This piece was originally published in 2018.
When Southerners on New Ground (SONG) launched initially in 1993, it was the only community organization dedicated to supporting racial and economic justice for queer and trans people in the South. The organization is now celebrating its 25th anniversary alongside a whole coalition of queer Southern justice organizations it now collaborates with.
Mary Hooks has served as co-director of the organization for the last two years, and has been an organizer for SONG since 2011. In that time, she's helped lead national campaigns like the Black Mama's Day Bailout, which raised funds to post bond for 64 Black mothers and caregivers, and pushed for longer-standing goals of ending deportation, incarceration and capitalism. Her journey into organizing work in the South has taken her through the Black Pentecostal church, parenthood, a Masters of Business Administration program, and ultimately into a southern gay bar where she met a woman who recruited her to work with SONG.
Mary spoke with Scalawag about SONG's work to create "beloved community" that respects queer and trans people of color enough to stop jailing and deporting them. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Gabrielle Hernandez: Maybe let's start off with a softball – how do you define white supremacy?
Mary Hooks: Oof. A part of me is saying I need to look at SONG's definition, but white supremacy is an ideology that white people, particularly white men, are inherently superior than everyone else, and it is practiced and exercised through systemic, cultural, social economic, and all the other spheres of power through colonization, imperialism, capitalism…I don't want to give you the whole rambling list.
"We see [white supremacy] in who is valued in terms of the mainstream LGBTQ community, what stories are valued, what stories get centered, what resources are shared and spent."
GH: How do you see white supremacy show up in your community?
MH: It's alive and well. We see it particularly through our work addressing police and state violence. We see it in the way systems keep people in cages, in the prison industrial complex.
As an LGBTQ organization, we certainly see it in the way our bodies are shamed, the way our sexualities are shamed and denied bodily and sexual sovereignty. I think it's interesting—we have white supremacy that rears its ugly head that's internal to movements. We see that in who is valued in terms of the mainstream LGBTQ community, what stories are valued, what stories get centered, what resources are shared and spent. We also see that externally in the way we see the murders of Black trans women, who by the way are primarily killed by Black heterosexual cis men, but patriarchy is a tool of white supremacy.
I think probably the most public instance in the last year or so has been [North Carolina's House Bill 2] bathroom bill. Those of us who are LGBTQ, who live at the intersections of race and class, the dismantling of DACA, the dismantling of the voting rights bill—those are ways in which white supremacy impacts LGBTQ folks that are Black, brown, people of color.
GH: Working for social change isn't an individual effort––who do you roll with?
MH: SONG all day, yo. SONG all day. SONG is my political home. I joined as a member in 2009 when I met a woman in a bar—bar outreach really does work. SONG is not only a political home for myself but thousands of queer and trans folks. We don't necessarily use this language often, but our values and principles are rooted in black feminist politics and a practice of that. We started in the 1990s when that language wasn't even a thing, and here we are now.
We think we're stepping into a social club or a job. The movement is a different ball game, and it requires something different from all of us. It's sacred and its special, and we should approach it as such.
We don't believe one organization can win the revolution. We are a movement building organization, and believe we must be in the right relationship with organizations that are on Team Justice. Some coalitions and alliances are short and for a specific project, and then there are other relationships where there's a different level of political alignment and shared vision that allows for a relationship to be grown, and for SONG, over decades.
GH: What are y'all working on right now to fight white supremacy?
MH: One of the things we really identified to fight white supremacy is building up the leadership of our people. We've been turning up and building the skills of our members and our member leaders. That's always been a critical part of our work.
We are abolitionists. We believe that we can live in a world that does not have cages, and we can find a way to care for each other and practice beloved community. We're trying to take down the prison system piece by piece. Our entry point in that is to stop deportation, melting ICE (see that little play on words?), and ending the money bail system. Some of our recent work has been the national Black Mama's Day Bailout. There were consequent bailouts that followed that that we were able to spearhead with a national coalition. That's a tactic that we use to raise the crisis and embody the mission of abolition right now, but also to end and abolish money bail right now.
We have our communications work that is always important, not just so we can do like 'this is what we're doing' stuff. It's part of our movement building imperative that we share the lessons that we're learning, that we share out our mistakes as an offering to other organizations as we try to plow out a path to liberation.
We're a membership-based organization, and so bringing people together from across the region is critical to our work. We have convenings that allow us to bring sets of our members together to do strategic planning, build shared analysis and develop shared work where possible. We have our annual Gaycation, which is one of the many things we're known for, which is a rowdy debaucherous inter-generational time that allows us to come together in the woods. We take care of each other's babies, cook together, we've had members that teach each other things…it's a way for us to engage.
Needless to say, we do the most.
GH: What do you think it's going to take in the long-term to eliminate white supremacy?
MH: Real talk, white supremacy isn't going to fall unless we are committed to anti-capitalism. Capitalism has to fall. Antiblackness and addressing that has to fall. Patriarchy, my god. If we can dismantle patriarchy and capitalism, we might be onto something. The heart of colonialism is patriarchy, the need to own, as opposed to having the right relationship with the land.
I think it's Grace Lee Boggs who talks about how the current world that we're in, in order for revolution and a different world to come about, we're going to have a realignment and a shifting of our values. We'll have to be willing to lose our material positions and we'll have to sacrifice those for a greater spiritual good that we all will benefit from.
We are abolitionists. We believe that we can live in a world that does not have cages, and we can find a way to care for each other and practice beloved community.
I use the bailout work as a beautiful example of that. One of the things we do in SONG is being willing to be transformed in the service of the work. People gave money literally out of their ashtrays to this cause, which sparks something in someone. It creates that little tingle in your heart. You know you're doing something that's right. Giving to a stranger, going out of your way and doing what you've got to do because you know that stranger, their destiny is deeply connected to your destiny and everyone else's.
It's not just the concrete issues we take on but the spirit in which we do it. I think that really makes it tangible. It makes it real.
GH: What advice do you have for folks who want to get involved?
MH: I think it's people's orientation to say, 'What do I want to do for the movement?' That's the wrong question. The question is, 'What is the movement calling me to do?' because the movement is greater than us. There's always been a social justice movement happening. Come on in, help, get on board, put your hands to the flow, take some direction, be humble, ask questions. All of those things I think are critical and a sign of folks who are willing to be transformed in the service of the work.
It's something we have to constantly remind ourselves of. We think we're stepping into a social club or a job. The movement is a different ball game, and it requires something different from all of us. It's sacred and its special, and we should approach it as such.