We’ll never create a freer future by role playing the past

By Jess Krug

We call ourselves organizers; we not-so-secretly believe we are revolutionaries. We participate in elaborate historical re-enactments of fantasies about good and evil produced in high definition and surround sound by the very structures we proclaim we oppose.

We describe people as “the masses,” while snarling defenses of our own working-class cred. We imagine and execute Serve the People programs, never once asking what or how people want to be served.

We chisel invectives against Fascism, against Imperialism, against Neo-Liberalism, onto the surface of each and every objectionable and violent incident, as if labeling them and meaningfully opposing them are equivalent.

What are we doing, and what, truly, do we want to be done?

***

Every generation has looked to the past for inspiration, guidance, and vital shortcuts to reinventing the wheel. Fidel Castro called himself finishing José Martí’s work, and Hugo Chávez left a seat for Simón Bolívar in his cabinet meetings. The Panthers talked about the Garveyites, and the ghost of Albizu haunts any gathering of three or more Puerto Ricans.

The Dique 1)Dique is perhaps the single greatest two-syllable contribution to critical thinking in human history.  Familiar to any Black Spanish speaker from New York or the Caribbean and beyond, it can be translated as “supposedly” or “s/he/they claim.”  It instantly reflects not only a profound skepticism about the statement, but also about the reliability of the person making the claim and their relationship to the speaker, and maps an elaborate topography of (dis)trust and fractured intimacy.  Combined with the Black English speaking “nah,” it says everything that needs to be said and everything that is already known. Radical Left intoxicates itself in this way, day after day, strategy meeting after strategy meeting, poorly sourced reposted TeleSur article after TeleSur article. As the veil of innocence on the world of knowledge and information shreds, finally, and more people concern themselves with separating real from fake news, a serious conversation about the nature of knowledge, history, and politics is far from abstract and long overdue.

Revolution is not scalable, and a language of resistance subject to the torture of translation becomes yet another buttress for hierarchy. The Dique Radical Left devotes itself to rigidly drawing and policing the borders of Authentic Imagined Revolution, always in sepia-toned deference to a past so pure that it achieved nothing to save us from what we now face–what we’ve been facing.

What lesson can we learn from martyrs on how to live, and what do lessons on dying do for us? Political work that is seriously concerned with the nature of how we understand who we are and what we know means asking a lot more questions, questions of why.

Why do we continue to view the violence towards women and femmes in our communities as secondary to politics? How can we learn about systems of community care outside of the state and the nonprofit industrial complex from women and femmes who save each other from being tortured and murdered by partners on the daily?

Why does the misogynistic and laughably inventive history and science of Hoteps and the Ankh Right continue to appeal to so many of us? How can Hotep’s absolute rejection of white supremacy be brought into dialog with a fearless engagement with the particulars of global Black histories and politics, in all of its gendered textures? What would we gain from this that we lose in our current approach?

What can the embodied politics of sex workers towards our bodies and knowledge do for a liberatory body politics that no amount of Sex Positive Theorizing can do?

Why do so many remain preoccupied with making space for white people? What kind of future could this engender? What do they fear that we lack in our own people, and how can we know, fully, finally, and completely, that we are enough, that we are and have everything we need for our own freedom right here? That the answer is and has always been in the spoken and unspoken language of those without names and faces in the fetish of history.

This approach does not hold a bull horn. It does not call itself “organizing,” as if people are carelessly discarded objects that need to be arranged to suit the desires of the obsessive compulsive fantasies of power. It cannot value form over function, cannot be preoccupied with not alienating those whose existence is predicated on rendering us aliens, and cannot continue to speak of “outreach,” “political education,” and “agitation propaganda (agitprop),” as if floating above a swirling sea of ignorance waiting to be ignited by the flailing constructs of bureaucrats from other times and continents.

It cannot be rooted in notions of inclusion – and the inherent dynamics of power that entails – but must think instead to defense. No one ever wins a street fight by leaving their face open.

***

Romantic eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century notions of “the people,” “the masses,” and “the worker” that enshrined a white(ish) peasant or factory laborer as the aspirational subject of a new political order were already bloody fantasies at their inception, and they have not aged well. Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, the Puerto Rican jíbaro, Rosie the Riveter: they represent the dark yearnings of white nationalism, and the equally sinister imagination of those who call themselves wanting to undo the white capitalist nationalist order.

There is a fundamental historical and political disjuncture between the fantasies and machineries of state and the dreams and labor for our freedom. Re-imagining ourselves as a more noble casting of the same roles does little to re-orient what is already part of the architecture of nationalism: our disappearance.

Jamaican sociologist Orlando Patterson’s (in)famous formation of slavery as social death reflects what was always the desire of the slavemasters, but never the reality of our ancestors. Far from socially dead, we were also always very much politically and intellectually alive, and it is that life that has always and will always present the greatest threat to the statecraft of death.

Mass incarceration, drone assassinations, gentrification, gang raids, a politics of respectability: all variations on a theme of disappearance. As we critique Patterson, we should ask ourselves: are we alive now? Is it enough to breathe through an era of chokeholds? Or does our social and political life require greater imagination, greater action, to breath into existence a world where we can be and live, unmarked by qualifications and caveats? How do we understand ourselves and the floating target of “the people” in this work?

