The Revolution Will Not Be a Book Club
I’m not against theory or reading, but I am firmly against the paternalism of middle class academics who presume greater knowledge and intellectual capacity entitles them to overtalk and silence us poor Black folk. These people have no tangible or material investment in us, our experiences, our needs, and our ideas of freedom. Instead, they hijack movements by and for poor Black folks and center themselves in conversations about liberation for poor Black women, men, boys, girls and gender non-conforming folks. Because their interests are not aligned with ours, they deflect conversations about our direct repression by the state to why they deserve more access to and power within white power systems. All of this is sustained by the use of academic theory to build gates to keep us out of these spaces and discussions, preventing us from advocating in our own interests.
Prominent and especially Very Online™ “organizers” and “activists” with roots in academia claim that we all must read the same books separately then come together and discuss them like an academic study group in order to be able to strategize toward revolution and liberation. Not only is this claim born of a capitalist individualism that can only be anti-Black, it’s, if we’re being real, also a not-even-a-little-veiled hatred of poor folks that argues poor Black folks can have no knowledge without elites telling us when and what to read. This is a complete negation of African traditions and how we, as Black people, have historically shared culture and knowledge. Their belief is that the people who wrote these books about the conditions we live in have wisdom about our experiences they somehow gained without reading these books. Yet those of us living in these very conditions couldn’t possibly produce similar insights.
When challenged, these same people resort to calling poor Black folks “stupid” and every synonym. They argue that we are “anti-intellectual” or “anti-theory” because their anti-poor sentiments won’t let them engage theory that isn’t exclusive to academia or books. This lets them erase and ignore the ways that poor Black folks theorize about our experiences everyday, and have alway had the capacity to do so. Talking about our experiences together, sharing ideas, and strategizing to get our needs met is theory. Reading books and sharing/teaching the ideas from those books is theory. And none of this work we do daily in community together is less valid than academic book clubs.
What gets intentionally obscured in the pontification, thought experiments and academic grandstanding is that political education is not just telling people to read books or condescending to other Black people about theories and ideologies. Political education also cannot happen without developing alternative systems, infractures and ways of surviving. Would-be leaders love invoking the Black Panther Party, but are not doing what the Black Panthers did, which is to say the Black Panthers didn’t just go around telling people who were unemployed and poor that our conditions were a product of not reading or “not understanding capitalism.” Because Black revolutionaries understood the nature of power and the responsibility of those with the most to sacrifice the most, by choice or by force. With this class analysis and a focus on the needs of the most vulnerable, they radicalized business owners and told middle class folks with money and property that they were the ones that had to be willing to link their material security to the folks who had nothing or else they were in opposition to our struggle.
People have turned “organizing” and “political education” into a national reading challenge to avoid having to make any actual material investment and any of those same sacrifices of their own comfort to aid us collectively. Political education, in the context revolutionaries used it, referenced the sharing of knowledge and ideas through conversations with people in the community while meeting needs. Writings, public speaking, literacy programs, campaigns, and study groups were all methods engaged in the act of developing the infrastructures needed to keep people fed and safe. They understood you cannot organize or fight on an empty stomach. Survival programs were foundational aspects of political education, inextricable from the process, as was being in the community talking with and learning from one another. Meanwhile, liberals who cosplay revolutionaries have spent decades trying to convince those of us living in actual precarity — who are homeless, who are poor, who are hungry, incarcerated, disabled, living under threat of violence from the state — that they are doing us some grand favor by merely talking about how we are dying and calling it “education” and “raising awareness.” We are still hungry and homeless as they profit from our disenfranchisement.
My challenge to Black middle class/petit bougie liberals who claim “solidarity” is this:
Y’all have the money, the property, the access to elite spaces, power or proximity to power within these political, media and academic spaces that you use exclusively to ensure you own security, often by aligning against those of us on the bottom. You refuse to link your material security and survival to ours, to invest your money and leverage your property to ensure our collective security, but join orgs or go to a protest and tell us you are revolutionary and that you are “fighting for us.” You buy $600 Angela Davis paintings for your homes in gated communities and call it “radical”, tweet about how you agree with and have the same ideas as us, call yourselves “abolitionists” and sacrifice nothing. You condescend to us about reading Marx but apparently skipped the part where he said, “from each according to his ability to each according to his needs”, yet you tell us poor Black folk you are invested in our liberation while investing nothing but words. Which part of that is revolutionary?
So no, I don’t wanna read Marx but if you wanna read Marx and then come to the table with ideas on how to build a safer world for poor Black children based on what you read and with full intent to make the material sacrifices necessary to achieve that, I challenge you to do that. Because this is what “organizing with people” rather than trying to paternalistically “organize the people” entails. You do actual work to make sure poor Black folks get our needs met and the things you read shape how you do that work, but mean nothing without it. Actual physical, emotional and material investment in community, linking survival, sharing knowledge, precarity and comfort is the only way to attain our collective security and freedom.
As it stands, we are the ones who are sacrificed so that you can live.
What is your sacrifice?
“One thing I would add is the acknowledgment of the movements that did center literacy and reading for the development of theories that spoke to their particular conditions. So for example, you will find in Amílcar Cabral’s PAIGC organization and Walter Rodney’s grounded circles, there was a major emphasis on reading with the masses, and coming to grips with various works so that the people could produce their own theory for their particular conditions. And these were very poor people in third world conditions. But what is being done today, is not that. It’s paternalism” — Reny Tay (@RenyTure on Twitter)
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