It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
Today would have been Fannie Lou Hamer's 103rd birthday. She was born in Montgomery County, Mississippi in 1917, and worked as a sharecropper three counties west in Sunflower County. At 44 years old, having spent a lifetime wrangling the jaws of white plantation power, sexual exploitation, and more forms of violence with other Black women in her community, she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to mobilize a movement for Black political power through voting rights.
Even at that moment in 1962, at the beginning of her years' long fight for the ballot in Mississippi, which would grow into a fight for a new political party—the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party—to challenge the white dominated Democratic Party of Mississippi at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Hamer's own political vision for Black people extended far beyond any election or candidate. She knew it was far bigger, far more loving and just than anything the U.S. political system could offer.
She demonstrated that vision—a Black feminist vision—by linking the voting campaign to community care, providing food and clothing to the people with whom she connected across the state. Among other community-centered pursuits, in 1969, she founded the Freedom Farms Collective, 640 acres in Sunflower County intended to provide food and land security to Black people in the Delta region, many of whom had been systematically deprived of wages and evicted from their homes for political acts like registering to vote.
Hamer already knew in 1964 one of the lessons of the 2020 election—that voting is never sufficient for any vision of Black freedom in the U.S. And she knew that voting had some pragmatic possibility—like basic rights, public resources, harm reduction. When she died in 1977, at just 59 years old—after a lifetime of white supremacist abuses and inadequate healthcare—she left a model of politics that was always focused on creating possibilities for Black thriving outside of formal institutions, while taking nothing for granted in the existing system.
In honor of Fannie Lou Hamer, Scalawag hosted a conversation with four Black feminist organizers, writers, and scholars who are profoundly shaping current political conversations and social practices both within their communities and in electoral politics—Charlene Carruthers, Brittney Cooper, Rukia Lumumba, and Barbara Ransby.
These Black women intervened at critical points in the 2020 presidential election to influence the political platforms of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
In this conversation, Carruthers, Cooper, Lumumba, and Ransby draw on the legacies of Black women like Fannie Lou Hamer to illustrate Black feminist approaches to politics generally, and to electoral politics more specifically. In so doing, they offer us now‚ as Hamer did in the 1960s—a model for politics centered around a radical vision of a world where no one is disposable, and some practical strategies for how to get there.
Last November, Carruthers and Lumumba were leaders in Black Womxn For, a group of Black cis and trans women, non-binary and gender non-conforming activists, artists, writers, and political strategists who endorsed Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren for president. Cooper also publicly supported Senator Warren as the Democratic presidential nominee, and penned an article in Time Magazine about the importance of Elizabeth Warren's gender in the election, pushing back on suggestions that gender is incidental to leadership.
In February, Ransby joined other Black feminists Barbara Smith and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in a statement signed by over 100 Black writers and scholars to endorse Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders for president.
These interventions are part of a very long history of Black feminist organizing around electoral politics and voting, from Anna Julia Cooper in the 19th and early 20th centuries, to Hamer and Ella Baker during the Black freedom struggles of the mid-20th century.
Particularly at this world changing moment in human history, and at a point in our national election where conversation is more about what we need to survive than what will transform our lives in the direction of liberation, we at Scalawag thought it important to reflect on their critical and continued influence on politics driven by Black feminist thought both within and outside of our dominant systems of government.
Danielle Purifoy is the Race and Place Editor at Scalawag.
Jump to section:
- Barbara Ransby defines Black Feminism: "Definitions are always dynamic."
- Charlene Carruthers: "Black Feminism isn't solely the domain of people living in the United States."
- Rukia Lumumba: "Women make up the majority of the workforce, and the majority of the workforce hours of a day."
- Brittney Cooper: "Black people also don't get to walk away from electoral politics."
- Charlene Carruthers: "What kind of intervention do we want to make in the 2020 elections?"
- Barbara Ransby: "I am not a cheerleader for Joe Biden, or Kamala Harris, but I think they are lesser of lesser evils, and we need less evil in the world."
- What would it look like for Black feminism to be treated as a general approach to all politics?
Danielle: This is such a star panel, and we're thrilled to have you here. So first, let's define our subject today—Black feminist politics. What is Black feminism, and how does it shape your approach to politics?
Barbara Ransby: Okay. Well, I think definitions are always dynamic. So any definition is incomplete. But for me, Black feminism is a kind of holistic, radical politics of liberation that centers the liberation of Black women. But it's not exclusive to Black women.
Most notably, we center Black feminist politics around combating economic, racial, homophobic, transphobic politics that impact our lives. And so it is both a set of ideas and a practice. I think the holistic and radical inclusivity of Black feminist politics is its hallmark. But even within Black feminism, we have different takes, we have different schools of thought and so forth.