“The people” are and have always been us, and our consciousness of ourselves has never been primarily shaped by the bargains we make and break with capitalism and state to survive. Our experiences on the daily grind and our struggles for survival inform the choreographies of our resistance, but they do not and have never defined us.

The notion of “the people,” singular, indistinct, dusty, and fetishistic, is a barrier to meaningful political work that cannot be destroyed by shuffling around terminology. “The people” is a mannequin made of humble-brag, half-digested elitism, and seven generations of poverty porn. It bears as little relation to our curves and wonders as storefront mannequins bear to our bodies.

We don’t need a new way to say “the people.” Just as those who continue to speak of the politics of the world outside of Europe as inevitably “tribal” do not become instantly legitimate by replacing “tribe” for “ethnicity,” a mere shift in terminology without a painstaking examination of the power animating the words changes nothing.

We need an entirely new relationship between ideas and action, one modeled not on translation or representation but springing from action. Action based on a system of politics and an imagination not bent on verifying and validating itself through the very institutions built on our bones.

There are great swaths of land owned mostly by multinational corporations, where people from other regimes, terrified and terrorized, pick the produce we consume under the light of an increasingly deadly sun. An important movement of indigenous farm workers striking, organizing, and fighting for unbelievably little from giant corporations that are structurally indistinct from plantations has been going on for over four years, and aside from some tepid consumer choices, few noticed.

There are some under the rule of this regime of terror who manufacture goods, many of them facing the same conditions our ancestors died to end more than a century ago. The strikes by state hostages in 2016 – already a distant echo for most on the outside, even as they were happening – came and went with only escalating violence towards us on the inside.

These are farm workers. These are industrial workers. Those wielding today’s hammer and sickle are largely Black and/or indigenous. Those wielding today’s hammer and sickle are not, by and large, free, even under the nominal and misleading definition of freedom under capitalism. If we pay rhetorical and symbolic homage to the hammer and the sickle and learn nothing from those non-rhetorical, non-symbolic people whose lives and labor are ordered by the hammer and sickle, we believe in an economy of knowledge and authority that also buttresses the very structures we call ourselves committed to dismantling.

As I weigh these relative silences with the unavoidable, unending, never-evolving cornucopia of concern about the role of white people in the struggle for our freedom, I again return to the connections between relationships, memory, being, and action. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are, whether as individuals, as communities, or as nations, inevitably shape how we move. If “the people” remain sacred and distant, then “the movement” remains romantic and doomed.

***

Over the last decade, as dementia has thieved away to nothingness the woman who raised me, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the relationship between memory, knowledge, and being. My grandmother taught me how to ask questions as my grandfather showed me how to tell stories. In losing her, after having lost him already, I question if I still exist.

As I’ve watched my grandmother fade away more completely than death, it has become clear to me that knowledge is not something we can possess. It’s not something we can gain or lose. It’s something we make, every minute, through our relationships and interactions.

My grandmother isn’t losing her memory, she’s losing her capacity to connect to other people. There are neurological descriptions of this process and I won’t contradict them for a pithy meme.

But we know that what we create from love is different than what we create in isolation. This is true for painting. This is true for music. And this is surely true for the most vital artistic pursuit of all – forging a world that means freedom for us. Creating us.

This isn’t a Turn the Other Cheek love. It’s not an Incense and Flowy Caftans love. It damn sure isn’t Meditative Moments of Individualistic Indulgence love. It’s not a love borne of amnesia. It’s not Love the Debt Canceller. It’s a love that we glimpse, for a fleeting moment, when we can no longer distinguish between our own breath and our lover’s.

Knowledge can’t come from anywhere outside of us and it does not require any outside validation. Hip-hop does not need to be measured in Langston Hughes’s shadow; bomba is not ballet; tagging requires no museum showing; our work inside and outside prisons is neither illuminated nor aided by questionable linkeages to colonial institutions in an imagined Africa. Lorde help us, if we continue trying to discern what tools do and do not belong to the master, we will drown with our ankles chained to our dreams of freedom.


Jess KrugJess Krug is an unrepentant and unreformed child of the hood. Whether dancing, doing research around the world, or teaching, movement is her first language. Much of her time, energy, and all of her heart are consumed in the struggle for her community in El Barrio and worldwide, whether against the violence of the state as manifest by police, the encroaching colonialism of gentrification, or around issues of community health and environmental justice. She teaches, writes, and is an organizer with Harlem Copwatch and works with Revolutionary Fitness. In the end, she firmly believes that everything works better when remixed to bachata.

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1. Dique is perhaps the single greatest two-syllable contribution to critical thinking in human history.  Familiar to any Black Spanish speaker from New York or the Caribbean and beyond, it can be translated as “supposedly” or “s/he/they claim.”  It instantly reflects not only a profound skepticism about the statement, but also about the reliability of the person making the claim and their relationship to the speaker, and maps an elaborate topography of (dis)trust and fractured intimacy.  Combined with the Black English speaking “nah,” it says everything that needs to be said and everything that is already known.
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