If you ask activist and author Charlene Carruthers whom she hopes will read her new book, she’ll mention teenagers and veteran activists—but first on her list is black women and girls.
“My greatest hope is that black women and girls love this book, and appreciate this book. Because if black women and girls like it and love it, then everybody else will ... if we’re into it, and we take it up, then that means we’re fighting for everybody, because that’s what we do. Even if we’re not perfect and we don’t get it right all the time, I’ve seen us be more receptive to change than any other group of people,” Carruthers says.
The national director of the BYP 100 is quick to emphasize that “black women” includes all black women—and femme folk, too. She explains by paraphrasing the famed Combahee River Collective statement (pdf):
“[Because] if black women were free, it would require the dismantling of so many systems of oppression that everybody else would be free, as a result.”
Carruthers is a clear descendant of the American black radical feminist and activist traditions. As she speaks with The Glow Up about her work, she refers to Audre Lorde and Ella Baker as if they were personal mentors or beloved aunties—which in a way, perhaps they were, as Carruthers came of age and into her own activism in the historic “Back of the Yards” neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.
“When I was coming up, there were very few options for books or resources that were written by organizers about how to organize. Ella Baker didn’t write a book on how to do community organizing and movement building. And so, just like Toni Morrison said, ‘if there’s a book that you want to read and it hasn’t been written, you need to write it,’” Carruthers says.
That book is Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist mandate for Radical Movements, published on Tuesday by the Beacon Press. Reflecting on the history of black radicalism and her own nearly 14 years as an activist and community organizer, Carruthers began to envision and strategize about what the next phase of the black liberation movement could look like, were it centered on the strategies and history of not only black radicalism, but black radical feminism and LGBTQ movements. Because as she tells us, it’s the work of those at the intersection that can best inform our way forward.
“It’s not just about: ‘We need to talk about about women, we need to talk about queer folks, we need to talk about trans folks.’” Carruthers explains. “We need to look to their work—historically and currently—because it puts us in a position to tell more complete stories. And when we tell more complete stories, we’re able to craft more complete solutions”
In Unapologetic, Carruthers offers up several solutions of her own, in the form of three major commitments she feels are key to our liberation:
Carruthers advises following in Baker’s tradition of developing group-centered leadership, rather than our traditional (and often problematic) focus on a few charismatic and highly visible leaders. In her opinion, a widespread approach is a more realistic and productive means of developing leadership in the movement in multifaceted ways.
“As someone who has been visible, I understand what that can be like and how that can feel. But there’s an impulse for people to want to look for the next Martin Luther King, Jr., the next Malcolm X—Angela Davis is still living and breathing, and people are still looking for another one of her, as well.”
Speaking to what can only be described as the PTSD of activism—particularly for those consistently on the front lines of protests and face-offs with the police and armed forces—Carruthers says activists need to provide and seek out restorative care, or “healing justice,” to cultivate accountability and prevent burnout and toxic behavior.
“Particularly as black folks, we show up with our entire selves to this work. And that includes our traumas, our pain, the violence we experience, the fear, and also our resilience, our joy, and our genius. ... [W]hat does it look like for us to actually build a movement that promotes self work and community care?”
Pointing to her own recent experiences in neighborhood demonstrations in aftermath of the killing of Harith Augustus by the Chicago Police Department—which she says included multiple attacks and assaults by responding officers, and subsequent community support from the South Side’s Haji Healing Salon—Carruthers is emphatic that space to recover is a vital component of resistance.
If there’s a motif to Carruther’s thesis, it’s that folks should stop being polite and start being clear about what we want and how we hope to achieve it, rather than what she perceives as “band-aid solutions” and a pervasive “sense of liberalism and not being direct about what’s happening.” In her view, this involves seeing the world both as it is and as we hope to build it, and understanding that the work of liberation involves living somewhere in between.
“I think one of our strengths overall in the black community is that we can be direct about what we think and what we feel. Being honest, being upfront, being direct and actually being really clear about what it is that we want is nothing short of transformation, [but it] is a challenge, because we are oftentimes met with reforms that actually don’t shift our conditions into the types of conditions that we truly want to live in.”
Carruthers concedes not everyone is equipped to be a frontline activist; but she is clear that we can each find our place in the movement by asking a few simple questions: What are your experiences? What do you care deeply about? And what is it that you have the capacity to do? She again refers back to Baker when she asks, “Who are your people? The answer to [that question] can tell you what you’re best positioned to do, who you’re connected to and who you should be in relationship with.
“What we have to really do is ask ourselves the question of what is it that we’re really trying to build here? ... [A]re we really ready to win? Are we really ready to live in this world where we’re all able to live in our full dignity, where we govern ourselves? And if we’re not ready for that, what are we doing to get there?
“We all have a role in this work. You could be an artist. You could be a childcare worker. You could be a teacher, a farmer; you could be an engineer, you could be an attorney. There’s so many different roles, and you don’t have to be the person that shows up to the protests [or] on the frontline in order to make a meaningful contribution to the movement,” she says.
Most important, Carruthers is invested in transformation—specifically, the transformation of power dynamics. And perhaps the most radical part of her approach is how clearly and emphatically she states that we can’t indulge in oppression if we hope to escape it.
“[Transformation] doesn’t mean black capitalism. It doesn’t mean race-first strategies, and it doesn’t mean where some people have to wait their turn. What we want has to be about all of us or none of us, as Fannie Lou Hamer said. ... That requires the dismantling of multiple systems of oppression: capitalism, patriarchy, anti-Blackness and white supremacy—and then all of the babies of those things, like ableism, homophobia, transphobia—all of those things. Those have to be a part of the North Star if we’re going to be serious about liberation.”
But while her approach may be radical, Carruthers insists it isn’t new, and that we all have much to learn from the work of our predecessors in paving the way forward.
“There’s a reason why somebody like me can do this work the way that I do it. It’s because Marsha P. Johnson did it first, because Audre Lorde did it first, because Ella Baker did it first—it’s because Joseph Beam did it first. ... It’s super-important to me that people know that the work that exists today is building on the black radical tradition. We didn’t create this work; we’re building on it.”