The Three Commitments

We need to transform our priorities for Black liberation in the United States of America. The next 400 years of Black life in America requires everyday people fighting for their liberation, along with leaders and organizations. We can no longer withstand the brutal and entrenched attacks from political, cultural and corporate forces focused on trying to deny our humanity.

As I reflect on more than 15 years of my own Black feminist activism, I understand that there are three core commitments we must embrace to fortify transformative movements. These commitments are: 1) building many strong leaders; 2) adopting healing justice as a core value; and 3) combating liberalism through principled struggle. Each of these commitments requires consistent action, from the many, not the few.

I first wrote about these three commitments in my book Unapologetic: A Black, Queer and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements. While these concepts are not new, they are each woefully under-resourced and undervalued in movement spaces. These are meant to be aspirational goals, life and generations-long practices.

Ella Baker was well-known for saying “strong people don’t need strong leaders.”

Our movements are weakened and deemed much smaller than they are because of a lack of consistent investment in building strong leaders. Ella Baker, then the NAACP director of branches, was well-known for saying “strong people don’t need strong leaders.” This is often misunderstood as an argument against leadership. Baker was making a clear statement against organizations that favored exclusive models of leadership where the few, not the many, were developed. She practiced group-centered leadership, which is often practiced by women, disabled people and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning (LGBTQ+) collectives as well as other groups marginalized in Black communities. This type of leadership is deemed less valuable and is erased or under-recognized.

Building many strong leaders includes investing in rigorous political education and relationship-building. These efforts should have multiple entry points so that learning becomes a practice rooted in joy, not intimidation or condescension. Our people understand complex ideas, and our movement groups have a responsibility to create such learning spaces for all.

Those spaces created for leadership development can also be used for our collective healing. If everyone who shows up to do movement work is expected to be fully healed individuals, we would have no one to do the work. We have a duty to address our trauma, our pains and our hurt, alongside those of our ancestors. We need healing justice as a core organizing value.

As defined by Cara Page and the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective, healing justice “identifies how we can holistically respond to and intervene on generational trauma and violence, and to bring collective practices that can impact and transform the consequences of oppression on our bodies, hearts and minds.” This isn’t a passive set of practices. According to Prentis Hemphill, past Black Lives Matter Global Network

We have a duty to address our trauma, our pains and our hurt, alongside those of our ancestors. We need healing justice as a core organizing value.

Healing Justice director, “healing justice is active intervention in which we transform the lived experience of Blackness in our world."

Healing justice includes self-work that is coupled with community care. While no single organization can facilitate our individual healing, all organizations can devote resources (even if limited) to creating communities of care (group therapy, wellness services and healing-practitioner training). Many of us can take cues from addiction and recovery groups that consistently host meetings with the expectation that individual people still have to show their work.

Like trauma, healing can be passed down through generations. Fannie Lou Hamer was forcibly sterilized. Other Black women who have been forcibly sterilized and their remaining families require healing justice. The living relatives of Black people killed by police officers and vigilantes require healing justice. And those who showed up to demand justice, only to be met with more police violence, require healing justice.

Securing any level of justice requires struggle among human beings with varied backgrounds, values and ways of being. With struggle, there is conflict that can sow discord and has even led to violence.

The question we must ask ourselves is:

What do I want liberation to look like?

To fortify our relationships, organizations and movements must engage in principled struggle by combating liberalism.

I write in Unapologetic that liberalism “requires no specific commitment to collective work, justice, or transformation. It’s a breeding ground for indirect approaches and politics that are identity-neutral (unless you’re a cisgender White man) politics. Liberalism requires no ideological struggle for the sake of peace, and it means, if anything, pursuing moderate change [in order] to not to ruffle the feathers of too many people.” Liberalism in our movements creates chaos when we: 1.“Let things slide for the sake of peace and friendship when a person has clearly gone wrong, and refrain from principled argument.” 2.“Indulge in irresponsible criticism in private instead of actively putting forward one’s suggestions to the organization.” 3.“Say nothing to people to their faces but gossip behind their backs, or say nothing at a meeting but to gossip afterwards.” Black feminist and LeftRoots leader NTanya Lee created a framework for principled struggle that includes a central idea that our struggle must be for the sake of deepening our collective understanding. Her guidance: 1. Be honest and direct while holding compassion. 2. Have side conversations and one-on-ones to help us get to better and build us up, not to break us down. 3. Be responsible for our own feelings and actions. 4. Seek deeper understanding. (We ask and read first). 5. Consider that this (meeting, gathering etc.) may not be the container to hold what you need to bring. It will take a village, consistent time and skill-building to achieve mastery in any of these practices. But it is possible to build the collective muscle needed for principled struggle.

The question we must ask ourselves is: What do I want liberation to look like? If many hands played a role in sowing the resistance, those many hands will also be poised to build the world we want. If our people are well, they can show up with more joy and within their full dignity. And if we engage in principled struggle, the pervasive fragility stoked by internal and external forces will lose their strength.

Black people will exist 400 years from now. The task before us, as inheritors and actors within 400 years of struggle, resistance and resilience, is to chart a course so that future generations can live on different terrains. Each of us has a role in making that happen. My deepest desire is that our people will have more freedom and advance the global struggle for liberation so that joy becomes our birthright. In taking up these three commitments, we will be well-positioned to transform our world, honor the struggles and resistance of our ancestors, and create the world as it should be for generations to come.

— Charlene Carruthers is an activist and author.

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