So, for me, Black feminist politics have guided a lot of my work for really the past, dare I say, 40 years. That's a long time. In really important ways, in linking issues of identity broadly, broadly, broadly defined to systemic change and understanding those systems and structures of society that we live in, that is racial capitalism, hetero patriarchy, and all kinds of the related institutions that bolster a kind of hierarchy of oppression. So first and foremost, I would say a holistic and radical politics of liberation that centers Black women.
Dr. Barbara Ransby is an historian, writer and longtime activist. She is a Distinguished Professor of African American Studies, Gender and Women's Studies, and History at the University of Illinois at Chicago where she directs the campus-wide Social Justice Initiative. Dr. Ransby is author of the highly acclaimed biography, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Her second book is Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson, and her most recent book is Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century.
Danielle: Dr. Ransby, you mentioned that there are various schools of thought around Black feminism. I'd like to invite the other panelists if you have any reflections on other angles that really informed your work around Black feminism?
Charlene Carruthers: To build on what Barbara shared so far, I think what's useful to add in thinking about Black feminist politics is that it's a politic that is not solely in the domain of what many people consider formal politics, or formal institutions. So Black feminist politics in the US, in Brazil, in South Africa, oftentimes engage with both a critique and a vision for governance for formal politics, and coalition building and even how we are with each other—intercommunity relations. And they also—Black feminist politics—have consistently also forwarded a vision about what the world should and could look like, while in this process of disrupting, critiquing and challenging the world as it is.
And so I think Black feminist politics, they are yes, oppositional; they're also visionary. And to continue to stretch on what Barbara said about there being a range of positions within Black feminisms—like they aren't just situated. While oftentimes the United States is privileged in the conversations about Black feminism, Black feminism isn't solely the domain of people living in the United States, and particularly the Black feminists that I look to, for both my ideas or theory and practice, have situated themselves as Third World feminists or pan-African feminists or transnational feminists, and they're seen as people both in struggle and experience that is connected to people all over the globe. And yes, it is centered with Black women and Black feminism, in my view and experience has provided and does provide a vision—in ideas, in practice, for people across gender experiences, particularly people with marginalized gender experiences.
Charlene A. Carruthers is a political strategist, cultural worker and PhD student in the Department of African American Studies at Northwestern University. As the founding national director of Black Youth Project 100, she has worked alongside hundreds of young Black activists to build a member-led organization of Black 18-35 year olds dedicated to creating justice and freedom for all Black people. She is the author of the book Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements (available in English and Spanish language).
Danielle: Thank you for that. And along the lines of thinking about the global reaches of Black feminist politics, one of the big critiques that I hear globally is around anti capitalism as a long, central tenet of Black feminism, famously articulated in the Combahee River Collective Statement in 1977. Why do you think a Black feminist critique of capitalism is still important, or even urgent in this moment?
Rukia Lumumba: First, I just want to say I'm very grateful to be sharing this space with these brilliant minds. You know, Barbara Ransby, Charlene Carruthers, and Brittney Cooper, it is really good to be in community with you. I haven't had the opportunity before. So I just wanted to first say thank you for that. I think that in all of our analysis, we have to include capitalism. It is central when we're talking about creating a new world, because we know that feminism is central to that, then we have to talk about capitalism, because to create a new world, we have to end capitalism. And we know that. And we know that because it is capitalism that consistently has been one of the root causes of harm across the globe. Harm not only to Black bodies, and female-oriented bodies, or identify as female oriented bodies, or women, but period. It has been harmful to the earth, it has been harmful to us. And so I think that we have to talk about capitalism and its global harms and how deep those harms are.
Listening to Barbara and Charlene talk about feminism, the other piece that I think is really, really important is to acknowledge the collective nature of what feminism provides and brings, and the importance of moving towards creating a system that centers feminism, using a collective process in so doing. And so, how do we begin to really look at our practice of feminism in a collective way that brings more people into the process? How do we begin even at our organizational levels, at our hyperlocal levels to begin to change and shape, shape how we engage in ordinary business, in order to exemplify what does it look like to now create governing structures that are rooted in feminism and particularly Black feminist thought. And so Black, queer feminist thought, as Charlene often teaches us, you know, and in so doing, I think we will began to take hold of also the notion of capitalism.
And when we talk about capitalism and the practical nature of it, we got to look at all of the ways capitalism impacts our ability to shift to a society that actually treats all of us good, right? That allows all of us to thrive. I mean, even when we look at our work day, and the labor market—how are we allowed to create an environment that allows all of us to engage in full participation in organizing and educating and being part of governing decision making process if we're always at work? And if we're always in a situation where we have to navigate our participation around our work day that is consistent and ongoing, and is based on our survival. So looking at how does that impact us and how—and the truth around the fact that women make up the majority of the workforce, and the majority of the workforce hours of a day. And so how is that impacting our ability to do anything else, but work? Right, we have to free up our time.
