In 2017, a wave of local and national events regarding gender violence against Black women we know poured new violence—faster, harder, simultaneously—into our work. These stories, and our interventions, have made our relationships and work experience a greater sense of urgency than ever before. In this light, we felt it important to share some key learnings from our last four years of organizing in Montreal as a call for our local community to do better in addressing the ceaseless sexual violence that disrupts the lives of so many Black women who live with and around us.
As we undertake our 5th year together, we have learned some things about holding one another–the ‘wake work’ we do for one another and for other Black women. We are in our work, “living a past that is not a past,” as Christina Sharpe writes. We, too, are mourning and holding space with/for. We are observing the pathway the violenced body leaves behind it, continuously testing the communities we come from, work for, and live within to do better. To be better.
1. Transformative justice, transformative justice, transformative justice.
We must commit to growing a principled transformative justice (TJ) practice in our home spaces and community circles. We need circles of small, closed study groups (with clear respect and privacy guidelines) to talk about 1) what TJ actually is (and isn’t ) and 2) what it should look like, specifically, within our own neighborhoods, work spaces, and organizing spaces. We need investments in time to talk about this together.
We must begin by, most simply, visualizing TJ as thread that weaves through all of our human relationships. TJ is a commitment to create accountability practices to deal with varying kinds of harm and violence in our homes and communities without relying on police and other state-based systems of support (such as courts, judges, youth protection workers and agencies, etc.) to ‘fix’ the harm that exists in our lives and around us. In this work, as well, we are working to transform the conditions around us, in the lives of those we support, that create violence. For us, that has often meant building circles of care around Black women in our community to provide food needs, rent, birth and postpartum support, parenting support, and importantly, love and presence in the aftermath of violence.
We are mindful that the most important TJ work begins at home–in our most intimate spaces and relationships. In our experience, this is often the most overlooked concept. Let’s start small; practice and practice and practice; and then apply what we have learned outwards, a bit wider with time. For example, as single mothers, TJ work at home guides us in our parenting in relation to external structural violence, while asking us to resist the reification of violence in our own parenting and other kin relationships. We do this by building loving, extended networks of support that swing wide, rather than shrinking under the incredible weight of going it alone as single mamas in the world.
There are three key concepts that continue to guide our work: 1) Believe Black women who share their stories of violence; 2) listen to what Black women need in order to feel safe in proximity to those who have harmed them; and 3) support those needs as best as possible. This is really so basic.
Yet, it has been challenging to implement in our work. It has been difficult because Black women fail other Black women continuously; because toxic Black masculinities spill into the queerest of Black spaces and like white supremacy, cling tightly to queer Black bodies, too; and because our mamas and our grandmamas and great-grandmamas swallowed their sexual violence and admonished us to do the same. In our work, we have witnessed the ways that Black women weaponize their own pain and silenced histories of sexual trauma defensively against survivors who adamantly, angrily refuse to remain silent. In Rape (2015), South African anti-rape scholar Pumla Gqola reminds us that there is something deeply corrupt within us and within communities “that stigmatise survivors and dissuade others from supporting them publicly and privately rather than shaming the perpetrators.” “It is equally perverse,” she adds, “that survivors can be persuaded from speaking in support of one another, and against rape culture.” Our Black communities come from a long, persistent history of protectionism towards Black men that works at the expense of Black women’s experiences of gendered violence. The politics of Black respectability and patriarchal violence–so essential to the ongoing work of white supremacy–must be better reckoned with within Black feminism/s broadly.
I could go on, but really, it boils down to two: 1) Our communities fuck up at accountability work because we live with concealed trauma stories in our own sexually violenced bodies, and 2) Black radical political and intellectual traditions have sustained a long genealogy of protecting Black men at the expense of Black women’s wellness. How can we better coax our stories of trauma to the outside without simply “bleeding out,” as Mary Hooks of Southerners on New Ground recently warned against? And, what would it mean to center violence against Black women as a fundamental syntax within the history and politics of Black nationalism? At the recent 40th year celebration honoring the Combahee River Collective at NWSA, Kimberle Crenshaw, Angela Davis and others spoke often about the need to reframe Black radical histories and traditions to center the realities and stories of Black women’s gender violence in past social movements. With this narrative shift, what new histories and ways of being in relation to one another would take root in our organizing and activist work?
