“What do you do when something is broken and can’t be fixed?”: Black political engagement in an anti-Black world

By Deanna Adams

Shortly after Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me was released to critical acclaim, I moderated a book discussion about it. During the talk, a self-proclaimed fearless Black man asked an engineer in the room, “What do you do when something is broken and it can’t be fixed?”

The engineer, another proud Black man, repeatedly exclaimed, “I’m an engineer! We fix things! We don’t stop until we find a solution!”

The fearless Black man, unimpressed, repeated the question at least three times. “But what if it can’t be fixed?”

After much back and forth, I piped up, laughing incredulously and answered the original question logically: “Destroy it! If you can’t fix it, you must destroy it and start over!”

The United States cannot be fixed.

The United States of America cannot be fixed.

This country was built on Indigenous genocide and slavery. Its founders instilled a sense of manifest destiny and American exceptionalism into its foundations that is still felt today. But America is not exceptional, and it never has been.

Americans have done interesting things, sure, but we are hardly the only inhabitants of Earth to innovate. Meanwhile, the white supremacist system of government established here has caused hundreds of years of pain and death, most often visited upon Black and Brown bodies. What exactly are we trying to salvage?

This political system was designed to kill Black and Brown people. The election of the current president should be a wake up call to many of us who thought we could change things if only we got a seat at the table. Just eight years ago, President Obama won a seat at the highest table in the land. Hope and change were imminent, yet here we are, fighting the same battles as before he took office.

Perhaps I’m just tired of fighting day-in and day-out with no substantive change occurring. Great efforts were made during the Civil War, Reconstruction, The Civil Rights Movement and today, so why are Black people still so enormously and disproportionately affected by poverty, harsh disciplinary policies in schools, harsh sentencing policies in court, lack of educational resources in our communities, gentrification driving us out of our communities and that’s just for starters? What, exactly, is a new generation of Black political leaders going to do that the previous generation couldn’t accomplish? Will they be more unapologetic? Will they speak louder and refuse to be “respectable?” Will they demand more?

But our ancestors were already unapologetic, refusing to be respectable and already demanding freedom. Contrary to what those who proclaim they are not their grandparents say, previous generations of civil rights activists were not all docile. Plenty of firebrands lived in every era of struggle since we were brought to this country, and it would be wise to honor them.

The problem didn’t lie with their inability to fight, it lay with the fact that this country was built to subdue them. From inception, this country has been rotten in its treatment of non-white, non-Anglo-Saxon Protestant males, and quite beneficial to the WASPs that fit the desired mold.

I’ve understood for a long time that no matter what we do, how many offices we hold, how many white people laud our efforts, this country cannot be fixed because it is either broken beyond repair, or working as intended. Interestingly enough, both of those options can be true at the same time.

But this is not a call to just lay everything down and give up. This is a question: If this system was built to destroy us, is there really another way besides destroying it first?

Deanna Adams is the author of the blog “Musings on a Limb,” where she expresses her views as an African-American, atheist, and professional mom on subjects related to the intersectionality of racism and skepticism. She is a former board member of Houston Black Nonbelievers and currently serves on the board of Humanists of Houston. In her current role as Social Justice Liaison for Humanists of Houston, Deanna is working on bringing self-defense classes to marginalized groups, and supporting local activism. She has been a panelist for the Secular Social Justice Conference, and is featured in the article, “10 Fierce Atheists: Unapologetically Black Women Beyond Belief,” by Sikivu Hutchinson.

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  1. Wow
    Definitively said. And fair question in conclusion…

  2. Great piece! Please write more. You might enjoy this – http://sfbay-anarchists.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/frank-b-wilderson-iii-were-trying-to-destroy-the-world-antiblackness-police-violence-after-ferguson.pdf

    Your piece (and this current political moment) also reminded me of Robert Williams’s “Can Negroes Afford to Be Pacifists?”

    • Thank you so much! I’m glad you found meaning in my words. I will definitely read and reflect on Wilderson’s interview. Feel free to browse my blog at MusingsOnALimb.com for more thoughts.

      I’m personally not a pacifist due to our survival being contingent upon defending ourselves from state sanctioned violence, also.

  3. Great piece Deanna!

  4. This piece was amazing and well put.
    definitely can relate just because I am a black african american gay male & the harsh realities that I am faced with isn’t easy!
    I wrote an article on what it means to me on how to be a man and I would love for you to check it out & I would greatly appreciate your feedback 🙂

  5. I don’t understand this recent trend in writing of reducing black and brown people to black and brown ‘bodies’. I’m a person.

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