Mariame Taught Me

for mariame kaba
Artwork by Molly Crabapple

Last year, the Chicago organizing community absorbed the difficult news that one of our most beloved organizers and educators would be leaving our city in 2016. If you don’t know my friend and mentor Mariame Kaba, it’s hard to convey why the departure of a single person, in a city that’s home to so many powerful activists, is such an overwhelming loss. So to mark this transition, and express our love to Mariame – and perhaps to remind us all that we have been readied for this moment – some of my fellow organizers asked their friends and allies to contribute to a project called “Mariame Taught Me.” The letters that were written for the project were compiled in a book, which was presented to Mariame last night. With her permission, I am sharing my contribution with all of you here, so that you might understand, through my eyes at least, what a gift New York is about to receive.

This contribution to the project was written in the form of a personal letter.

You know how much I love words. I both bask in them and hide behind them. I string them together to capture moments worth remembering, and to hold onto those that are too easily forgotten. I deal in words every day, but saying goodbye to you – now that’s a real challenge. I would say the only thing more difficult than formulating that message right now would be what was asked of me here: to capture, in relatively few words, what you have taught me.

So rather than overwhelming you, and myself, by trying to create a comprehensive litany of all the lessons you’ve imparted, I’ll try to narrow it down to one thing that I know needs saying:

You taught me to re-arm my imagination.

When we began working together, my vision of resistance was limited to the very beginnings of change. I wanted to tear down the walls of this society. I wanted to uproot every oppressive structure and turn it on its head. I wanted to punish those who had hurt me and those who had hurt us all. And while that may sound like a lot, that destruction was the extent of my forward vision, because in truth, I couldn’t imagine what real freedom looked like.

I hoped that in the ruins of a failed system, optimistic idealists, who I would have very little in common with, could somehow fashion a better way of living. I wanted to believe that a better way was out there, waiting to be real, but I knew that even if it wasn’t, the possibility of it was the only thing worth fighting for.

I knew that much.

But I didn’t know what freedom meant, or even what I hoped it meant.

It’s not that you ever explained some definition of the word that I latched onto. But you did push me to realize that the system that I hated so much, that I wanted to take apart piece by piece, had slowly disarmed my imagination. I was limited by its definitions and its stated inevitabilities. I was limited by what it told me to fear about the nature of other people, and of myself. I was limited by the lies I let it tell me, even though I knew better than to trust it.

Its clever violence had taught me not to dream beyond it, and to some extent, I welcomed the cynicism that it imparted. There’s an emotional safety that comes with pessimism. It insulates us from disappointment and makes life’s inevitable traumas much less shocking.

Working with you, developing ideas, planning actions, and laughing at ourselves at absurd hours when reasonable people were fast asleep, I learned to do something incredibly dangerous. I learned to not simply hope, but to actually trust that we could all do better. And that we would.

I learned that I could build the broken parts of myself into something worth sharing with others, and that communities can do the same.

I learned that it was alright to hurt and to fail and to tell the truth when no one wanted to hear it.

I learned that figuring out what justice looks like is a messy, ongoing process, and that hard-and-fast rules are usually bullshit.

I learned that my values, like my vision of community, were aspirational, and could always be fought for, even when I’d lost my way.

I learned to trust my creativity, mostly because you trusted it.

I learned what my oppressors never wanted me to know: that transformation is always possible.

I know we are all just guests in each other’s lives. I know nothing is permanent, even though there are moments when we would like to pretend otherwise. One of the reasons I like to take so many photos at events is that I’m aware of the limitations of memory, and that there are so many moments that need to be preserved, just as they are, for so many reasons. When those moments are as outlandish as standing outside the mayor’s house with a huge, lighted message that reads, “REPARATIONS NOW,” or as joyful as standing across the street as our friends lifted up the words, “REPARATIONS WON,” it’s easy to know that it’s time to capture what’s in front of you. Other times, inspiration, humor and truths that need remembering pass quickly and casually, like a car ride home from an action.

I learned more in some of those car-ride-long conversations than I have in entire semesters of college.

Even though I didn’t always take notes, I promise to hold onto the best things you taught me, as much as memory allows. I promise never to keep those lessons to myself, because I know how much the world needs them. To say I am a better person and a better organizer because of you feels like a fairly self-involved observation, given the impact you’ve had on my city, and on so many other places your voice has reached. You have mentored so many, and watched them become mentors in turn. You have won battles and shared those victories with those of us who needed to believe they were possible.

And you will leave Chicago better than you found it. Because this city, these friends, this beautiful community you and I have been a part of – I believe we’re all a little closer to getting free because of you. I know I am.

So maybe that was more than one thing that needed saying, but you know how much I love words. And I hope you know how much I love you.

Thank you for being my mentor, my friend, my teacher and my co-conspirator. Thank you for being you, Mariame, and for all that you’ve taught me.

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