The Fragility of SolidarityFamily History and Political Identity

This feature, on the painful reflection of identity, family, and political regression, is the sixth in our monthly longreads on the topic of Fragility. Every month through December 2017, we’ll publish a new must-read perspective on the subject that we hope you’ll read, share, and make part of your routine.

For now, though, get comfortable and get ready for part six: Let’s talk about identity politics. For real.

Part 1   |   Part 2   |   Part 3   |   Part 4   |   Part 5   |   Part 6   |   Part 7   |   Part 8  |  Part 9

“I didn’t know how much I needed a woman President until it didn’t happen.”

It is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and we are discussing solidarity in the age of Trump. My mother sits across from me. We’re at a small Mexican restaurant on Chicago’s North Side. The neighborhood is gentrifying, but slowly. A five-minute walk south and I’d be at the door of my abuela’s apartment building, an elder living complex that went private a few years ago and began renting to all ages. She’s lived there as long as I can remember.

* * *

Post-Obama American identity revolved around ideas of progress and justice. Even in the face of extrajudicial police killings and deportations, we saw hope and change. We truly believed another world was possible. The 2016 election revealed ideas of American progress and justice to be fantasies, ones that could be exploited to obscure a much darker American reality. In the wake of the election, it seemed everything we had ever assumed about identity, politics, and solidarity had been utterly dismantled. Union-affiliated white voters had been disloyal to the Democratic party. White women had been disloyal even to other white women. A nation had been disloyal to its principles. The world had turned upside down. Or had it? Maybe the election was the child yelling into the street, “The Emperor has no clothes!” For white people, solidarity with white supremacy won the election. For Black people, especially the 94 percent of Black women who remained loyal to Clinton despite her lackluster enthusiasm for the things Black communities around the country needed, solidarity with white women had failed us again. Votes cast by non-Black people of color, whose solidarity too often lacked antiracist or antisexist critique, failed to hold enough water to take 45 down. The common denominator? A fear of Blackness. Across demographics, anti-Black sentiment sapped solidarity of its strength for non-Black people. The Emperor wore clothes like he wanted freedom, like he believed in liberation for us all. The naked Emperor was a scared white adolescent cradling machine guns and hiding from Black boys in hoodies holding Skittles. The naked Emperor was Dylan Roof.

This wasn’t the first time our fragile solidarities had done us in. It had happened to us before, of course, and it would happen again.

* * *

In our complicated femme, Afrx-Puerto Rican family, solidarity meant different things over time. For me, in high school, it meant tight flare jeans and chingona earrings, and by college it meant taking Black Studies courses. As my mother looks out the window at the gray street, I can guess what solidarity meant for her. For years, she had cleaved to a working-class, union-supporting, bootstraps sense of self that was both deeply Puerto Rican and second-wave feminist. She came by it honestly. My grandmother, her mother—who was born in Utuado, Puerto Rico, and migrated to New York City when residential segregation still reigned—argued with Mayor Daley about affordable housing when she smelled the neighborhood beginning to change. She organized her neighbors in defiance of property developers, recognizing their plans for mixed-income property wasn’t the solidarity they claimed it to be, but a mechanism for gentrification that would destroy her community.

My other grandmother, my African American father’s mother, who migrated to Chicago from Alabama with my great-grandfather, ran away to escape his dominance, eloping and moving across the city to start a new life for herself. Chicago has no shortage of men who have carved their sense of self out of the backs of women around them. But Chicago women, whether we arrived in the city via the islands or the South, share a vulgar irreverence and stubbornness in the face of our oppression. We don’t forget who we are, the men we’ve burned down along the way, the women who held us up. This is the kind of feminist solidarity that empowers all of the women in my family, and has been our legacy.

