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“Human survival is a political strategy”Edward Baptist, author of The Half Has Never Been Told
Sociological imagination: the process by which people become aware that their private troubles are rooted in public issues.
In a meeting I had just a few days before going into quarantine, a valued colleague shared C. Wright Mills’s idea of sociological imagination, above. When I heard it, I wasn’t thinking at all about Covid-19. I was imagining all the ways this process can happen through story, movement and community organizing. I tucked that idea away in my notebook. Little did I know I’d be pulling it back out again just a few days later.
Over the past five weeks, I continue to hold out the hope that this will be a moment of expanding people’s imagination and understanding of how their personal pain and suffering are driven by systemic injustices–injustices that we have the power and ability to change.
I have been particularly grateful for the public voices calling for action on anti-black racism during Covid 19. Freedom Inc’s powerful open letter from their Southeast Asian team on Covid-19 and Black Solidarity is a letter we need in every state.
Race Forward has been doing incredible work to name the unjust impact of Covid-19 on Black, Latinx, and Native communities, analyzing the root causes and offering resources to address them. Colorlines is one of the critical media outlets telling the story of justice and injustice during Covid-19, and I look forward to their reporting each week. While we physically distance, I am grateful for all the folks around the country weaving together the stories we need to make meaning of this moment.
As I sit with hope, I seek ways to nurture our imaginations into action, and one of the first places I go to is the quote at the top of this letter. My husband, Ben, first shared his impressions of Edward Baptist’s book “The Half Has Never Been Told” with me about a year and a half ago. It hit me like a lightning bolt: Human survival is a political strategy.
Many of the stories of American slavery in popular media and school classrooms focus on political machinations of the 19th century. They tend to cover how macro trends of history unfolded, culminating in the American Civil War. There are often stories of individual suffering that are sprinkled in (e.g., the map of how slave ships were cruelly laid out), but largely anesthetized.
Baptist invites us to a different view. He offers in-depth perspectives of the injustices and tragedies of the American slave system, with narrative intimacy. He details the destruction of black families–children taken from their mothers, family units actively and intentionally destroyed. But he also shares the stories of how individuals came together to build new families, engendering units of love, learning and growth.
Baptist suggests that these acts–family making, loving each other, creative arts–were pathways to survival that have been overlooked and are the critical foundation for the triumphal civil rights moments that would come later. He wants us to see that major political and economic shifts do not stand apart from very intimate acts of community, care, and creating music and spiritual art.
I began an ongoing reflection on the practices that enslaved mothers, fathers, cousins and neighbors had to create for survival, whether in enslaved black communities, enslaved South Asian communities, in colonized Polish communities, colonized indigenous communities or among colonized and oppressed people all around the world. I started to call these practices love technologies.
In searching for love technologies that can sustain us through crisis, I’m not looking for perfection, I’m grounding in humanity. How does the act of nurturing build movements? How can a lack of nurturing destroy societies? How does the act of playing keep us alive? Where else might lessons from these love technologies reside?
I recently discovered one such source of learning through Hilton Als’s reflections on Toni Morrison and particularly her work creating “The Black Book.” Morrison worked with authors to collect a compendium of the black lived experience which could serve as a reflection and guide for how communities survived and triumphed well before the victories of the Civil Rights Movement. She wrote:
“Nothing could have interfered with my putting this book together,” Morrison said, in an interview in the Times in 1974. “I was afraid that young people would come to believe that black history began in 1964 or that there was slavery, there was a gap, and then there was 1964.”
“The point is not to soak in some warm bath of nostalgia about the good old days—there were none!—but to recognize and rescue those qualities of resistance, excellence and integrity that were so much a part of our past and so useful to us and to the generations of blacks now growing up… To create something that might last, that would bear witness to the quality and variety of black life before it became the topic of every Ph.D. dissertation and the focal point of all the mindlessness that seems to have joined the smog of California’s movie world. Whatever that “something” was, it would have to be honest, would have to be rendered through our own collective consciousness. It would have to assume that we were still tough, and that our egos were not threads of jelly in constant need of glue.