Rukia Lumumba is a lawyer and the founder and executive director of The People's Advocacy Institute, a community resource incubator for transformation justice in the global south, and the campaign manager for the successful Committee to Elect Chokwe Antar Lumumba for Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. She also co-leads the Electoral Justice Project as part of the Movement for Black Lives, and served as national coordinator of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, a membership-based organization dedicated to promoting human rights and self-determination.
Danielle: So this brings me to our subject today around electoral politics. A few of you have already articulated how there's this need to kind of move and transform beyond our existing system. So Brittney Cooper, why electoral politics? What does it offer in terms of a movement forward towards that kind of transformation that Black feminists have been fighting for, for so long?
Brittney Cooper: Thank you. I'm really honored to be in conversation with all of these deep and important warrior Black women thinkers. But look, part of the thing that I think we have to be saying, as we think about what a Black feminist project is, and I resonate with all of these definitions. But I, keep on sort of coming back to this idea that we have to name very specifically the system of patriarchy, that it's not just enough to talk about white supremacy, that it's not just enough to talk about capitalism, but it's about understanding that patriarchy is perhaps the original system that creates these structures of non personhood, that shape so much of our lives, that shape these kind of structuring hierarchies, where we determine who has value and why. And that gives us such problematic ideas about gender that we are continuing to have to fight and to struggle against. And as Rukia just pointed out, patriarchy is the thing that undergirds the hierarchical structure of capitalism, so that it's women who are on the bottom of capitalist hierarchies, it is women who do most of the labor, and they don't just do most of the social labor, they do most of the reproductive labor, folks who are women or women identified around the world.
And that is the thing that remembering that patriarchy is a system, it's a clunky word. And so it's not something we talk about a lot. But that is one of the things that has shaped the positions that I've taken sometimes about why I think part of what it means to be a committed Black feminist is to say that we have to be thinking about the role of women in electoral politics, that isn't about a sort of belief that women are inherently pure, or that they necessarily govern better, because they are women, although when you look politically, when you look globally, women's track record for not getting us into wars and for governing in ways that respect the concerns around reproduction, around labor, around the Earth, around humanity, typically are in the aggregate better than what we see from dudes. Because men really govern in these ways that are deeply masculinist and deeply tied to violence.
And so, in the last two presidential elections, I have looked to see who the most progressive women were, or who the women on the left or who were liberal, and I said, I'm going to support them, because I think it's a problem in this country that we haven't seen fit to elect a woman to the presidency. And it's really hard to figure that thing out when I have a radical Black feminist politics that says, I don't even believe in the American nation state project, right, I sort of recognize it as fundamentally violent, and not meant for Black people to thrive. And at the same time, part of what patriarchy teaches is like, if you can't even do the basic thing of saying that a woman is good enough, qualified enough, ready enough to lead any organization, then how radical are we prepared to be when we can't even write on some like question of gender parity or gender orientation?
And so that is the thing, for instance, that caused me to be like, I think Elizabeth Warren will do. Am I generally to the left of her in terms of my critique of capitalism? Sure, she believes in markets. I don't think any Black person that has a clear understanding of how slavery and capitalism are linked up could make a claim that they believe in markets. I mean, markets don't believe in us. But I also think that sometimes what concerns me in radical left politics is the way in which gender concerns or concerns about patriarchy become tertiary, they become seen as frivolity, they become seen as these kinds of demands for mere representation, rather than recognizing Black feminism teaches us that how we are structured within a system typically affects the perspectives that we bring to the kind of work that we do. And if that is true, then it's generally true for women and specifically true for particular categories of women. And so figuring out how to integrate those perspectives into a politic that felt sufficiently radical, for me, has been part of the tension of electoral politics. But I think that Black people also don't get to walk away from electoral politics. I think we have to try to transform it, because there's the world we're trying to build. And then there's the world that we are already in. And ultimately, when I look at Black feminism, across the board, what I see is this commitment from Black women that we're gonna keep the lights on. We're gonna make sure these babies have somewhere to go to school. We're going to try to make sure that these communities are as safe as they can possibly be. And that typically has something to do with the kinds of people that we elect into office.
Dr. Brittney Cooper is a writer, activist, and Associate Professor of Women Gender and Sexuality Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University. She is co-founder along with Dr. Susana Morris of the Crunk Feminist Collective, a feminist of color scholar-activist group that runs a highly successful blog. Dr. Cooper is co-editor of The Crunk Feminist Collection. She is also the author of Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women and Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower.
