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Many of us are facing unprecedented attacks on our democracy, our privacy, and our hard-won civil rights. If you’re Black in the US, this is not new. As Colorlines editors Akiba Solomon and Kenrya Rankin show, Black Americans subvert and resist life-threatening forces as a matter of course. In these pages, leading organizers, artists, journalists, comedians, and filmmakers offer wisdom on how they fight White supremacy. It’s a must-read for anyone new to resistance work, and for the next generation of leaders building a better future.
Featuring contributions from:
- Ta-Nehisi Coates
- Tarana Burke
- Harry Belafonte
- Adrienne Maree brown
- Alicia Garza
- Patrisse Khan-Cullors
- Reverend Dr. Valerie Bridgeman
- Kiese Laymon
- Jamilah Lemieux
- Robin DG Kelley
- Damon Young
- Michael Arceneaux
- Hanif Abdurraqib
- Dr. Yaba Blay
- Diamond Stingily
- Amanda Seales
- Imani Perry
- Denene Millner
- Kierna Mayo
- John Jennings
- Dr. Joy Harden Bradford
- Tongo Eisen-Martin
There was a time, when we were young, scrappy, and hungry, when fighting for justice brought to mind picket signs, linked arms, and raised fists. As our daily responsibilities multiply—and the folks who want to push liberty even further beyond our outstretched fingertips grab more unchecked power—it’s harder to make it to the front lines. But we also know that’s not the only way to fight. As we spend our days writing and editing stories about racial justice (and injustice), we are increasingly struck by all the ways Black people combat the physical and emotional wages of the system of White supremacy. Just as there are millions of us fighting, there are millions of ways to land blows.
The fact is, White supremacy defines our current reality. It is not merely a belief that to be White is to be better. It is a political, cultural, and economic system premised on the subjugation of people who are not White. That subjugation takes on an infinite number of forms and is enforced with varying degrees of physical violence, mental abuse, and robbery. White supremacy is the voice in our collective heads that says it makes civilized sense that one group of people gets to annihilate, enslave, incarcerate, brainwash, torture, sterilize, breed, and terrorize other people. White supremacy establishes, upholds, and normalizes hierarchy based on the premise that the less Black you are the closer you are to God.
We live in a country where law enforcement officers kill Black children and call them “thugs,” the mainstream media calls neo-Nazis the “alt-right,” and referencing “the African Americans” in discussions about urban crime is a sufficient credential to put a third-rate reality television personality in the White House. But the encouraging reality is this: Black people are working each day to inch us closer to collective freedom. We contain multitudes, and we are hammering at issues as varied and intersectional as police violence and body image and reproductive justice and lack of inclusion in the technology sector.
We’re fascinated by those who resist and create despite the obstacles produced by White supremacy and its lackeys: sexism, homophobia, disenfranchisement, transphobia, colorism, ableism, and more. We wrote this book to document the people, from the unsung to the famous, who are doing good work right where they stand, fighting causes both sexy and pedestrian. There’s the leader of a religious movement that holds up issues that impact queer people of color, the cartoonist who applies the Black punk aesthetic to the hard work of silencing White supremacists, the cofounders of a movement that made the world consider the worth of Black lives, and dozens of other freedom fighters who share their work and their dreams for a future that doesn’t thrive on anti-Blackness.
Many people—both here and abroad—are considering the fragility of their freedom for the first time, and thousands of the newly “woke” need help with defining their own version of activism. Fortunately for us all, Black people can provide the key.
Black Americans have made a cottage industry of surviving, resisting, and fighting. From staging insurrections after being used as the literal capital that bankrolled the birth of this nation to arguing before the US Supreme Court in the face of codified racial segregation via Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, to clapping back at the microaggressions that threaten to chip away at our humanity each day, we always find a way to stand rooted in the face of oppression. You want to talk about patriots? We honor the principles of democracy at every turn, even when the people charged with implementing those principles don’t honor us. This ain’t new to us. Whether we’re singing, sitting, marching, researching, prosecuting, creating, laughing, studying, organizing, dreaming, building wealth, or drawing on spirit, we battle life-threatening forces as a matter of course. Why should this moment be any different?
