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Where Are We Heading Now?

By M. Thandabantu Iverson
Date Published: 
February 01, 2007

The passing of one’s contemporaries often triggers a gut-wrenching introspection about what one purports to be about, what one has accomplished with others, and what must yet be done. Such reflection was recently prompted in me by the passing of Ebon Dooley, a passionate and marvelously creative African-American writer and activist I met and learned to deeply respect during the 1980’s in Atlanta, Georgia.

Ebon Dooley’s life spanned the turbulent social movement shifts from Black Power and Pan-African struggles to the post-sixties efforts of numerous African-Americans to grasp Marxism, to integrate within it the revolutionary nationalism we had learned, and to carry the message of radical systemic change back into our communities and workplaces as shock troops of the “point of production” movement.

When I think about Ebon’s life, I am struck by the ways in which he embodied a continual search for more effective means to become grounded and relevant in Black and working-class communities. His enormously effective contributions, as a leading force in the development of community radio programming and neighborhood cultural centers, have contributed to the increased political awareness and activism of a considerable number of social actors who may not have even known his name. His untimely passing leaves me stunned by the recognition that in some important ways, activists and scholars on the political Left are not as grounded and relevant within working-class communities as Ebon wanted, or as we need to be if we really intend to help working people to adequately confront the challenges of the current neoliberal agenda of a racialized and patriarchal capitalism.

The challenge for Black Leftists to make and build more effective connections with the working-class looms especially large at this moment, not only because of my sense of loss at Ebon’s passing, but also because the current state of the US trade union movement presents a bleak future unless the vast rank-and file can be energized, organized, and mobilized to confront capital’s evolving neoliberal agenda. The urgency of undertaking these tasks through more effective links and methods of movement building was loudly echoed during the May 2006 convention of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) in Orlando, Florida. Numerous voices expressed the need for Black activists, unionists, and workers to fill the vacuum of responsible and visionary leadership caused by the 2005 split in the AFL-CIO.

Perhaps it was CBTU President William Lucy who most explicitly articulated the challenge as he saw it, when he said, “We have a responsibility to offer an alternative economic vision to working families and to those who are economically dispossessed. We must explore new concepts to build partnerships among the progressive religious community, the trade union movement and the investment community.” This broad mission statement positively affirmed the intentions of Black trade unionists to forge ahead and develop viable political and organizational responses in the wake of the destructive break-up of the AFL-CIO.

This was an important affirmation against the back-drop of such a clear demonstration by all leaders of the split—both the forces coalesced around John Sweeny and the unionists joining with SEIU’s Andy Stern—that they were not really interested in building principled connections and social justice movements with the women, people of color, and GLBT workers who have been excluded and marginalized for so long in the divided “house of labor.” Yet the broad affirmation by Bill Lucy seemed to fall short of providing those in attendance with any developed analysis of the real nature of the threat posed by the current corporate capitalist agenda. Nor did he seem to draw any significant lessons from the previous historical struggles of African-Americans that might orient his audience toward ways of building closer links with our people and forging the organizational capacity to address our present dilemma. In fact, the CBTU convention seems to underscore the dire situation in which many Black Leftists find ourselves; long on commitment and outrage (at the neoliberal agenda and its leaders as well as the continued opportunism of trade union leaders), yet short on a viable analysis and organizational means to address the current crisis.

Given our obvious need to be grounded and relevant, we may well need to ask ourselves some hard questions about where we have been and how much—or how little—we have learned from our rich history of struggle in this country. What kinds of relationships will it take for our working-class sisters, brothers, mothers, and fathers to see us as relevant and connected to them? What does our analysis of our predicament have to do with our abilities—or inabilities—to unite with workers to build our battles from below? One reason why activists on the Left so often seem to fail to develop adequate relations with our people may well be our inability to grasp all of the ways in which they are necessary actors in building the social movements we need. This can be seen in the narrow estimations so often made of working-class women and youth, gay men, lesbian women, and transgender people.

We often speak, as did Rev. Jesse Jackson several years ago, of the need for a rainbow movement, yet we tend to see mainly the quantitative impact that different groups of people can bring to movement building. We miss the qualitative potential that members of different marginalized groups bring to movement building because we have not yet arrived at an understanding of their experiences and their social location as critical aspects of US oppression. We seem to focus on the importance of the objective factors that situate workers as “oppressed” without fully appreciating the subjective factors that reflect their agency as political and social actors with identities, passions, and their own strategies for surviving and fighting injustice.

