiry. It’s a two-part process that doubles back on itself. First, I work in collaboration with my activist colleagues to craft urgent questions that arise directly from their lived experiences and expertise. Together, we raise then these questions in critical conversation with allied scholars to find answers. And then through these answers, we identify new directions for further interdisciplinary scholarship. In my time at Columbia, I have found colleagues who move similarly in the world, and will be part of my work for the rest of my life. I also have been challenged by people who worry that I am too close to the ground, that “activist scholarship” can never be rigorous enough. These people have pushed me—to write more clearly, to slow down my arguments, to find the words to explain why “because my life depends on it” beats “IRB approved” every time. After six years, I am a better scholar for it.
Is there a common misconception about a topic in your field that you wish you could correct?
I am in the process of starting a blog called Where’s the religion? It’s the number-one question I am asked about my work, and I always turn it back on folks: “Where do you think the religion is?” These are the everyday moments when we all participate in producing an idea of what religion is and what it is not. For my part, I view the study of religion as an invitation to a particular kind of conversation. If you have ever watched the oldRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer cartoon, then you know about the “Island of Misfit Toys.” That’s what religious studies is for me: where all the things that weren’t respectable enough were sent by the secular academy.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I would have answered this question differently before June 22, 2014. Before then, I might have described specific teaching moments. But, wow, has it been awesome to become an aunt—and then to become an aunt again on September 29, 2015. Norah Elizabeth and Eva Meher are the two coolest humans I know.
Who is your hero of fiction?
Lois Lowry’s The Giver remains one of my all-time favorite books. There is something about the image of truth peeking through the drab like a flicker of color that has become deeply (and enduringly) metaphorical to me. Whenever I get stuck as a writer, I come back to the image of Jonas crossing into Elsewhere to give back the Community’s memories.
Who are your heroes in real life?
The HIV activist and prison advocate John Bell was my first partner in crime. Together, we founded TEACH Outside, Prison Health News, Beyond the Walls, The Institute for Community Justice, and a host of other projects at the intersections of HIV and imprisonment in Philadelphia. When we were teaching together, we would always make people come in for interviews—not because we turned anyone away, but because we wanted to see them and we wanted them to see us. A year or so into teaching together, a man showed up for an interview. John asked him, as we often did, “Why do you want to take our class?” The man replied, “My caseworker told me that you’d teach me about my rights.” John was open to just about anything, but someone throwing around his caseworker instead of talking about himself? John didn’t miss a beat before firing back, “F**k that. Half of your rights haven’t been written yet because you haven’t been here to demand them.”
Whom in your field do you consider a role model?
Mary Frances Berry. Her book on Callie House and the Ex-Slave Association is my touchstone on how research on grassroots poor people’s movements can upend deeply held scholarly interpretations. In a time that scholars have long said was all about W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, Callie House was riding the rails to organize 500,000 formerly enslaved black people to petition and then sue the federal government in the first ever national case for reparations. Mary Frances Berry has said it many times: history teaches us to resist. The job of public intellectuals is to keep telling these hard and life-giving stories, most especially in dark times like the ones we’re living through now.
This past week, a member of the Reconstruction, Inc. extended family was “found” dead in a jail cell in Desoto County, Florida. Travis Hartsfield––son of Sharrone Hartsfield and great nephew of Reconstruction’s founder William Goldsby––was brought into custody on Monday, August 1st. On Friday, August 5th, Travis spoke with his mother and made plans for her visit the following week. The day Ms. Sharrone was supposed to visit, she was notified by the jail that her son was dead. He had been in custody for eight days.
To date, Ms. Sharonne has been un able to get information about her son’s last hours. The Arcadian reported that Desoto County Sheriff’s Office ruled Travis’ death a suicide. Ms. Sharrone knows her son. Travis loved her, and was eagerly anticipating his release in a couple of weeks. He would not take his own life. That sentiment has been echoed in comments on The Arcadian’s Facebook wall by friends, family and concerned citizens alike.
(1) SHARE. Travis’ family has asked for this post to be shared widely through social media. There is currently nothing being written or aired about Travis’ death, save the short story at The Arcadian. Any movement towards answers and investigation will depend upon the attention we can put on Travis’ case.