What This Book Isn’t
Although we sought out a diverse group of contributors, this collection isn’t exhaustive: it does not apply an international lens, and it doesn’t include Black “conservatives.” We know that anyone who is truly interested and invested in dismantling the intricate system of White supremacy will learn from this book, but it’s not here to tell you what to do, and it’s not written with anyone but Black folks in mind (see no “explanatory commas” in the next section). It’s also important to know that we began working on this book long before the election of the forty-fifth president of the United States. The acts of resistance it chronicles are not defined by the actions of one man, but by the collective longing for a justice that has so far eluded us.
What This Book Is
How We Fight White Supremacy is a curated, multidisciplinary collection that serves as a showcase for some of our most powerful thinkers and doers. It starts in the middle of a Black-ass conversation; you won’t find any explanatory commas about our cultural mores here. Speaking of which, to reflect the permanence of our resistance, we organized the book according to Black conventional and contemporary wisdom, with chapters like “Laugh to Keep from Crying” (our gallows humor), “Get in Formation” (grassroots organizing), and “Love Me or Leave Me Alone” (how we love ourselves whole). Each chapter starts with our take on why a particular category of resistance is integral to the fight and ends with our (very) personal reflections on the matter. Seriously, this collection has everything: thoughtful interviews, “am I really crying right now?” essays, ridiculously relatable fine art, unexpected profiles, crying laughing emoji face funny fiction, reflections from everyday people on their everyday resistance, get hype playlists, and more—all breathe in these pages.
But most of all, this is a book about freedom dreams. We’re well aware of the problems we’re buried beneath. We can feel the weight of them on our limbs, the heft of them in our abdomens as our second brains gnaw on the indignity of it all. But what does it look like for Black people to claw our way to fresh air? What does freedom feel like? How does it taste on the tongue? For some folks in this book, it feels like raising kids who gleefully take up space for themselves. For others, it looks like providing the tools we need to triumph over race-based trauma. There’s the pastor who envisions a day when following his radical, dark-skinned Jesus who always sides with the dispossessed will lift us out of this hole, and the organizer who can almost smell the sharp aroma of reforming the nation’s political system. And we can’t forget the professor who dreams of the day when we can bring our full selves to every table.
Although this book is not prescriptive—if we had a magic button we could press to end this nightmare, we would have leaned on that bitch long ago—it is thoughtful and hopeful and bursting with agency. In immersing ourselves in the work of others, we can define and refine our own work; in reveling in the freedom dreams of our beloved, we can labor to make them lucid. The reality is this: if we don’t make time to close our eyes, breathe deeply, push beyond the binds we’re in, and visualize a day when they don’t exist, we can never truly be free.
Our hope is that by the time you read the last page, you will have your own strategy for making our collective freedom dream a reality. We’ll see you on the other side.
Peace, power, and joy, Akiba + Kenrya
GET IN FORMATION
Although Second Wave feminism declared that “the personal is political” and Black feminists did the work of expanding “the personal” to include people who were not White, straight, or middle-class, the idea that “I’m not free until we all are free” has always been a major one for us. This explains how both Blacks who were born free and those who became free acted as conductors on the Underground Railroad at great personal risk. How Black folks throughout the African Diaspora toiled to defeat the murderous system of South African apartheid. It’s our way of thinking, our cultural value, that provides the scaffolding for our drive toward universal equity.
As the Combahee River Collective put it in “A Black Feminist Statement” in 1977:
The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.…
We might use our position at the bottom, however, to make a clear leap into revolutionary action. If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free, since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.
This belief that collective action brings about collective solutions underpins organizing in social movements. We are the informal and self-described strategists who refine tactics passed down from our previous tries at liberation, and we are the patient participants in the slow-going project of freedom. At our best and most holistic, we act as advocates for every Black person, regardless of gender, sexuality, class, immigration status, record of criminal charges, education level, quirk, or kink. As long as you don’t act all the way up and out, our instinct is to claim you. This is what pulls activists out of bed each morning—the way we instinctively understand that “Black Lives Matter” is a rallying cry, not a threat to the humanity of others.
