Making Majority: Majority Consciouness and Black Feminist Protest Poems
For the Raleigh Reclaimers
Nov. 3 2011
Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Let’s make some noise to stay warm out here!!! Make some noise if you are part of that 99% they keep talking about on the news! Make some noise if you love how our people in Oakland took over the highway and closed down a major port in their general strike yesterday! Make some noise if you grew up working class. Make some noise if you are queer. Make some noise if you are in college now or if you have a college degree. Take a deep breath and make some noise if you are a black feminist!!!!!!! And make some noise if you are a white person…
Yeah. Majority is complicated. And it can be exhilarating. And it can be facist. And it can tell the truth. And it can lie to our faces. The truth is that we are profoundly interconnected. We are bigger than ourselves. We are sharing something that we don’t know how to describe, right this second with all the people who live now and all the people who have ever lived. We are sharing something right now with every energetically linked piece of matter on the planet. We are huge. We are more than 99% we are cosmic eternal quantum dust crashing into itself. The vibration we just made from shouting is more than we can know it is.
At the same time, majority is complicated. I live in Durham, North Carolina. A majority people of color city with a majority white occupy movement. Majority is complicated. Because the tricky statistics of majority has been used as a tool of white supremacy to create norms for a long time, it is not merely a coincidence that one of the largest, most compelling, media-effective and participatory convergences of direct action that I have witnessed uses the colonizing military language of occupation. This is where white descendents of settler colonialists get off calling themselves native North Carolinians, for example. And this is an important question, not just of terminology, but also of mathematical understanding, because it is not merely a coincidence that the most marketable direct action we are participating in right now coincides with many actual imperialist occupations by the US around the world and the ongoing occupation of this land that something now called the United States stole through genocide. I’m a black feminist nerd, I teach about black feminist poetry and when it comes to our power, when it comes to our revolution I care a lot about what words we choose and what numerical reality we imply. But I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It matters to me that what makes folks love this movement of reclaiming our lives and protesting against the violence of capitalism is a deep and grounded energy, tapped into a planetary connection which is actually not the same thing as whatever energy has caused white people to believe that they are normal, straight people to believe that they are normal, middle class people to believe that they are entitled to whatever the abject poverty of women of color around the world and finger breaking work of working class people in this country invisibly buys us. These two things, the majorly transformative power of interconnected struggle and love and the majorly status quo affirming reproduction of normalcy, in my mathematical opinion , are not equal. They are not equally powerful. The first one just might get us the unimaginable world we deserve, and the other one will at best case get us back to the messed up place we were 5 years ago.
It is the statistically significant difference between saying. “Hey! I am part of the 99%. Everyone else is just like me and I am just like everyone else and I deserve the job and education I always thought I was entitled and damn the 1% fat cats for still being able to maintain what I always thought I deserved and could get if I worked hard enough and was smart enough and white enough and straight enough for long enough.” It is the difference between saying that and saying “I am part of this planet and I am interconnected with all life. I refuse to continue to contribute my energy to a system that is killing all of us. I refuse to consent to the fragmentation of capitalism and I commit to building power creatively with everyone and everything that is different to me towards our common survival which could also be called love. I am interconnected with everything and I am promising with my body to reclaim the truth. I am connected to you from a deeper palce than I can see and I am doing my best to act accordingly.”
Y’all see how these are not the same things? And I care about this movement. And so I am bringing what I love most into this conversation, that which has brought me most clarity and refined my actions. Also known as the longstanding intersectional super stars of keepin’ it complicated all days in all ways…I am bringing Black Feminist Poets into the mix, towards the movement we deserve. Drawing on a very different tradition of Majority Consciousness coming out of the anti-colonial movements in the Caribbean and in Africa and in Asia, Black Feminist in the United States were part of the third world consciousness raising movement, affirming the reality that the majority of the people in the world are people of color, the majority of the people in the world are women, and yet, the most consistently oppressed category of almost person on the planet is this same powerful group: women of color. So as you think about this, think about your interface with the movement of the 99% not so poetically called “occupy” and think about what the role of women of color has been in the segment of this movement that you have seen. Think about whether and how the absence, presence, form of labor, forms of leadership, interventions of women of color have been received by the false majority and whether that honors the majority of people in the world. On New Year’s day 1989 thinking about the prospect of a black presidential candidate to the White House (named Jesse Jackson), Black feminist lesbian warrior mother poet icon Audre Lorde felt compelled to bring out fractions. About how the US and USSR (at the time the main interlocuters in the debate about the destiny of the planet) were only 1/8 of the population, actually. And that African people were also 1/8 of the population and that ½ of the people in the world were Asian. Lorde breaks it down, slowing to the methodical tempo of white supremacy and then speeding up :
“So most people in this world/
are Yellow, Black , Brown, Poor, Female
And do not speak English.”