Danielle: Yes, so I want to circle back just to ask about timing, because I observed something different in terms of the the prominence or the visibility of Black feminist politics in this election, in a way that I didn't see in 2016. And so I wonder, what has changed around electoral organizing around Black feminism since 2016? And has your kind of stance on electoral politics changed since then?
Charlene Carruthers: I'll start by doing what some of our other panelists have already done and recognizing the brilliance of each of the women who are in this conversation today. And it was actually Barbara, who helped turn the tide for me. I mean, she had us in a room in 2016, talking about what was at stake in the 2016 elections. And I've always voted. I voted in every single election since I was about 18 years old, no matter where I live in the country. So that's been a practice of mine. But in 2016, I had a very strong critique of Hillary Clinton as a candidate and Barbara was one of the few people with a politically mature analysis of what was at stake in saying that, Hey, y'all, like this person who is her opponent, Donald Trump, he will bring in a fascist regime, building on the current dynamics, the historical dynamics in this country, right? Like Trumpism wasn't created overnight. Like the convergence of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, xenophobia, anti Blackness, all of these things didn't just happen because he ran for office. These things are connected to many different dynamics and realities. And so, in 2016, I did not have the same assessment.
And so I, along with other people, sat down and developed a more politically mature assessment of what needed to be done. And so I remember us having a private Twitter chat—myself, Angela Peoples, Rukia Lumumba, Leslie Mac, Tracey Corder, Anoa Changa, and Nicole Carty— I think I named everybody on the steering committee. Nelini Stamp was also there in the early stages of Black Womxn For.
[The Black Womxn For steering committee also included Carmen Berkley and Jessica Byrd]
The conversation was like a trickling in conversation of—we think we might like this Senator from Massachusetts, this old white lady, we might like dig her. We understand that she has like some issues, but there's no person who's going to be President of the United States and not run an empire, not continue a colonial project as is—a white supremacist project patriarchal project, all of those things. And so we were thinking like, what kind of intervention do we want to make in the 2020 elections? And what are our opportunities there? What candidates are going to engage us, our communities, and we literally had, what was it somewhere between 13 and 15 conversations with groups of Black women and non binary people across the country. And we also did a survey. And the majority of people said that they would support Senator Elizabeth Warren in the primary. And so we were like, our guts were right, our thinking was right. And so we set about to both agitate the campaign and work in a way with Black staff to help them actually move an agenda that matter to Black people, and particularly a Black feminist agenda as much as possible within a Democratic candidates campaign.
And so it was an experiment. And I learned a lot. And I think we all learned a lot about the possibilities of accountability, the possibilities of shaping a policy platform of a major political figure in the United States, and one who continues to do that work, post not winning the nomination. [Warren's] still doing it. And so she didn't just stop it, because we no longer work with her. She's continuing to do it. And so to me, it was a lot of lessons for what is possible, and what's not possible through electoral politics in the United States. I'm like Brittney, I actually don't believe in this project as an avenue for our liberation. I'm also clear that people in elected office, people who inform policy, wealthy individuals impact my life and my people's life every single day, and I don't have an option to just, like, move that away and say, I'm not going to participate.
Danielle: Barbara Ransby, you joined the over 100 Black scholars and writers to endorse Senator Bernie Sanders for President. And though both Warren and Sanders have withdrawn as presidential candidates, I would love to hear from you about your decision to endorse Sanders, and from the other panelists about what you felt was at stake in considering the differences in Warren and Sanders policy platforms?
Barbara Ransby: I agree with Brittney and Charlene that we have to be on a very fundamental level critical of the American nation state project, critical of the foundations of racial capitalism. That is, the underlying governing set of ideas and Brittney reminds us often patriarchy drops off then that is when that completes the triad. So understanding that's the case and understanding that we were not looking at a radical reconfiguration of those foundations through any single election. Voting is one part of our political practice, certainly one part of my political practice. And, I decided to endorse Bernie Sanders, largely because I felt like there was a struggle that could be made inside that campaign, which myself and many others made. I'm not sure how much traction we got.