(2) CALL. Travis’ family wants to put pressure on the Desoto County Sheriff’s Office to release information about the circumstances surrounding Travis’ death. You can contact the Sheriff William P. Wise’s Office and the Desoto County Jail at:
(863) 993-4700 – Main Admin Building
(863) 993-4710 – Jail Direct Line
After you call, please send an email to hakim002[at]aol.com to log the information you received.
(3) WRITE. Travis’ family is asking for journalists and researchers in the Reconstruction, Inc. network to dig, inquire, and report on the circumstances surrounding Travis’ arrest, confinement, and death. Hakim Ali can answer questions and provide contact information for the family.
We will update this note as further action steps are identified.
For now, we thank you for your time, your support, your voice, and your love.
–All of us at Reconstruction, Inc.
Here is a message from Travis’ mom, Ms. Sharrone:
“…My name is Sharrone Hartsfield, my son was lynched on Tuesday, August 9th, 2016. He was in Desoto County Jail in Florida. We cannot get a media voice.
My son’s name is Travis Hartsfield, and he is 30 years old.Travis was doing what he needed to move forward, which meant a brief jail sentence for a minor offense.This was suppose to be freeing, no more roadblocks. He had planned to try traveling around, making new choices and just seeing what a difference he could make.
I last spoke with him thatFridaynight. He said, “I’m straight. I will see youon Tuesdayfor visitation,” and said, “I Love You.” This is why I could not understand when jail officials came to my house to inform me that my son had expired.
It’s like I’m in deep hole, and I’m screaming for answers and no one is listening. Instead, they started covering up the hole. Tray (what we all called him) deserves justice. Any assistance and knowledge would be appreciated…”
The NYU Center for Religion and Media series on RELIGION AND VIOLENCE presents THEORYs ON THE GROUND: Religion and spirituality, repressing and redeeming the struggles for justice. A conversation about how religion, race, gender, and sexuality intersect in the battle to resist state violence.
Discussants: NYLE FORT (Princeton University), DEON HAYWOOD (Women With A Vision, Inc.), JOSEF SORETT (Columbia University).
Moderated by LAURA MCTIGHE (Columbia University)
In this article, I reflect on social change and accountability in the wake of the Charleston massacre. Guided by the work of my colleagues and comrades from Women With A Vision, Inc. in New Orleans, I explore what it means to participate in the visionary fiction demanded and crafted by Black women, and why our future quite literally depends on doing so.
Author’s Note: In the last two weeks, our national conversation about race has moved from the absurd interrogation of Black womanhood because a white woman donned blackface, to the calculated massacre of Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Depyane Middleton Doctor, Daniel Simmons and Myra Thompson under the guise of protecting white women’s purity. The #NotInOurNames hashtag has emerged as an affirmation that white people will not be complicit in racist terrorism any longer. Black women started us chanting and tweeting #BlackLivesMatter. If we are going to realize their vision, we must learn to embrace the leadership they have been providing for centuries – and we must confront the ways in which when we have unwittingly and willfully erased their work.
“All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth Is Change. God Is Change.” In the Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler breathed to life a new religion – Earthseed – based not in the sacred scriptures of elders and prophetic pasts, but in the presents and possible futures of the living. In accepting that God Is Change, believers were called to stand in their own power, to shape themselves, to shape the universe, to shape God. “Why is the universe? To shape God. Why is God? To shape the universe.”
It’s a jarring idea to bend your mind around. Every organizer, every change maker, every visionary is writing science fiction. Envisioning a world in which every person has the full freedom to be their full self is science fiction. Affirming that #BlackLivesMatter when nine Black people are gunned down in one of the oldest Black sacred spaces in the country is science fiction. As any organizer will tell you, vision is essential to social change. It’s the end that every protest held, every call made, every sign flown is pointing towards . It’s the hope for dreaming the impossible into existence.
As we struggle to realize the vision that Black lives matter, we have had to swallow yet another bitter truth. Amid the everyday terror of anti-Black violence in the United States, some Black lives matter more than others. We called out for Michael Brown, but could not remember Tanisha Anderson’s name. We set Baltimore ablaze for Freddie Gray, but forgot to light a candle for Rekia Boyd. Activists and scholars alike have pointed out the irony of this occlusion given that the #BlackLivesMatter movement was started by Black women, and that Black women’s leadership has defined what it means to defend the dead. Just as this violence has a history, so to does this occlusion. In the long and unbroken state of emergency in the United States, it is impossible to understand the contours of anti-Black violence and Black people’s resistance without reckoning with the history of how Black womanhood has been produced as a category of non-being – of how Black women’s very humanity has been made illegible.