“I’ve been in a funk,” my Mom says, playing with the food on her plate. “I just can’t shake it.” The day after the election, instead of celebrating a historic victory, she mourned and worried about having to travel into the conservative heartland of Indiana. She wondered if, for her own safety, she should stay home. I’d never heard her speak of her racial embodiment that way. My mother is not a white-passing Puerto Rican, and she doesn’t deny that Africans belong among los raices de mi tierra (the roots of my land). But she doesn’t see herself as Black so much as of African and Indigenous descent. In other words, her solidarity to Blackness and to race-based politics is fragile. And like many Latinx, particularly those who don’t identify as also Black, she looks for a way out of the tangle of consumptive, capitalist, heteropatriarchal racial hatred, but avoids facing anti-Black prejudice, regardless if it’s someone else’s prejudice or even her own. My mother’s capacity for hope and faith in justice, however, is stronger than my own. Unlike her, I’m not in a funk. I’m furious.

* * *

The day after the election, I pick up W. E. B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880. Historians, when we become anxious, grow obsessed with minutiae. In the weeks that followed the election, historians debated ad nauseam which historical moment we are in. Some compared it to the Reagan era or the Cocaine ’80s, others to the Age of Jackson. I think we need to go further back. Trumplandia 2016 is cousin only to the Reconstruction/Redemption period following the Civil War.

The Civil War was over. Slaves have been freed. The North has won. But antislavery Republicans—not to be confused with 21st-century, post–Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party Republicans—are pressuring a pro-Confederacy president and leaders in the formerly seceded states to offer suffrage, citizenship, and civil rights to the newly freed and formerly free people of African descent in their midst. For Black people, emancipation was a jubilee, an ephemeral moment of ecstatic rebellion and personhood that felt almost and something like freedom. But jubilee increasingly gave way to frustration as former slave owners refused to relinquish their hold on arable land, voting rights, police power, and their identities as masters of slaves.

It would take a spectacle of Black death—including massacres such as the 1866 Mechanic’s Hall riot in New Orleans, where local police opened fire on Republicans of both races, or the Memphis Race Riot that same year, which left some 40 to 50 Black residents dead—to push congress to implement a decisive Reconstruction plan that offered protection and citizenship to former slaves. This ”Radical Reconstruction” forced freedom’s gates wide open again—or at least wide enough for some Black men, women, and children to punch their way through. But riots and vigilante violence did not end. In 1873, at least 40 Black voters and three whites were killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan and the White League in Colfax, Louisiana. The Colfax Massacre and those elsewhere, including Mississippi and South Carolina, joined everyday attacks on individuals and families as instances of racial terror. And these excessive and constant expressions of state violence, mainly coordinated by white-nationalist vigilante groups against former slaves and their white allies, eventually forced federal troops to withdraw from the South. White southerners fought for this withdrawal, described the abandonment of formerly enslaved women, children, and men to the mercy of their former owners as a “Redemption,” and made it clear in words and arms that white (manhood) politics had returned to rule the South. If Black folks didn’t like it they could leave. Or die.

Today, identity politics has come to mean people of color rallying other people of color as though white people have not done the same for centuries. As though “white” is not a race or an identity. When DuBois described the history of the white worker, he obliterated arguments that might favor their inclinations towards antislavery. White identity, in fact, was central to why white workers with no slaves or need for slave labor, particularly those recently arrived to the country, chose to vote for pro-slavery, immigration- and tariff-friendly Democrats over Republicans. Identity suffuses American history, wraps itself around layered and charged terms like labor, liberty, and citizenship.

* * *

Whiteness does not scare me even as white identity congeals around violent responses to nonwhite refusal to accommodate: voter repression, segregation, the rise of prisons (and then the rise of private prisons), the forced labor of sharecropping on the one hand and labor discrimination against Black people on the other hand, not to mention sexual violence and terror in all of its forms—all of these characterized responses to Black expressions and redefinitions of freedom. The Ku Klux Klan was born immediately after Reconstruction and Confederate monuments paying homage to white supremacy were constructed all around the country. The rise of eugenics in the late 19th century—one of many white-collar expressions of white-supremacist ideals, with its taxonomies of progress and biological racial difference—made racist thinking the foundation of academic disciplines from biology to anthropology to history. In 1915, filmmaker D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (originally titled The Clansman) made slave ownership into a romance. And by the 1920s, the South’s first professional historian, Ulrich B. Phillips, made slave owners into earnest, if misguided, heroes safeguarding “a white man’s country.