But I think as a democratic socialist, as somebody unapologetically critiquing capitalism, that was an appeal. I think there were people in the campaign pulling him actually away from that position. And the greatest disappointment in that campaign, which I've written about since in a piece in The Nation is the refusal to confront the issue of white supremacy head on. And we know from examples all over the world and in this country, that it is not just capitalism, it is racial capitalism. Those two are symbiotic and inseparable. And so it was disappointing to me that the Sanders campaign, that Sanders in particular, didn't step up to that, in his analysis, Elizabeth Warren was good, as far as you know, candidates go as well, you know, and I, and certainly the fact that many women that I respect deeply, or endorsing her made me take her seriously. And, in fact, the statement that we signed, which some people didn't sign, because this clause was in there is that if Sanders didn't get the nomination that we would support Warren. I think it's always in electoral politics, a question of navigating the best option of limited options. People that I admire the most politically and have the most faith in —in terms of the transformative justice agenda — are never gonna run for president of these United States until some fundamental changes occur. And at that point, maybe we don't have presidents, maybe we have some other form of governance. So for me, it's always about a vote plus strategy. That was the case in 2016. That is the case in 2020. I am not a cheerleader for Joe Biden, or Kamala Harris, but I think they are lesser of lesser evils, and we need less evil in the world. I think it will create a terrain of struggle that will allow our movements to be on the offense and not on the defense.
I think authoritarianism in a US form of fascism are very real threats. And we need to let that sit with us for a minute, because that's a very serious thing. And there are all kinds of examples of the current administration moving us in that direction. So, voting is essential, and inadequate at the same time, we need to be doing all kinds of organizing on many, many different fronts, with many different kinds of people. But coming back to the question of Black feminism, and I would say Black left feminism, that is how I'm most comfortable identifying because there is a way in which we can embrace the ideas without the practice or without the transformative agenda. We can pare down and dilute anything, but at its best, I think Black feminism promises not to throw anybody under the bus. And I think that's why all of us are attracted to it as a kind of underlying visionary politics.
Danielle: Excellent. Well, I'd love to hear just to have some more interaction in response to Barbara Ransby about the nuances between these platforms.
Brittney Cooper: I liked when Warren had the call with Black woman, and then she sort of comes out and she's like, well, they're pushy, but I like to be pushed, right? What I liked was the way that she sort of engaged Black women, didn't feel afraid of them, and really took seriously Black women's concerns and Black women's leadership. And, you know, she just struck me, I mean, look, this was also a thing that I thought was true about Hillary Clinton, despite the many critiques of her, she just struck me as the like, the person who worked the hardest to be the most competent to read all of this stuff to try to come up with a plan even sometimes when plans were insufficient to have a pretty decent citational politics.
So I felt like she was pushing the country to move to the left, really trying to think very robustly, even within the container of beliefs she had about markets around—so she took on Joe Biden about credit cards when Biden was willing to back credit card companies. She was thinking about issues of foreclosure and the mortgage crisis and that is a thing that is ravaging our communities, and has been for decades, and is a Black woman's issue very specifically because we own more of the homes in our community disproportionately. And when we lose our homes, that also means that our kids lose access to their schools, that we often lose sort of stable places for community building to occur, and for organizing to occur. And so that's just one example of a way in which Black women were centered in the way that she was thinking about policy, and so you could always see how her thinking about affordable care or health care for all even though she sort of backs away from Medicare for all at one point, but you can see the way that Black women are sort of in the mix in her thinking, and that's what we've pushed white women to do. And so that really mattered to me.
But the other thing I want to say that I think is really cool that informs some of my perspective about this is, I'm a Black feminist, from the deep south. I am from Louisiana, from the northern part of Louisiana. That is Trump country. That is Confederate country. And that Southern sensibility, I think, also informs sometimes the way that pragmatism shows up for me. So part of the thing that I have loved about thinking about electoral politics at this moment is the way that movements are really not happening in these coastal locations. They're happening in the Midwest, they're happening in the South—all of the wonderful radical work going on in Jackson for a long time, because I grew up about two hours away from Jackson.
Reminding people that the radical political movements grew out of the South, the soil of the South in this country, and then the Midwest has been a tinderbox for us since Ferguson. Or you could think about what is that 2001? Is that Cincinnati or Cleveland, right? And the riots that happened there in the very early 2000s, or rebellions that happened there. So, there is also this invitation then that I think Black feminism gives us where we ask questions about where the people are rising up? And what are the demands that they're making in the context of their local community?
And so there's this pragmatism, which scholars call a visionary pragmatism, at the heart of Black feminist thinking, that says that Black folks always imagined beyond what America says as possible, and what white people say as possible. But they also do that by working the hell out of the systems that are available to them because of the constraints that they have. And for me, as a person who was reared in one of the poorest states in this union and reared in a working class way in a family ravaged by the carceral state in the state that's the worst on the carceral state around the globe. I feel visionary because of Black feminism. But sometimes I feel super pragmatic. Like, we have to get this fascist out of office, because those of us who lived in these communities and know the levels of terror that can come, and then to know if you have any sense of the history that the terror can get worse than this, right.