That work of exclusion and erasure is also science fiction, albeit of a different sort than what Octavia’s Brood is writing. When Imarisha calls all organizing science fiction, she implores us to think about the gap between what is and what could be, and about how organizers strive to prefigure the future society they are working towards in their everyday political lives. I am calling Black women’s “paradox of non-being” science fiction because it is not reflective of Black women’s actual lives and work; it bespeaks a debased society that totally and completely erases Black women’s lives. The truth is, Black women face real and horrific state, structural, and interpersonal violence every single day. And it is also true that Black women are leading the movements to end this violence. They’ve been doing so for generations. To not speak this truth, to not #SayHerName, is science fiction. When we do not speak this truth, when we do not Trust Black Women, we become part of bringing to life this sick and twisted universe; we help write a future that looks far too much like our present and past.
“THE REVOLUTION WILL BE INTERSECTIONAL OR IT WON’T BE MY REVOLUTION.” These words united a crowd of New Orleanians on May 21, 2015, a national day of action to highlight state and structural violence that Black women face. Not only does local and mainstream media tend to treat this violence as invisible, but it also consistently ignores Black women’s protests against it. The small photo gallery uploaded to Nola.com after the May 2015 event did not name a single organizer or speaker. It was a sick sort of poetic justice. On a national day to #SayHerName, the local media would not. There was not even a mention of the significance of the location of the action: Miss Penny Proud, a transgender Black youth leader at BreakOUT, had been murdered on that site just three months prior. The press did such a poor job of covering the action that one of the co-organizers, Mwende Katwiwa (aka FreeQuency), had to pen her own story about it.
This is certainly not the first time the media has left us with an effaced portrait of Black women’s resistance. On August 14th 2014, people nationally took to the streets to mourn and protest the murder of Michael Brown. Hundreds of people gathered in New Orleans’ Lafayette Park as part of this National Moment of Silence (NMOS). The local news station WGNO ran a simple image-free story covering only the short, scripted portion of the vigil in which Chanelle Batiste read aloud the names of Black people who had been killed by the police, and called all to raise their hands in the now iconic “Don’t Shoot” pose.
What the news omitted was that there were several Black feminist visionaries in front row of that protest crowd. Among them were Mwende Katwiwa and Desiree Evans, both members of Wildseeds: The New Orleans Octavia Butler Emergent Strategy Collective and staff of Women With A Vision (WWAV), a quarter-century old Black women’s health and social justice collective. They completely failed to mention that when the August 14th 2014 vigil crowd began to disperse, Katwiwa asked those next to her, “Really? Is that it?” Then she pushed to the front and called: “EXCUSE ME! Is that all? I know too many busy people here who could be somewhere else but chose to be here. For Mike and others. There is too much collective energy here to waste. If we took to the streets, would you join us?” They did. And people joined. The vigil-turned-march grew to 400-strong before occupying the French Quarter police station – grievances were hurled by a community already well-organized against the everyday racism and terror of its local police force. It took The New Orleans Advocate more than a month to upload a small photo gallery of the action. As with the #SayHerName action, the real coverage of this vigil-turned-march had to be penned by Mwende Katwiwa herself.
There are so many stories like this. For instance, we could go back a few years prior to March 29th 2012. WWAV, under the leadership of Executive Director Deon Haywood had just secured a massive victory. With a carefully selected team of civil rights attorneys, WWAV brought a federal suit against the state of Louisiana for criminalizing Black cisgender and transgender women working in the city’s underground economies. WWAV leadership and strategy created a climate in which a federal judge could, and did, rule that a Louisiana statute for prosecuting sex work as a “crime against nature” was unconstitutional, thereby securing the removal of more than 800 Black women from the Louisiana sex offender registry.
However, the media coverage the next day featured a large picture of the judge, celebrating his courage to rule in the case. WWAV was not mentioned in the article; they had been written out of the story of their own win. Deon Haywood had to write the story of this monumental victory by and for Black women. Resisting media portraits that exceptionalized the “crime against nature” statute as an arcane relic of old South justice, Haywood connected the law and its enforcement to the broader climate of injustice Black women moved through daily in the post-Katrina neoliberal deluge. She claimed WWAV’s victory for everyone who had ever been criminalized and named it as the continuation of the long Black Freedom Struggle. When WWAV’s offices were firebombed and destroyed by unknown arsonists just two months later, Haywood again explained how the attack (and the government’s refusal to investigate) should be interpreted: Fire has long been used as a tool of terror in the South, but it can also be a powerful force for rebirth.