Most of you, probably all of you, know this intellectually. It goes without saying. So why does Audre Lorde bother to bring the math into it, in a poem, in English. The language I am using now, which as she points out most people on the planet do not speak. Because the question of majority is always at stake. This is why the “I am the 99% campaign” has been so important as a way of actually talking about the experiences of most of the people when television and the songs of the radio seem to come from the experiences of only the super-rich in order to encourage consumerism. If I were to believe the “I am the 99%” posts that I have seen on the internet it would seem that the majority of the people in the world have massive student loans. And while I certainly worked my way through college and took on major student loans in the process and I think it is very important to unpack meritocracy and throw off the shame that is associated with debt. We also have to remember privilege. It is not that the majority of people in the world are oppressed by student loans. The majority of the people in the world are oppressed by capitalism such that college is not an option. The majority of this generation of college students may have student loans, but these two things are not the same.
Because another important thing about Lorde’s poem is that she maintains difference. She is not arguing that everyone on the planet is the same, she is giving us the fractions. There is actually so much difference on the planet that is completely left out of the conversation. So the liberatory question is not how can we all lump together as the same thing, the real question is the one Audre Lorde asked in her essay on the creative power of difference, and which, incidentally Angela Davis, black feminist freedom fighter raised at the Wall Street encampment a few days ago:
"How can we come together in a unity that is complex and emancipatory? Differences must not be merely tolerated but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which poles creativity can spark like a dialectic."
And indeed, as many people before me have said the most important and exciting thing about this whole movement that we are participating in is that it truly has brought different people who are not generally in the same spaces and not generally speaking to each other, together in powerful ways, and asked all of us to be creative in our listening through the demands of direct democracy. It inspired Angela Davis to say last weekend that “The old majorities are the new majorities,” that there is something, awakened, referenced, remembered by this contemporary movement that precedes it, that the majority that we invoke is not simply the breakdown of American wealth among the living, but actually includes our collective ancestral power, including the power and resilience of the indigenous inhabitants of this land and including the power of the enslaved people who build and bled into this structure and loved anyway, and including all of those movement warriors who have burnt out, gotten sick and died, been killed via hate violence or by police. It means when we invoke majority we are also saying, we are all here, our mandate for changing the world is certainly bigger than those of us who have the time to be here physically and is bigger even than the combined bodies of those of us who have survived this system to this point. Our mandate to change the world is old and it honors our ancestors and it calls up their energy.
Nikki Finney, a black feminist lesbian poet from South Carolina believes that there is such as thing as ancestral rage. That oppression in the present not only disrespects and dishonors those of us living through it, but it also disrespects the work and truth and brilliance of those who came before us, who deserved better than what they experiences and who expect more from us than this. In her first collection of poems On Wings Made of Guaze, Finney has a protest poems that speaks out against the Atlanta Child murders, a rash of murders and disappearances of Black children in Atlanta, the city where I grew up, and where Finney lived at the time of the murders which began in 1979, the same year that closer to home in Greensboro, the KKK opened fire on economic and racial justice organizers at a rally in the middle of the day. Which is also the same year that in Boston 12 black women were found dead day after day in 3 short months. In each case the police did not respond to the murders as murders. In the case of the Greensboro massacre the people who were attacked were the ones brought up on charges. What does one do in a year like 1979 where the lives of black women, black children and black activists are so clearly devalued by the state, and how is it related to what we do this year, when Troy Davis is sacrificed to the right of police officers to threaten people to get false testimonies and to fulfill their so-called justice agenda by choosing an oppressed person to prosecute for any crime that happens? When those who are having to face the music about the low value of their lives are more and more of the population that used to feel safe and worthy all the time.
Nikki Finney invokes a majority constructed of time and the natural world to do something related to what we are doing here today and in the next couple of days when we move whatever little money we have out of the big banks and into the community credit unions, asking for a new set of accounts. In a poem that she dedicates to “the children of Atlanta, the children we claim who died, who are dying because they are Black….for the children whose lives we claim and whose deaths now claim us” Finney calls on a higher sense of balance and justice than what the world bank would use to classify debt and who is a drain on the system. For those, who like me, were not born yet in 1979, we have to remember that 1979 is the same year that Ronald Reagan won the presidential election with a campaign that centered on the characiture of the welfare queen and the untrue projection that the majority of people on welfare were black women who were cheats, that the primary beneficiaries were black children who were a drain on the national budget and didn’t deserve anything. It is a major year for the growth of what we now understand as global neoliberal capitalism, a system of debt-making in the name of restructuring on the planet. 1979 is also the year that the major institution that laid the groundwork for what we know of as the Radical Right was created, called the Moral Majority. See what I mean. Majority is complicated, and everyone invokes it when they feel like it So what kind of Major are we?