Whiteness is as American as apple pie, and the expression of it—the ease with which 53 percent or more of white women could vote for a man who called “Mexicans” rapists then sanctioned sexual assault—is not new. Whiteness does not scare me because this has been a long struggle and we have been here before.

What does scare me is that women of color fought to create a vocabulary that explains our experiences, but we, as a society, have stopped understanding what these terms mean. Kimberlé Crenshaw didn’t create intersectionality to explain identity politics or act as a stand-in for the word “diversity.” She created it to make transparent Black women’s vulnerability before the law. Hortense Spillers created a version of this for the humanities in order to make transparent “the historical apprenticeship of the Black female.” And for all the bridge building Black women have had to do through our organizing, research, and teaching, progressive society’s desire to do good continues to go hand-in-hand with a distaste for proximity to Blackness. White liberals and progressives want their politics to be liberatory, even radical, but their association to Blackness to be fragile. Only one does not come without the other, never mind the blood, sweat, and tears people of African descent have poured into organizing of all kinds across the entire left spectrum from the Civil War to the present.

Our solidarities are fragile because we do not dare be honest about how much we love Black politics (and culture) and how much we hate Black people at the same time. We do not dare be honest about how much the Left owes to Black freedom struggles from slavery to the present, and how far it just isn’t willing to go in the name of that same freedom. Only in that context can identity politics be seen as a slur, instead of what it is—a superpower, a space for engagement and possibility, and a starting place for building real solidarity.

What scares me is where we go from here when solidarity with white supremacy has been so intransigent and has tangled itself across our other identities. A starting place is just that—a start. Alejandro Ramos had his Puerto Rican flag with him while he beat DeAndre Harris into the ground in Charlottesville. And yet some Puerto Ricans rallied to reject his expressions of white supremacy as impossible because he is Puerto Rican. As though identifying as Puerto Rican and solidarity with white supremacy are mutually exclusive. Slave ships arrived in Puerto Rico just as they did every other Caribbean island. Slave owners grew rich off of plantation commodities, rejected their identity with Spain and Portugal not just out of anti-colonial fervor, but also to remain behind on the island and rule there. Too many Puerto Ricans want their association with Blackness to be fragile, never mind the long trade in Africans and the long history of forced African labor on the island. An identity politics that cannot see through our own histories into our own families also cannot hold Ramos accountable, and is an identity politics that will leave us sick and wondering what happened. Our lackluster solidarity will destroy us.

Identity is intimate, rooted in kinship and family, and as our identities are fragile, so are our families. We who are dark Brown or Black Puerto Rican, or Afrx-Taina or Black in an African immigrant family, or otherwise represent the Blackness this country loves to hate, push our families because we love our own selves too much not to. And because it matters.

But there are topics you don’t discuss around the dinner table, bloodlines you don’t reference. I grew up organizing my family. I have pushed, questioned, argued, challenged, and bothered family members about history, race, justice, and empire; gnawed at them. I have done so knowing that those who whisk the cover off our sordid history of slave ownership, genocide, exploitation, rape, and violence also risk being marked as too much, being disowned, uninvited, unaligned with kin. I, and those like me, do it anyway. What’s funny is white people risk a version of the same disowning and exposure to violence when they align with us, too—Heather Heyer’s family is reckoning with that right now.