Now, that is that thing that motivates me. And something for me, for me something about growing up in the heart of these places, where all of this terror has been enacted. It's like the thing that has me out here like, well, you're gonna have to call me a liberal shill for the establishment today, because this fascist has to go. And that's a hard moment, I think, in radical political organizing that we're in, because I've had this deep sense that people feel like the nuance we're calling for, or the demand to engage the electorate is a walking away from the radical commitments we have. And, you know, I don't see it that way.
Barbara Ransby: Yeah, I don't either, and I'm glad you said that. I don't see it that way. But I think we always try to struggle for a balance, right. That's why sometimes you talk about non reformist reforms, or keeping electoral politics in perspective. And I think it's very dangerous, in fact, to have this sort of absolutist view, and I've known people who've had this "I'm a revolutionary," and you kind of wonder who people are making a revolution for because they don't care about the suffering of people in the here and now. So I think we have to combine visionary and pragmatic politics, but it's a fine line that we walk, and Brittney, I love you, sis, but I have to go back to Hillary Clinton as an example, because I think she is an example — and both of us know the pattern of white women in the academy who perform multiculturalism, who performed diversity, who performed being your ally and your friend, and are all about building careers that reinforce racist patriarchal institutions. So I had a little skepticism about Warren having that experience in my mind.
Rukia Lumumba: I just wanted to recognize and really lift again, is this recognition that yes, when we talk about electoral change in this country, it has been led and started by women in the South. Look at Ida B. Wells, right, Mississippi, you want to look at you know, Rosa Parks and the women before her that sat on the bus, and did not move, and continued. And then, when we want to talk about Ella Baker, we want to talk about Fannie Lou Hamer, I mean we could keep going. And we see that it is consistently women that kept our push for electoral power going in this country and continues to keep it going in this country.
So when we were choosing who to endorse—part of my endorsement process was not just about wanting to see a woman represented, but more importantly, wanting to see a person who respects the notion and idea of woman leadership and understands that is central and important to our ability towards change in this country or anywhere else. And there's a difference between acknowledgement and respect. And I think over and over again, we see acknowledgement that women need to take space, but not true respect for the totality of our genius, and our ability to actually see real change and our history of actually making change happen in this country. And globally, period. So I think that that is really key.
And that for me, was the distinction between other candidates and Elizabeth Warren. I too, was concerned about her white female privilege, and the history of white women using that privilege to harm Black women and people of color in general, and to continue to perpetuate systems of patriarchy and white supremacy. I, too, was concerned about that. But what I saw, through her actions, and consistent actions I saw with Elizabeth Warren, is her ability to stop, to listen, when criticized, and to listen deeply. And to engage in a process of taking action based on when she recognized she was wrong. And that, to me, is important. Because to me, it shows exactly why having a Black feminist perspective and actually moving to a Black feminist program is important, because part of it is the fact of deep listening, and action driven by collective processes that require us to be held accountable. And I think Elizabeth Warren did.
Barbara Ransby: I also wanted to address this larger question of who's on our side. And we all know this right? More than ever before, we see the limits of representational politics only, right? If we were unsure before Barack Obama, we were clear after Barack Obama: having a Black man in the White House did not liberate us, having a woman in the White House will not liberate us. Having a Black man on the Supreme Court certainly hasn't. Clarence Thomas has been one of the most anti-Black conservatives on the court. All white all male purviews represent something, they represent a patriarchal exclusion and white supremacist exclusion. But simple inclusion doesn't get us very far, either.
And I'm preaching to the converted here in terms of this group, but people who may be listening, I think we want quick fix solutions sometimes. To me, you know, the question of Hillary Clinton was a good example of that, actually, maybe we disagree a little bit on this, because I thought she was the embodiment of a kind of white feminist politic, if you will, that was was prepared to forego poor Black and working class folks, including poor Black and working class women, to aggressively advance the interests of racial capitalism and empire as her political practice. And that's a choice. That was what neoliberalism and the neoliberal policies and the whole super predator language around the crime bill — it was a part of that package, even though she was a woman. We want feminist ideas. We want feminist practice, and we basically want a transformative agenda on the whole, and that comes in many different parts. And we may have different, very different allies over the course of the struggle for those goals.
Brittney Cooper: We disagree a little bit, Barbara, not about the content. I've never disagreed about the content of people's assessment of Hillary Clinton. I always disagreed with the way that we didn't think about her as the product of a structure, though. What does it mean to be first in this country, all of this is why so many of us work so hard in the academy, not to become the thing that the academy tries to produce, right? Because it tries to produce a particular kind of subjectivity. And when I looked at her, I was like, "Yeah, she spent her whole life trying to basically become the best version of a white man in a white woman's body…
Barbara Ransby: Right—exactly the opposite strategy, the opposite of your approach in the academy, right? That's the fundamental difference.