This is not to impugn the character of any single organization or leader. I also do not mean to suggest that as Left activists, we typically view other people as mere means to pre-established ends. Yet when we have flawed assumptions about power relations, and when we uncritically hold on to certain unproductive ways of thinking and acting to oppose our dominations, it is possible for our unexamined theoretical views and organizational styles to constrain us so that our politics and organizations become exclusionary and undemocratic. Treating other human actors as mere troops and bodies for our mission is one kind of result. Treating them—indeed, engaging them—as central to the building of transformative activism (because of how they have experienced forms of oppression differently and because of what they have learned about resisting) is another very different kind of result. This is the kind of understanding that we can glean from the writings of Audre Lorde, the counsels of Ella Baker, and the challenging insights of the Combahee River Collective.

The master’s tools

When Audre Lorde warned us, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” she was daring to alert us to the unconscious ways that un-free actors embody the visions and reproduce the organizational styles of our oppressors. Coming to her own activism amidst incessant and vitriolic attacks for being female, Black, working-class and lesbian, Audre knew very well that we can very easily internalize predominant perspectives and practices in the spaces where we work and live.

Such a prospect continually dogs the heels of Black trade unionists and community activists who often must not only struggle with employers, but must also operate within unions and social organizations where White men (and sometimes women) tenaciously control power and priorities, despite their perpetual calls for diversity and democratic participation. Even where a few representatives of marginal groups manage to gain positions, it is usually difficult to evade “the system” in such institutional spaces, and we learn to play the well-established games for accessing positions of clout and financial resources. In conditions where it is never easy to act as autonomous agents of change, we learn too often to wield the tools that we find. Yet using the master’s tools—the ideas, the norms, the procedures, the criteria of success—shapes not only how we act, but also our views of whom to act with and what to do. The result is often an inability to recognize, learn from, and act upon our own hard-won experiences.

Even in more autonomous spaces—such as our religious, civic and social organizations—we often find it hard to fully appreciate the capacities of every person to develop her/his leadership, build the organization’s capacity, and expand its reach beyond a narrowly- targeted population. Our continuing fascination with individual leaders blinds us to the importance of nurturing the leadership of each person, and we forget that participatory democracy cannot adequately develop where members of a group continually invest the single leader with all knowledge and authority. Despite our extensive experiences with the consequences of such “leader-centered” organization, we continue to dismiss Ella Baker’s wisdom regarding the importance of “group-centered” organization. We often seem “stuck” in our inability to understand that while a single person can often become a prominent voice that reflects the experiences, ideals and vision of a social movement, Sis. Ella Baker was right when she noted that “strong people do not need strong leaders!”

The personal is political

The brief-but-rich experience of the Combahee River Collective can also be very instructive for Blacks on the political Left. During the 1970’s this group of radical Black feminists in Massachusetts sought to deepen their understanding of the notion of “the personal is political” and articulated valuable lessons about how radical political activism can be more consciously grounded in social location and identity, while social activists seek changes in society and themselves. This group, although short-lived, offers some important insights about the need for Black Leftists to rethink much that we think we have already come to know—indeed, much that we regard as “knowledge.” This does not mean that radical ideas should be cast aside so that we can begin to reinvent the wheel. It means that we must be open to the many voices who have spoken truths in the long and difficult journeys of the oppressed toward liberation.

Many women of color have gained voice and shaped radical visions along those journeys. As difficult as it may be for some of us who have yet to really question how we manage to be so “unaffected” by living in a male-dominated and male-centered society, we too can learn if we will listen to those voices. But that is hard work. It is not for those who remain content with familiar formulations about objective and subjective factors, patented thoughts about political parties, and narrow understandings about how to win the masses to revolution. We may have to zig, rather than zag, at times. We may have to come to grips with the fact that the pervasive presence of Black activist women in organizations led by men and male-centered theory is not at all the same as having organizations in which the needs and experiences of women are as central to theory and practice as those of men. We may even have to recognize that the “subjective,” “emotional,” and “personal” aspects of our lives are no less susceptible to, and reflective of, domination than the demographic and objective factors. In turn, the “souls” of our folks, no less than the concrete conditions, need nurturing and dare I say it, that “love” of which Che spoke.

And this brings me back to Ebon Dooley. As I continue to reflect upon his life and work, I am struck by how much he exuded a genuine love for the hearts, the happiness, and the healing of his people. He paid careful attention to much more than their ideas and their political line. Facing the future now without him, I hope that I can embody what he taught by example. I hope we can learn how to live our love and vision as he lived his own. I am confident that we can. Still, I wonder if we will.


M. Thandabantu Iverson is a former activist in the African Liberation Support Committee, the Black Workers Congress, and Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF). He is also a former board member for Men Stopping Violence, Inc., and a former member of Black Men for the Eradication of Sexism (BMES, now-defunct). He currently teaches in the Division of Labor Studies at Indiana University Northwest, and is an executive board member for the United Association of Labor Educators.