The history written by New Orleans organizers like Haywood and Katwiwa refuses to script their work as reactionary, episodic, or somehow secondarily reactive to the oppressions they resist. Nonetheless, no matter how contextual, no matter how historically informed, no matter how deep its roots, Black women’s work is too often treated as though it is an eruption or a reaction, not the continuation of a centuries-long legacy.
The denial of coevalness is one of the oldest colonialist tricks for constructing the “Other” as spatially and temporally different from themself. We might recognize this denial in its more overt manifestations: the descriptions of peopled lands as “empty” or as “blank canvasses;” the minimization of indigenous social and cultural work as “primitive” or “backwards.” However, the scripting of Black women’s resistance as always already reactive is a no less powerful way of naturalizing the time and space of white heteropatriarchy.
To be clear: The strategies, forms, and histories of Black women’s resistance were not created by the oppressive forces with which their work has engaged. Black women created these strategies, forms of resistance, and histories. This work is Octavia Butler’s science fiction. It is Imarisha’s, and Katwiwa’s, and Haywood’s visionary organizing in which God is Change. It is the creation of a world in which Black women write their own stories and their own futures.
To say, think, or write otherwise is no less sci-fi. Ignoring Black women’s work, writing their stories for or without them, can only bring to life a sick and twisted universe in which Black womanhood continues to be produced as a category of non-being – in which we still do not #SayHerName.
“The only lasting truth Is Change. God Is Change.”
When we speak the truth of Black women’s lives and work, we become part of changing the universe into ones in which ALL Black lives matter. We also learn a very different way of analyzing our current social order. Human life is deeply and radically connective – in the clutch of an arresting officer’s hand, in the cut of a judge’s tongue, in the grimace of a store clerk; and also in the scarce resources nonetheless shared within each community, in the cascades of laughter that fill the darkest of institutions. This relationality gives everyday Black feminist resistance a vital elasticity. It’s possible to “hunker down” in times of crisis and gather loved ones close; just as it is possible to stretch out and re-form the severed threads of community and thus unravel those of the American empire. In each case, the strategy is the same: Counter social death with a defiance of living. Organize into a world in which it is possible to realize these collective visions together.
We all live history every day. But is that history writing us? Or are we writing it? Octavia Butler asks us to recognize Black women’s writing and organizing as powerful, sacred work – as a collective force that spins the present and future into existence. When we #SayHerName, we are participating in the visionary fiction demanded and crafted by Black women. When we affirm #NotInOurNames, we are participating in the visionary fiction demanded and crafted by Black women. This participation touches us. It changes us. And through the leadership of Black Women, it changes the universe.
“Why is the universe? To shape God. Why is God? To shape the universe.”
Previous articles in my race and religion series for The Revealer include:
In late summer 2014, the people rose up in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael Brown had been shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson with a brazen callousness that shook the nation. When Brown’s body was left baking in the August sun, black people in Ferguson took to the streets. Their steps were matched nationwide, as walkouts, vigils, marches, and moments-of-silence cascaded from New York to Washington, DC, to Atlanta, from Chicago to Detroit to New Orleans, from Los Angeles to Oakland to Seattle, like the steady falling of dominoes. A sign from France Francois, a Haitian-born/US-raised writer and activist, became one of the most iconic of protest images: “I CANNOT BELIEVE I STILL HAVE TO PROTEST THIS SHIT!!” The hashtag beneath her words refused the now familiar murder roll call: #TooManyToName. At a speaking engagement in December of that year, Mary Frances Berry, the eminent legal historian and former chairperson of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, brandished a sign with the same slogan, “I CANNOT BELIEVE I STILL HAVE TO PROTEST THIS SH*T!!” Days earlier, a grand jury chose not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown.