Identities matter. Saying they don’t or asking, for instance, a historically marginalized community to get past “identity politics” sounds like the passive racism of a lazy theorist—or the rumbling of empire. White identity politics have held sway over the history of resistance, the definition of freedom, and every struggle for resources the North American continent has ever seen, including the 2016 election cycle. If emancipation bore fruit, if the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments became the lifeblood of the United States’ story of itself, it is not because of but in spite of white citizens’ resistance to the same. It is because ex-slaves and their descendants spilled blood over this soil that hope, change, and possibility mean more than the sound they make in fancy speeches at black-tie dinners. It is through our love and rage—our Black, Black rage—that there is anything more than empty metaphor in those words.

I do not demand my family get past their identity, the known world of their history. Identity is fragile as family is fragile, as I am also fragile, too fragile to handle their rejection of my identity any more than I want to reject theirs. Instead, we call each other in. We call for decolonization and de-escalation, justice and safety. We seek each others’ mutual and coeval liberation. We love hard. And we don’t always use these exact words, certainly not always with my elders. The words themselves, it turns out, don’t matter so much as the both/and, the desire for both you and me to get there through an increasingly intimate, honest, and radical engagement with our world and our lives.

Last summer, I heard this same both/and at a New Orleans for Standing Rock action organized by #TakeEmDownNola. Belting speeches across Jackson Square, protesters portrayed the battle against the pipeline as an Indigenous struggle, and a Louisiana/Delta struggle against oil magnates in the Gulf, land developers encroaching on the marshes and wetlands, and a changing climate of which increasing numbers of hurricanes were just one devastating result. They invoked Black New Orleans solidarity with Standing Rock as part of a centuries-old coalition forged by African and Indigenous slaves absconding together into the cypress swamp. There was no call to look past Blackness or get over Black history, and those present still held space for Indigenous lives past and present. There was no push to divest from our own rich, dark selves, muddy as the banks of the river, temperamental and imperfect. Instead, armed with mutually reinforcing histories of enslavement, war, hurricanes, fire, and water, we called each other in. Our identities didn’t make us fragile. We were strong.

Solidarity that digs deep into all that makes us who we are—the histories we bring with us and are subject to, the kin and community into which we were born and that we create around us, our personal flaws and institutional privileges—then builds new worlds from these as the base, that kind of solidarity is strong. The evening after the election, I sought out and spent time with queer kin of color, the ones I knew could hold my anger because it was also their own. We weren’t afraid of whiteness, but we all knew what was going to happen in the months ahead, how the Left would try to spin the exit polls and who the scapegoat would be. Easier to blame POC “identity politics” than anti-Blackness or wages of whiteness. Easier to fall in line with the new president than to resist. Harder to listen to those on the margins who risked their lives and whose lives were at risk, the ones whose fear was built on lived experience of being incarcerated and deported too young, dying too soon. Since the work continues, whether we live or die, together we made up three rules and promises, a manifesto on how to survive being queer and of color, being maldita and stubborn, wild and mad, in Trumplandia:

1. This isn’t our [POC, queers, radicals] fault.
2. This really is as bad as we think it is.
3. Listen to those who are afraid.

My mother didn’t know how much she needed a female President until she didn’t get one. I didn’t know how much I needed to believe in freedom until I saw it taken away—again. Losing didn’t hurt. What hurt was the nature of the loss; the intransigence of the winners and their sheer multitude in the face of years of workshops, writings, books, conversations, all manner of convincing; to see history begin to repeat itself, pure and vengeful. So I sat with my mother and ate tacos, and we cried a little bit and licked our wounds and took home our leftovers—including my rage and her hope.

Check in next month for the next piece in our series on fragility!

Part 1   |   Part 2   |   Part 3   |   Part 4   |   Part 5   |   Part 6   |   Part 7   |   Part 8  |  Part 9

by Jessica Marie Johnson
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Jessica Marie Johnson is a writer and historian of slavery. She is the author of Practicing Freedom: Black Women, Intimacy, and Kinship in New Orleans Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, under contract). She is also co-editor with Mark Anthony Neal of Black Code: A Special Issue of the Black Scholar (2017). She is a proud daughter of Chicago and tweets as @jmjafrx. 

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