There’s a reason you use your fists and not your individual fingertips to fight. From one of the minds behind Black Lives Matter, to a formerly incarcerated man working to restore the voting rights of others, to the woman who first encouraged survivors to say, “Me too,” the organizers featured in this chapter are knockout artists.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors on Why “We’ve Got to Tell a Different Story about Blackness”
Patrisse Khan-Cullors is best known for cofounding Black Lives Matter (BLM) in 2013 in response to the exoneration of George Zimmerman, the White self-appointed neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Florida, who followed seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin as he walked home from the store and fatally shot him. But Khan-Cullors was a Los Angeles–based artist and organizer long before then. Her award-winning work with the Labor Community Strategy Center and her performance piece “Stained: An Intimate Portrayal of State Violence” were early shots fired in a career that has focused on making the lives of Black people truly matter. Her first book, When They Call You a Terrorist, was released in 2018. Here she talks to Akiba about the genesis of her community organizing.
How did you get into organizing?
Aww, the good old days. Let’s see. I grew up in Van Nuys, a working-class suburb of LA made up of mostly undocumented Latino immigrants, some Black folks, and some poor White people.
I was very concerned about the environment in elementary school and middle school. I think I adopted a whale in elementary school, and I was concerned with animals going extinct. At the time, the environmental movement had the best stronghold on messaging around organizing and activism.
I learned my actual organizing skills at a social justice camp up in the mountains of California when I was sixteen. The camp was run by National Conference for Community and Justice. We had seven days of training in a “tolerance” curriculum. But I wanted an action component to that. At one point during my training as a youth leader, I asked a group I was working with, “Do you take on the police?” They said, “No, we’re an environmental justice group.” I said, “Okay, I’ll take it.”
Still, no matter how much I tell people I’ve been a skilled strategist for fourteen or fifteen years, people don’t see it. I think it’s because I’m a woman, am Black, and it’s a more exciting thing to imagine, “Oh, you popped up out of nowhere!”
People don’t understand that organizing isn’t going online and cussing people out or going to a protest and calling something out. That’s the most visible shit; we’re not putting our boring-ass meetings on social media.
How do you define an organizer versus an activist?
Organizers are strategists. We are a part of producing and building the campaign. Activists are showing up to the things that organizers plan, signing the petitions, going on social [media] to promote the action. Sometimes organizers are activists as well—they can be out front and work behind the scenes.
Can you talk about the importance of telling your own story?
As Black Lives Matter—the brand of BLM—grew, it didn’t follow us. God forbid Black women are behind something huge. So I made an executive decision when the Melissa Harris-Perry show did a panel about BLM without inviting me or [cofounders Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi]. It was like, “Nah, that’s not going to work this time. We’re Black women; we know the story of being erased.”
We’re forty years in and just now really talking about Ella Baker. That’s no dis to MLK, but goddamn. Hundreds of Black women did work for the March on Washington. And after women did that work, [male organizers] decided that women weren’t going to speak. So I decided that this time patriarchy was not going to rule the land. Or at least we were going to compete with it.
Why do you think patriarchy is still so appealing to us?
We are wired for patriarchy. It’s how our bodies work. It’s not even in our minds. It’s in our belief system. We still believe in Black men more than Black women. That’s how you get a man as a “leader” of BLM. At least MLK actually was a leader! We need a culture shift.
How do you cope with being forward-facing when people take shots at your work?
This work takes an extreme amount of restraint, and it’s very lonely, very isolating. Sometimes I want to go on social media and go the hell off, but then I go call somebody. It takes community support, a commitment to what’s bigger. And I try not to feel sorry for myself. I literally have a centering practice, Jordan somatics. It looks like being able to wake up and sit on the edge of my bed, standing up and taking deep breaths and healing into the deepest parts of me. I remember that I’m human and doing the best that I can. I keep it in perspective by keeping my oldest homies close, people who aren’t a part of the movement. That gives me grounding and perspective.