I begin with this scene from our own near present to introduce a longstanding debate around social change that is at the heart of Gary Dorrien’s The New Abolition. In the months that separated Francois raising her sign and Berry displaying hers, the nation was embroiled in a debate over whether Ferguson would “be a moment” or “become a movement.” Pundits, organizers, and scholars alike charged respectability against the “be a moment” camp, which tended to depict protesters in Ferguson as disorganized, reckless, even dangerous. They pointed out that a sanitized version of the civil rights movement—stripped of its poor, young, and female leadership, stripped of its vibrantly radical and rebellious Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—undergirded such critiques. Through these civil rights fables, we were made to believe that Ferguson must “be a moment,” because real movements did not look like this. The language “become a movement” hardly offered an alternative to this sanitizing gaze. It smuggled in another series of assumptions about how social changes happens—what I call the “jack-in-the-box approach” to social movement history. In this theory of change, real movements pop upwhen people make a demand, and they go down when that demand is met. Social movements are thereby exceptionalized, and so, too, are the conditions they seek to address. By this logic, we could only ask if Ferguson would “become a movement,” because we were already telling a story of United States history in which there was no continuity of black struggle, much less a need for it.
Dorrien’s The New Abolition is set amid the violent disassemblage of Radical Reconstruction and the institutionalization of Jim Crow modernity. In this masterful work, he gives us a moving and poignant biography of the black social gospel tradition through its foremost leaders, innovators, and critics. With careful attention to theologies, practices, and politics of black Methodists and Baptists, Dorrien excavates a set of figures who were as politically powerful as they were religious. This is no mere narrative exercise. In a methodical and (roughly) chronological account, Dorrien connects the people, places, and things of the long history of black organizing to abolish slavery to the decades-honed work of black organizing for civil rights. In so doing, he refuses a no less pernicious version of the moment vs. movement question, which is too often read onto the lives and work of our civil rights rebel elders. As Dorrien reminds us, “King did not come from nowhere, and neither did the civil rights explosion of the 1950s” (10).
This claim—like the historical evidence that Dorrien marshals to support it—is as historiographical as it is theoretical. On this point, I am reminded of Cedric Robinson’s “An Ending” to Black Marxism, in which he explains that “resurrecting events that have systematically been made to disappear from our intellectual consciousness” serves a vital purpose: “For the realization of new theory we require new history” (307). Dorrien’s own method (and theory) of resurrection is strongly reminiscent of Wallace Best’s study of black religious agency in Great Migration-era Chicago, Passionately Human, No Less Divine. Best positions his text in critical conversation with scholarship that has celebrated black agency in the social, cultural, and political realms, but has preferred to cast black religion as a spiritual force that “just happens” (186–87). By drilling down into the social context of the Great Migration, Best exposes the tremendous breadth of black Southern agency—agency that was boldly and dynamically religious. Against portraits of Southern migrants as at best out of step with city life and at worst swindled by the so-called “Black Gods” of the “sects and cults,” Best spins a tale of the insurgent masses, who together produced a new—and very Christian—sacred order. In The New Abolition, Dorrien sets his sights on the no less secularizing gaze of US historiography. Refusing scholars who have long interpreted religious leadership as declining to the point of insignificance by the end of the nineteenth century, he, too, explodes the landscape of black Christian public intellectuals nationwide, presenting us with a cornucopia of deeply religious and deeply influential leaders nationwide. In so doing, he also helps us to remember the deeply religious leanings of some of the period’s more familiar heroes and heroines, who pressed the issue of social justice as a sacred matter in their organizing at both the community and the denominational levels.
To develop a theory of the black social gospel, Dorrien also has to take the movement leaders (and their contemporaries) to task for their own historiographical prescriptions. From the first pages of The New Abolition, we are presented with an analytical hermeneutic. The very idea of a monolithic “Black Church”—that could first be imagined as an engine for racial uplift (W. E. B. Du Bois), then as an irrelevant repressive force in need of dying (E. Franklin Frazier), then as a resurrected vehicle for social change (C. Eric Lincoln), only to again be pronounced dead (Eddie Glaude)—is itself a black social gospel construction (9). As Dorrien’s text unfolds, we find a neglected Henry McNeal Turner, whose memory was evacuated once bitterness toward Marcus Garvey came to occupy in Du Bois’s own (double-)consciousness (84). Ms. Ida B. Wells-Barnett took matters into her own hands, narrating her life as a Crusade for Justice in an autobiography that still took nearly forty years (and the collective organizing of the feminist and Black Power movements) to make its way into circulation (123). Du Bois did, too, when he presented his searing critique and revision of William Archibald Dunning’s “negro misrule” thesis at the 1909 meeting of the American Historical Association (246–47). The reception was warm, but the impact nil; Du Bois’s 1935 Black Reconstruction has still never been formally reviewed by academic historians. That fact did not bother Nannie H. Burroughs. She minced no words about her contempt for the Du Bois revisionist line on Reconstruction and the “Talented Tenth” it elevated. Centering the labors of poor black people and the women working among them, Burroughs christened her school with a slogan that would today be read as downright Afro-Futurist: “We specialize in the wholly impossible” (419).