Brittney Cooper: Sure, the difference also is I am coming through the academy when there are Black women there who could write for my tenure case, and I'm not trying to run for the presidency, which is a white masculinist project that is judging its leaders based upon how well they can sort of achieve or approximate a kind of white masculinist ideal in order to lead the nation. For me, it's a pragmatic question about when the person who is first, are they able to be radical and still make it to that perch? And we don't know that because Elizabeth Warren really runs in some ways as sort of diametrically different than Hillary Clinton and gets no traction nationally in any of the primaries that she's actually in. And so we keep sort of arguing that this kind of progressive vision can actually win in electoral politics in America. Our people vote for Hillary Clinton because they think she can approximate a white male ideal, and then when we get to this election, people en mass still vote for the sort of more liberal, white male ideal, and that to me means that we've got to have a more robust understanding of patriarchy.
The last thing I want to say about this, because I know that people think I'm caping for Hillary Clinton—I don't trust Hillary Clinton. I understand exactly who she is as a white woman. But the thing that that I care about is here's this other thing happening in Black feminism, particularly, where and that I see often in online spaces, where there is rage against white women like if I want to get hits, I can just go and do a tweet storm every day about how white women are trash, and you can't trust them. Like if I was just in it for likes and hits and clicks and shares, that is a hit every day. But I'm like the people who are terrorizing us right now are Donald Trump, Bill Barr and Mitch McConnell. Those three white men have conspired together to ruin and demolish any kind of thing we've tried to build. And in our politics, people are so angry because of white women, and that concerns me because it feels like a distraction. And so that was the other thing that sort of shaped my support is— I don't even think Hillary Clinton is a feminist. She's just a white woman, but it was for me these broader principles about how does patriarchy work? How does it limit possibility in terms of pragmatic possibility? And why are we willing to make every allowance for white men?
Barbara Ransby: I don't know that we're doing that, but yeah.
Rukia Lumumba: I mean I don't know if we're not.
Barbara Ransby: Well who's the 'we' I guess?
Rukia Lumumba: And when I say we, I am talking about like we as a general, we like as a mass of we and not so much as a conscious we in the sense that even realize that we're doing it, but one of the things is that, you know, one of the things you just mentioned, Brittney is this is that patriarchy is is allowing us to do that. And it's because patriarchy feeds off of fear. And so it is this fear that I think that is moving us, fear of what could happen that moves us to say that if we don't vote for a white man, if we don't get closer to whiteness, to white male proximity, then we are going to lose. That is the reason, you know—many rooms that I was in, when it came down to who people were going to vote for, even Black men, right, were saying—well, I like Elizabeth Warren's policies and politics, but I don't think she could win. So I'm gonna vote for so and so and so and so. And it was all about whether she could win, right? And whether she could win is actually about whether we're willing to vote for her, right? But we're not willing to vote for her because we're moving from a place of fear, where we will win a majority of people probably won't vote for because she's a woman, because she's too liberal—she ain't even as far left as many of us want to go, you know?
Charlene Carruthers: And this was after Clinton won the popular vote. So it's not that, you know [laughs] it's like, the logic is, it's just wild.
Rukia Lumumba: Yeah, I think we have to really centralize this conversation around feminism, and to really, where that it's a part of everything that we're doing in our daily life, right, as an intervention and what is happening all of the time. Because we know that no real change can really happen because we got to shift people's minds around what is possible, and what is not moving based on the fear that patriarchy teaches us, you know, to grab onto to hold onto, you know?
Danielle: So, this roundtable is being published on what would have been Fannie Lou Hamer's 103rd birthday. Throughout the course of this conversation you've all given us a historic and contemporary perspective of the importance of Black feminism to transformative politics of liberation. And even though Black feminism has been more visible in recent years, it still feels siloed in a way, as though it is just applicable when talking about race or gender. So I'm wondering for y'all—what would it look like for Black feminism to be treated as a general approach to all politics? And is there an arena of politics that you'd like to see more Black feminist commentary?
Charlene Carruthers: Well, I'm not sure if there's like a field that I want to see more Black feminist commentary in, per se. Because to me it's not necessarily a factor like having more of our commentary. I'm interested in our relationship to power and our relationship to the organizing work that we do, which is obviously inherently connected to power. If it's about the values of Black left, or Black radical feminism, how that can permeate from the academy, the various disciplines in the academy. I'm learning more and more about just how people are not in conversation with each other and are talking about some of the same things, and how we continue these circles around things.