What makes you proud about the work of BLM?
That we did something different than I would say the old guard did. We were talking about trans Black people, about police violence against Black women. We were looking at harm and violence inside of the Black community. For us, every victim is special and important, no matter their past. We’ve got to tell a different story about Blackness.
For Christopher Rashad Green, organizing is about redemption.
He was sixteen years old the first time he was arrested.
“At fifteen, I was an honor roll student attending a college prep program on the campus of Rutgers University. On my sixteenth birthday, I was locked up. Six months. That’s how fast it happened,” says the Plainfield, New Jersey, native. “Looking back now, I still ask, How did that happen? Some of the members of my clique turned south, and I went south with them. Trying to fit in, I was making poor decisions, shooting heroin. And then I was locked up. Altogether, I’ve put about fifteen years in on this installment plan.”
After more than a dozen years in and out of prisons in New Jersey, New York, Texas, and Virginia for a series of addiction-related infractions, he’d had enough.
On May 20, 2010, at 11:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, police took Green into custody, and he decided that it would be his last time behind bars. “I can’t explain it, but within forty-eight hours I just had this resolve. I just knew that I would never come back,” Green says of his last three-year bid. “I said to myself, My reentry program starts now. I’m not going to wait to get to the end of my bid, I’m going to start it right now.”
And so he did.
He connected with mentors, joined a rehab program, started journaling—anything to prepare himself for the task of getting out and staying out. As he worked on himself, one word kept coming back to him: “service.”
“I would only be successful in life if I served other people. That was the message I got. I didn’t hear any voices or anything like that. But that, within my studying, that was the word that jumped out,” he said. “I tried to dissect it, and it came to me. I would never be successful, anywhere in life, until I figured out a way to serve.”
These days, Green is an organizer with the progressive nonprofit New Virginia Majority. He first attended a meeting in the fall of 2015, just as he was toying with the idea of getting his voting rights restored. “I hooked up with New Virginia Majority, and they were addressing the restoration of rights. It was just a perfect fit,” he says. “From that point on, I became pretty much the face of restoration of rights for New Virginia Majority.”
After volunteering for two years, he was hired as an organizer, focusing primarily on voter registration and restoration of rights, which means he does everything from knocking on doors to lobbying the state’s General Assembly members. “The role seems like it was carved out for me,” says Green, who is now based in Richmond, Virginia. “It keeps me alive.”
He sees his biggest task as helping Black people in his community push back against the idea that they don’t matter. “So many people, when we try to register them, say, ‘It’s not going to change anything. My vote’s not going to matter.’ And I say, ‘No, it does matter, brother. Because it’s not just about voting. It’s about being involved.’ I share my story with them, try to encourage them to jump in,” he says. “And then look what happened here in Virginia last year: the balance of power in the General Assembly was decided by one vote. One vote.”
- "A timely and important work to support, educate, nourish, and sustain us all in resisting the lethal effects of white supremacy."—Kimberlé Crenshaw, Professor Law, Columbia Law School and University of California, Los Angeles
- "How We Fight White Supremacy is a brilliant, beautiful, and politically urgent text. This carefully curated collection masterfully explores the nuances, contours, and contradictions of a world in which Whiteness continues to define our social reality. Moving beyond rigid analysis or self-indulgent storytelling, this book offers us an impressive range of academic, political, and personal takes on White supremacy. More importantly, the book gives us permission to dream, think, organize, and struggle for a world outside of it."—Marc Lamont Hill, author of Nobody: Casualties of America's War on The Vulnerable from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond
- "How We Fight White Supremacy is the primer America needs right now! White supremacy is hardly new, but each generation needs to be reminded of the strategies of resistance and resilience that have made African American struggle so powerful and effective. Every American who cares about protecting the future of our country against the inhumanity of racist oppression should read this book today!"—Michael Eric Dyson, New York Times bestselling author of What Truth Sounds Like
- On Sale
- Dec 3, 2019
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