Today, a group of young Black women and girls led a sit-in in one of Chicago’s most popular parks, before leading thousands of community members into the streets of my city. As I type these words, many are still in the streets, demanding that Black humanity be recognized in an exploitative culture wherein Black obedience has always been enforced, on pain of torture, death or incarceration. It’s easy to understand why some of us at times feel pangs of guilt or regret when we cannot physically lend our feet and voices to such moments. Whether the impediment is a physical or geographical limitation, a matter of childcare or mental health, or any other insurmountable difficulty, our absence can feel like a failure of solidarity.
It’s understandable that we would identify being physically present as an essential expression of love in times of struggle. And for those who can, showing up and lending their feet to long marches and their bodies to blockades, physical participation is a tremendously powerful act. It is a necessary role, and many such people are needed.
For those facing insurmountable difficulties, or a lack of sustainability, such guilt is of course misplaced, but its psychological roots are wholly comprehensible. In the case of the movement for Black lives, for example, it may come from an awareness that anti-Blackness is publicly performed. It is an ongoing, public attack on Black survival and self actualization, and when an endless war, waged against an oppressed people, has harmed so many, it is a natural impulse to want to join the front lines.
Oppression that is visible must be met with visible resistance. And anti-Blackness couldn’t be more visible.
The overseer, the slave catcher, the lynch mob and the police have all enforced Black obedience, and the the consequences of noncompliance, in highly visible ways. Whips, chains, ropes and bullets have not simply served as forms of individual abuse and assassination, but as instruments of terror that aim to enforce the collective submission of Black people under capitalism and white supremacy. These weapons have been employed as social, economic and physical control mechanisms, wielded by those who benefit from and serve white supremacy.
But as essential as public acts of defiance are to movements that confront very public oppressions, some of us have to pause, from time to time, and be gentle with ourselves, and each other, about where and how we are able to contribute. We have to love the work in all its forms — and ourselves, and each other.
As an activist and organizer who is accustomed to putting my feet on the ground at protests and marches, I have been learning, fairly recently, to be patient with myself. I can’t always show up the way I would like to when bold revolutionaries take to the streets. As someone who has at times been able to organize, and to at times document moments of struggle, it has been and remains frustrating to imagine the ways that I could be of assistance if my lower back and left leg weren’t in such rough shape, or if my mental health was stabler.
But as a dear friend has said to me repeatedly (in a particularly scolding tone), the condition that at times disables my leg will not improve if I veer from my (fairly limited) prescribed exercises. I think it’s a positive sign that I no longer become as overwhelmed with guilt about such things. I am more grounded in the reality that I cannot magically change my circumstances, or develop superpowers, simply because I feel an emotional pull towards the streets.
Social change requires transformation, and that’s a long haul proposition, with many roles to fill.
I reassure myself that I am still here in the background, writing what I can, offering trainings to share my skills when needed, and trying to do the work of building community with like-minded people. I, of course, wish I could be physically present in moments like this one, but my admiration for those who show up, in whatever ways they can, gives me the comfort I need to know that I am enough.
Sometimes we support freedom fighters who are pounding the pavement by marching alongside them, and that is a profoundly important task. But in this moment, I need to say to those who aren’t able to do this work with their feet that I see you. The meals you cook, the donations you make, the accounts you run, the healing and other support that you lend reminds me that I am enough.
We can lift up and help sustain the work. We can celebrate the blossoming resistance of marginalized peoples. And we can do it from where ever we have to be, because we are all necessary.
It is essential that we remember, as we strive to contribute in whatever way we are able:
We are essential to the movements we care about.
We are both loved and needed.
And we are enough.
Today, I lent my Twitter account to someone who was able to march. Their own account was shut down for some reason, and I offered to let them to use my Twitter following to keep tweeting about the beautiful resistance that was happening in our city. It was a small gesture, but it was something I could give, so I gave it.
Another friend of mine printed out copies of a profoundly important document about how people can help support movements when they can’t show up in person. The act of sharing that document was crucial movement work. It was organizing. And it was essential.
So if you are showing up in whatever way you can, remember that you matter, and that you are appreciated. Our movements are more than a series of actions, however essential direct action may be — and I obviously believe that it is essential to transformation. But what is necessary isn’t always accessible, and the work of building culture and community is no less important than the work that others are better equipped to carry out.
Transformation, as Michelle Alexander recently stated, means cultivating a new consciousness. We all have a role to play in doing that work. Because a moment that involves direct action without the cultivation of community and culture is just that: a moment. Moments matter, but movements can shake the earth.
To get free, we need everyone. So to those of you who are giving your all, doing work that is often unseen, I thank you for helping me to see the value in my own work, in whatever form it takes.
And thank you for all that you do.