Nikki Finney calls on the world to witness the violence against Black children saying:
don’t ever come to us again
heart in hand
hoof in mouth
ancient eyes in full bloom
don’t even look this way
asking to replenished
to be restocked
we are paid in full
and for the next millenniums
incensed enough we are
until this world ends
and something else begins
paid up we are
tell your hands world
sign it out to your fingers
insist that your eyes remember
how this time
we have overpaid you
we owe nothing
pass this word on
to the rivers behind you
for the next one thousand years
we are paid in full
In the economic frame of 1979, this is a big deal. In fact in the current economic frame where most of us are in debt, and those of use who don’t have the credit to get any more debt are positioned to conceptually owe something to the society that profits off our lack of choices this poem is very revolutionary. Look at the violence we are experiencing, Finney’s poem says, what kind of balance is this? What kind of accountability. Forget it. We do not owe anything. Not only because our lives have been unjustly sacrificed in many ways, not only in honor of those ancestors who were forcibly removed from this very places, or those other ancestors who were forcibly brought to the place and built it for free without freedom, but also because we are beyond the economic calculations that make up our lives. We are more than a market. And as Finney’s poetics reveal, we persist beyond that which would crunch us into numbers as debt. The “We are” of the poem moves out the normal position within a sentence. In the second to last stanza of the poem she offers “incensed enough we are, paid up we are” instead of we are incensed enough, we are paid up. The “we are” the stubborn miracle of our existence, is still there, yoda like, after the descriptive action. And actually, the original construction that she starts with “we are paid” leaves poetic ambiguity about who we are actually , the first line “in full we are paid” is an archaic construction that leaves questions about what is the subject of the sentence. We, paid. Is paid an action, an adjective. Is full a place to be. Looking at Finney’s poem about reckoning accounts makes me wonder about the economic arguments we have been making from a poetic standpoint. We have been affirming that we are the 99%. Individualizing: “I am the 99%” Now is the time to look critically 99% percent we are. To truly examine what we are part of beyond the desperate gratitude of being part of something is the task before us. What is truly major about this, and how does it impact what we do. To use Nikki Finney’s language who claims us, where is the accountability that transcends how disgruntled we are about our bank accounts? Who do we honor with these actions?
What this movement is demonstrating is that where we place our bodies is a question of accountability, honor and claim. In Philadelphia and other places explicit solidarity with, and leadership by homeless Philadelphians who have been criminalized for claiming space in the streets has been crucial. What does it mean for people with homes to place their privileged bodies between the action of the police and the right of a homeless person to sleep somewhere. What does it mean for the outrage at police acts of repression and violence in several cities to be linked in the news media, in the form of images and focus, on the fact that so many white people are being arrested, so much of the population that the day before they became protesters, were inequitably over-served by the violence of the police against more traditionally oppressed communities? Tear gas canisters and billy clubs, rubber bullets and the training language among the police that the non-violent orchestrated protests around the country should be treated as riots? One way the Wall Street incarnation of this movement responded to some of these questions was to use the mass of people reclaiming the street create a direct action in Harlem, specifically challenging the violent racist practice of the police stopping and searching black people on the streets. June Jordan, black feminist poet with intimate and violent experience with the actions of the New York City police department, again invoked what I call black feminist math, the alchemy of poetry and proportions to look at the meaning of police violence, in one of her most famous poems; Poem on Police Violence:
On the heels of the acquittal of police officer Thomas O’Shea for the murder of a 10 year old unarmed black boy named Clifford Glover who was running away from O’Shea. The agreement by a jury that Thomas O’Shea was justified in his action because of how threatening black children are to grown white police officers with guns. Thomas O’Shea was recorded saying while his police radio was on: “die you little motherfucker” as he shot 10 year old Clifford in the back. In court he defended himself by saying “I didn’t see the size nor nothing else. Only the color.”