The prescriptive historiographical stakes here were so high because of what was on the line. This is the real force of the narrative history that Dorrien gives us. He takes us into the worlds of our not too distant ancestors, and reinflates (reenchants?) them with stunning complexity. The black social gospel was no singular doctrine, just like the Black Church is no monolithic institution. Dorrien sketches four “denominations”: (1) the Booker T. Washington school of accommodation; (2) the back-to-Africa school of black nationalism; (3) the roaring protest school of abolitionist-oriented racial and social justice; and (4) the hybrid reform school of accommodationist-protest and protesting-accommodation (5–7). The full breadth—and no less—of each of these various schools is what birthed Dr. King and the un-sanitized, un-fablized, un-exceptionalized civil rights continuity of the 1950s.
It is precisely because of the sheer magnitude of Dorrien’s resurrection of the black social gospel tradition that I want to press on a critique that he himself raises: this is a predominantly male story. Dorrien works hard to inflect the twists and turns of this story with the work of clubwomen and female leaders of parachurch organizations (as well as the complexities of and divergences among male leaders’ views on women). Nonetheless, he narrates the black social gospel as a Christian organizational history, birthed primarily by male ministers. Women were excluded from Niagara precisely because William Monroe Trotter and others “didn’t want them there” (233). Citing historian Barbara Dianne Savage, Dorrien also reminds us that three scholars—Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, and Benjamin E. Mays—were the most influential architects of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century historiography on black American Christianity. All three were unsettled by holiness worship; all three advocated modernized social justice churches; all three valued women as congregants; and all three insisted that churches needed strong male leadership (29). These four pillars have cast a long shadow on the historiography—one that is no less impactful than that cast by the devaluing of the twentieth-century religious leadership, which animates Dorrien’s own study. But historiographical prescriptions are just that. How might our present moment press us to revisit even these longstanding theories of interpretation?
When our country “exploded” after George Zimmerman’s acquittal and stayed “sprung” after Michael Brown’s murder, black women were on the frontlines. Even the architects of the #BlackLivesMatter refrain were black women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Many asked where these women came from, who they were, how they were so organized, how they immediately commanded attention and respect. Slogans like “not your grandfather’s civil rights movement,” while pithy, seemed to confirm that there was a rupture—not that we had been telling the story wrong. To paraphrase Dorrien: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi did not come from nowhere, and neither did the Black Lives Matter explosion of the 2010s.
To conclude, I want to engage the life and work of two black women—Elder Lucy Smith in Great Migration-era Chicago and Callie House in post-Reconstruction Nashville—in order to think about how centering black women’s work (and decentering the prescriptive biases of Du Bois, Woodson, and Mays) may enable us to further complicate the story of the black social gospel and the vision of our own momentous present. I also want to be clear about my intention here. I do not raise these critiques in order to question Dorrien’s thesis that there was a definitive and identifiable black social gospel tradition. In this respect, The New Abolition is as luminous as it is groundbreaking. Rather, I propose these black women’s black social Christian projects as starting points for embarking on what any good history invites: further revision. In so doing, I want to think carefully about what was at stake for the New Abolition bishops and the Baptist pastors who omitted these two figures (and women like them) from the institutional church sources that Dorrien works with so carefully. I am also interested in how these women’s inclusion might press us to ask new and different questions of the black social gospel tradition going forward.