Als describes the work she created:
In “The Black Book,” which she worked on for a feverish eighteen-month period, Morrison wanted to provide visible evidence of where blackness had been and where it was going. She included documents—a patent showing that William B. Purvis had invented the fountain pen, for instance—and photographs, among them one of Lena Horne bathing in her drive and significance, and one of the black cowboy Nat Love. There were descriptions of voodoo charms; a full-color ad showing a black baby in a white cap and gown, advertising Sunlight Soap; pictures of clothes made by slaves; and another patent, this one for Norbert Rillieux’s “improvement in sugar-making.” There were lines of poetry by Langston Hughes and by Henry Dumas, whom she considered one of the most talented of her authors. There were images of black men being burned or lynched, and a clipping about Margaret Garner, a runaway slave who killed one of her children so that she would not grow up in slavery—a story that haunted Morrison and inspired her 1987 novel, “Beloved,” another tale of innocence lost and of black women alone in the world together. You can also find in “The Black Book” other sources of inspiration for Morrison the novelist.”
Als also describes the work’s shortcomings and failure:
As with all great books, one wants “The Black Book” to be all things for all people, and yet the collection is devoid of any story or image of an out gay person—there is no mention of Gladys Bentley, for instance, or Bruce Nugent, let alone of James Baldwin or Audre Lorde. Just as Morrison was afraid that young people might think black history jumped from slavery to the civil-rights era, a young queer kid today may wonder, leafing through the reprint, if black gayness has been deliberately erased or “just” forgotten.
Ultimately, Morrison’s work was a reflection of her own personal learning around love technologies. Als writes:
This book was a reflection of all she had learned from her family. In an unpublished biographical statement that she wrote around the time that she was promoting “The Black Book” and her second novel, “Sula” (1973), she offered a window into her sensibility, which was driven by loss, effort, survival, and not turning away from any of it. Her relatives on both sides were migrants from the South, she explained, who had suffered and persevered. She went on: Even before I knew what they had done to stay alive, to raise their children, and to be better than their detractors—even before that, their eyes impressed me. They were like wells of stacked mirrors—each with a depth and refraction of its own… The closest I can come to describing it is the look of people who have lived places where there are great distances to view. Desert people, or people who live on savannahs or mountain tops—they have the look I remember in my parents and their relatives. Their eyes were terrible, made bearable only by the frequency of their laughter.
As I look back on the histories of my family and of cultures to which I feel rooted–Polish Solidarity, South Asian Anti-facism and Anti-colonialism–I want to bring forth the love technologies that I have to offer on our road to building our imaginations for survival.
Here are a few that I’m working on:
- Becoming healing centered by addressing trauma in relational, growth-oriented ways. There is courage in looking at tough stuff straight in the eye. It’s something I’ve learned from many elders in my life.
- Processing grief. Between the ages of 12 and 22, I experienced significant deaths in my life that impacted me greatly. I felt connected to my own mortality at a young age and I subsequently learned skills to cope. I’ve found some of these useful during Covid-19 but I found that I needed more to deal with grieving on a scale I’d never experienced before. I am grateful to all who contributed to that list linked to here.
- Digesting stress and fear.
During that period of loss, I experienced quite a few manifestations of
my anxiety, like bodily shaking, panic, indigestion and pain. Over
time, I learned that negative emotions were building up in my body
without being processed, and they were fighting to find a way to be
acknowledged and released.
- For years, I tried using self-care practices to heal: relaxing on weekends, going out to have fun, reading good books, eating things I liked. But my anxiety only grew.
- I had to discover that there is a significant difference between self-care that allows me to feel good briefly and the practices that allow me to process negative emotions and remove their waste from my system. Through understanding how my body works and exploring generative somatics, I’m learning how to work with my body and parasympathetic system to heal and develop new levels of strength.
- Moving relationships to the center. Late stage capitalism and the pursuit of white supremacy would have us see relationship building as a nice add-on to the real processes of getting work done. Processes and systems built without the underpinnings of trust are prone to racial injustice, economic exploitation and more. I’m still seeking more resources in this area and I have found this article quite useful in explaining and exploring this dynamic.
Do you have a love technology to share? Send them our way, and we’ll share on social.
I’ll leave you, here, with an image I value:
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew.
This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
—Arundhati Roy, The Pandemic Is a Portal
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