So June Jordan asks:
“Tell me something
what you think would happen if
everytime they kill a black boy
then will kill a cop…
you think the accident rate would lower
And she goes into the math of it;
“18 cops in order to subdue on man
18 strangled him to death in the ensuing scuffle (don’t
you idolize the diction of the powerful: subdue and
scuffle oh my) and that the murder
that the killing of Arthur Miller on a Brooklyn
street was just a “justifiable accident” again
How do we live in a world where our bodies are not equal. Where the life of a police officer and the life of a black child are not equal. Where to be honest, the white body of a college student and that body of color of a college student are not seen the same as police or school administrators. Where safety means different things for those of us who have survived sexual violence. Where the bodies of homeless people and the bodies of students, where the bodies of students and the bodies of workers do not balance out into any kind of equation. How do we use our privilege? Where do we place our bodies? Who should get arrested? Where should we stand in order to stand up for each other? Who should do what kind of work? 18 to one or one to one? Beyond Jordan’s propositions about proportions are the places where she falls out of rhythm and reveals that actually what a life is equal to cannot be quantified. It only be approached by poetry. She says
“sometimes the feeling like amaze me baby
comes back to my mouth and I am quiet”
“sometimes thinking about the 12th House of the Cosmos
or the way your ear ensnares the tip
of my tongue or signs that I have never seen
like DANGER WOMEN WORKING”
Our bodies are possible futures that end when we are sacrificed by the state or by each other. Amazement. Signs that we have never seen. Our bodies are places where love gets actualized and electrified. That one body that you live in, the body of a person that you love is not interchangeable with anything on a one to one or eighteen to one basis. How do we hold the math and the meaning together in a way that honors everyone here and everyone who is not here for any reason and everyone we remember and everyone we hope will be born. Majority is complicated.
And finally how do will fill this time, activate our purpose, understand the interconnected issues that my not be calculable into unpaid bills or percentages of debt to be decreased, or lost retirement savings or years left to work? How do we hold the ongoing violence of genocide in mind while insisting and benefiting from the language of occupation on stolen land? How do we account for the needs of the majority of us who are survivors or co-survivors of sexual violence and many other forms of trauma in an anarchist or directly democratic space like this. The last black feminist poem I will bring is Ntozake Shange’s With No Immediate Cause.
Where she reminds us what is going on in our society most of the time:
“every 3 minutes a woman is beaten
every five minutes a woman is raped
every ten minutes a lil girl is molested”
She goes through her day encountering the traumatic repetition of system violence, using the statistics generated by the movement to end violence against women to create another majority, the perpetual presence of violence, and the perpetual traumatic reawakening of survivors to the trauma they have experienced. As a survivor and a person who is horrified by any act of gendered violence, she has to wonder if each person she encounters participated in the routine practice of violence at some minute, three minutes ago or 30 years ago. And when she reads her newspaper outraged that they report:
“there is some concern
that alleged battered women
might start to murder
their husbands & lovers with no
We should think about those in this movement of the 99% who dismiss the concerns of survivors of sexual violence about what it means to truly create safety, not only from the police, but also within our progressive movement where gendered violence is still an issue as it is within all communities. We should think about what it means to dismiss those concerns in favor of more “immediate” priorities, like how to look badass and have an encampment. We should think about those who despite the critique of the language of occupation brought by indigenous activists and allies again and again feel like at this point the brand is more important than our outrage. That the immediate issue is the banks and that settler colonialism is an issue that is somehow over, when the land is still occupied, when genocide is a traumatic violence that we experience right now in the present through the continued disrespect and refusal to acknowledge indigenous presence and history all over this continent. And we should learn from Shange when in response to the nonsense about no immediate cause, and the administrative inconvenience that the self-defense of survivors of gendered violence would cause she says,
“I spit up I vomit I am screaming
we all have immediate cause
every 3 minutes
every 5 minutes
every 10 minutes
We have cause to stand up for each other. Immediately. And ethical majority, means acknowledging that time is full with reasons to listen to each other, to support each other, to transform ourselves towards true solidarity with each other across so many differences. Thank you for finding immediate cause to act on what you believe in. Thank you for filling your time with this experiment of how we can live and for how long together. For asking how solid our solidarity can be. You are more than 99%. You are the whole future. You are doing this in the sight of our ancestors and the trees that used to be here and the sun that could rise. And history will ask us what was this mostly about, will ask, while making major history, what kind of a majority did we make together? And when it adds up and we answer I hope all my black feminist ancestors and elders will be prouder than a math problem, proud like a poem beating in the middle of your heart, in the ground and all around. I hope you will be proud of who we were. This complicated majority. All of us.