Elder Lucy Smith makes an appearance in the initial pages of Dorrien’s work as an example of a woman who found the freedom to minister once she left the mainline churches of her upbringing. Smith’s choice of the sanctified pulpit over the mainline pews bespeaks a black social gospel conundrum for Dorrien: “Traditional black churches . . . were most like traditional white churches in excluding women from ordained ministry. But these were the churches where the social gospel made its deepest inroads. Meanwhile, the churches that allowed women to preach were not the ones that produced social gospel ministers” (29). However, Elder Lucy Smith is critical to Wallace Best’s thesis that the Great Migration produced a new sacred order that was also a profoundly female order. Under the banner of the All Nations Pentecostal Church, Elder Lucy Smith roared through Chicago—in worship, healing, missions, and the airwaves. Her church exemplified the “do it for ourselves” impulse that Best attributes to many migrants’ production of the houses of worship and mutual aid that they needed. This move was reactive. Dorrien quotes Best when describing the lasting blows that many mainline churches dealt to themselves over their inability to respond to migrants’ insurgent, holy-rolling, self-conscious action (506). But that is hardly the end of the story. Even amid wide-ranging criticism (much of it recorded in the Works Progress Administration archives), Elder Lucy Smith built a massive sanctified movement that crossed race, class, and denominational lines. The middle-class black pastors of Chicago did not shy away from confirming it: “If you want to see my folks (members) on a Sunday night,” one pastor remarked, “go to Elder Lucy Smith’s” (quoted in Best, 177).
Elder Lucy Smith’s life and work signals one critical direction for further research: a reconsideration of the social gospel / Pentecostal divide as holding definitive interpretive weight. Certainly there were holiness churches that were “too heavenly bound to be of any earthly good,” but Wallace Best proposed that at least in Great Migration-era Chicago “a this-worldly focus predominated, even in churches where one would least expect it, because of the temporal demands of the mass movement” (187). What new appreciations for the material demands and theological reflections of black Southern migrants might come into focus if early charismatic churches are examined as vital sites of black social gospel meaning-making?
Which brings me to a second figure: Callie House, a poor Tennessee washerwoman born the first year of the Civil War. As Mary Frances Berry writes in My Face Is Black Is True, Callie House became a field organizer at the turn of the twentieth century, traversing the Southern landscape to build the 500,000-member-strong National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. In this region-wide grassroots organization, which met in black churches all over the South, formerly enslaved people gathered for collective support and mutual aid. Together, they publicly recounted brutal memories of slavery that had been little eased in the days since emancipation, and they pooled their pennies in membership dues to assist with ex-slave burial costs. On the national stage, these poor freedpeople told a narrative of black victimization that indicted the federal government as an accomplice in their subordination and impoverishment. Stepping first to Congress and then to Federal Court, they demanded pensions for ex-slaves to be paid for with the $68 million collected in cotton taxes between 1862 and 1868. For this work, Callie House was, in Berry’s words, “praised by poor African Americans, ridiculed by the race’s elites, and targeted by high government officials, who feared her influence with the masses, and eventually landed in jail” (6–7).
Callie House was a contemporary of Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Henry McNeal Turner. The members of her Ex-Slave Association went on to populate the ranks of Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), that very “Negro peasantry” that Dorrien quotes Du Bois as looking upon sympathetically: “The movement is yet inchoate and indefinite, but it is tremendously human, piteously sincere and built in the souls of a hardworking, thrifty, independent people, who while long deprived of higher training have nevertheless very few illiterates or criminals” (342). The movement that Du Bois observed was hardly inchoate or indefinite. Its members had already petitioned and sued the federal government in the first ever national case for reparations. Theirs was also deeply religious work. As Callie House wrote in 1899, “My Whole soul and body are for this ex-slave movement and are willing to sacrifice for it.”
I offer this discussion of Callie House to highlight a second direction for further research: an expansion of what counts as the black social gospel agenda for social justice. Dorrien’s focus on the divergent tactics of the new abolition enables him to sketch the skeletal structure of black social Christianity with attention to the very real tensions that were present. Callie House further troubles even some of these tensions. Reparations, as operationalized by the Ex-Slave Association, was a demand that blurred the lines of separatism and integration, of abolition and reform. It did so precisely through a leadership model that privileged collectivity—a collectivity not unlike what Nannie H. Burroughs might have imagined when she implored poor and working black people to “unload the leeches and parasitic leaders,” because “we can take the promised land” (420).
What if we did not allow the lives and work of Elder Lucy Smith and Callie House (and black women like them) to be relegated to the historiographical equivalent of “be a moment”? What if we did not even did not even try to discipline them with the “become a movement” question? What if, instead, we centered these women’s work and the demands of the poor black people they mobilized? What additional black social gospel visions and strategies might then come into focus?
With The New Abolition, Gary Dorrien has given us a method: “King did not come from nowhere.” And, of course, neither did the Black Lives Matter explosion of the 2010s.