But in movement spaces, we can have more Black feminist commentary in philanthropy, but like philanthropy in and of itself as an institution or a set of institutions isn't going to get us to where I would like us to be. And so I'm more interested in going back to what Brittney said earlier about how we are talking and thinking about patriarchy. So I want to see a deeper Black feminist politic in how do we understand ending violence, particularly violence that happens in our communities? And in addition to ending it how do we address the violence that's happening in our communities? How do we bring in like, literally decades of Black feminists thinking and doing to end and address violence in our communities and make it more widespread? And so yes, we should have more conversations, but really like how we [address] the underlying assumptions? How do we build mass narratives that are much like deeper and far reaching, that come apart from what people think of as common sense? That's what I'm interested in.
Rukia Lumumba: Right on, I'll just add to that I would love to see us shift how we engage in these conversations and in electoral work in general. In Mississippi, we have an election every year, we don't get a year off from elections. So our electoral work is all year round. And not just because of elections, but because we recognize that the political process is something that we want to make sure more people are educated about, motivated around, and organized around to be more engaged and participating in the process in a way that shifts us from this paradigm of consistently being governed, to actually governing. When we shift the tide upon which electeds are making decisions on our behalf, and instead, they're making decisions based on our delegation of that work to them.
We're trying to do that work to people's assemblies, in Jackson, for example. But I think that that work is only going to be enhanced when we incorporate what Charlene has been talking about and what Brittney has been and everybody Barbara has been talking about this whole time, around understanding deeply how patriarchy impacts our ability to be more collective, in a process of democracy to really exercise true democracy in a way where we bring more people into the process so that more people can be involved in the decision making around the governing of their lives. So really trying to say we're trying to move folks from, you know, from representative governments, a true community co-governance and eventually community-led governance.
Barbara Ransby: I would be remiss to say, to not say, October 6th also would have been my mother's 105th birthday. She was born in Sunflower County, Mississippi, sixth grade education, worked as a sharecropper, and a maid. And the thing I would say in terms of thinking of her on that day, and thinking of Black feminism, is I think that we need to talk about big picture politics. You know, talk about the devastation that racial capitalism and its symbiotic relationship with heteropatriarchy has racked upon our communities throughout history, and really move toward translating the language of Black feminism and borrowing from the ways in which women like my mother articulated a feminist praxis in her own terms and not with an academic language, but that we appreciate the Black feminist practice in those spaces, and that we also make our work as relevant as possible to the domestic workers and in and the incarcerated sisters and in others, that will be my hope.
Brittney Cooper: I was thinking as I was listening I'm so thankful to be on a call with Barbara Ransby me, because Barbara is the person who is secretly convening all kinds of meetings to bring us together and to model for us what it means to be both an excellent scholar and then a committed activist. And so you are just one of my models for that, Barbara. And I'm so thankful, and I'm a Black woman's intellectual historian. And I really feel that we have to say that—
Barbara Ransby: Appreciate that.
Brittney Cooper: Yeah—pushing me to sort of be more radical than my pragmatic self sometimes wants to be. The things I care about right now, and where I think Black feminism can really save us—one, I'm a church girl, still, sometimes with great trepidation. And so I'm pushing in the work that I do in churches for a more Black feminist perspective, because Black women still go to church. And if we can radicalize church women, we can move a lot of our radical prerogatives all over the country. And so that's one goal.
Another thing I'm really thinking about, there's an abortion amendment on the Louisiana ballot that comes out of litigation around the clinic in my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana. And so Louisiana is moving to make a constitutional amendment that folks cannot get abortions in that state. We've got to be moving Black feminist reproductive agendas forward in a radical way in this moment. And the last thing that I'm thinking a lot about is that I'm wondering how we get to a vision of Black Lives mattering that doesn't always start from the point in which Black people are killed.
So much of our politics and our political energy is activated because of the spectacle of Black death. And part of what I think Black feminism asks us to do is to think about the conditions under which Black people get to live and thrive. And so what I'm hoping is that we can figure out how to move our politics to the place where we're thinking very much about the conditions under which people live and what it means to actually be able to live into these lives that we have. Because the consequences of not being able to do that is that very often Black men still end up at the center of our politics, because those are the folks who we know get killed more often by the state even if they're not the only people.
When we center Black death as the nexus of the things that drives our politics, then that's why it becomes so hard to bring in sometimes Black girls or Black women, and we still don't manage even when Black trans people are getting killed to bring them in, because we've decided that only certain kinds of Black death matter to us. And that means to me that there's a problem in that formulation. And that's something that we keep yelling Black Lives Matter. But we don't actually have a really robust Black feminist theory about what Black life means. And what therefore it looks like to advance it.
Featured art: "Act Like You Know," Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker. Black feminist breathing collage by Alexis Pauline Gumbs. Check out Alexis Pauline Gumbs' immersion course, Until Everybody's Free: Fannie Lou Hamer Immersion.