As scholars, we have also repeatedly witnessed the strange, anti-accountability response among Black academics that, on one hand, adeptly theorize prison abolition, but on the other hand, ignore (and often, downright castigate) its practical arm of accountability. Community accountability is the very foundation of prison abolition. And gender violence is the first, most rudimentary layer of accountability-needs common to Black communities and our Black organizing spaces. Most simply: How can one dream a world free of prisons, without practicing new and genuinely transformative ways of coping with the ongoing violences in our homes and our closest relationships? If we cannot shift the way we respond to sexual violence against Black women, our abolition politics are meaningless, except as theory.
Our academic spaces/communities of brilliant Black thinkers need to do better. We recently addressed this issue here at length. Simply, we have observed the academy as a space where many Black men who harm are able hide out, because academia’s mechanisms are fundamentally, obscenely self-protectionist. University “assessors” of sexual violence and their sheltering, internal juridical structures deter those with claims by creating dissuading, bureaucratic barriers to filing and protecting–in a dizzying myriad of ways– professors and staff who harm. The university depends on an intellectual decorum that allows thinkers to theorize the hell out of gender violence and systems of violence, but seldom embody or practice it relationally. In the context of intraracial violence and the politics of prison abolition, in particular, we are still in our brains and far from our hearts. We theorize ideas, but fail to live solutions.
A note on disability
Important to our work, has been unpacking the ways that we have witnessed the warped legacies of Black nationalism creep into the queerest of spaces—particularly, our intimate relationships and community organizations. We have witnessed the ways that Black queer, gender non conforming (GNC), and masculine of center (MOC) folks at times get a pass for their violence in the context of frontline activist work and community organizing broadly. I am going to wander out a bit now to suggest what may be central to this dynamic, knowing that I am stepping into some pretty choppy, uncharted waters here: I believe that we need to get our disability politics together and in tandem, blacken the shit of them.
We live and work in communities with many people who often are not doing well, in varying degrees. And, we have not paused in our organizing to learn how to nurture ecosystems of understanding, honesty, and care for Black disabled folks. In our community, we don’t even have the language yet (perhaps “debility,” as Jasbir Puar has recently written) for naming the ways our world is not only hostile for Black life, but has a feral, subhuman disregard for Black disabled lives. We don’t talk intimately or enough about the connections between our Black lives and the specific conditions of Montreal’s anti-Blackness that make us unwell. We often have no shared language to articulate the rudimentary experience of emotional and material scarcity that runs like a train, at times, through our daily lives, our jobs, and organizing spaces. In turn, we are often unequipped for the expeditious lateral violence that rushes in and engenders a broken pathway between us. How can we better prioritize an ethics of understanding and care for Black disabled peoples who live, simultaneously, with status precarity; with intrafamily kinship and cultural demands; within communities under heavy and continuous state surveillance; and with barely having enough?
In Montreal, we have seen these conditions commonly wrap around one another within bodies that are living with PTSD from sexual violence and incest, long term/lifelong depression, brain trauma, schizophrenia, anxiety, cognitive differences, bipolar disorder, and often, intersecting disabilities. I am focusing here on mental and brain disabilities only because I see them everywhere I work and travel and teach and organize. In the last year, I have placed disability learning at the heart of my personal learning process because I have experienced what it means to nurture ‘radical spaces’ without accounting, first, for the violence that necessarily floods in when disability learning, heartfelt curiosity, and accommodations are erroneously presumed as shared goals by all within a work or learning space.
In failing to nurture an ecosystem of understanding, radical honesty, and care for Black disabled folks, we often in turn supplant this love work with a paternalism of false care and an ethics of ableist fragility for Black queer and GNC peoples who are living with mental illness and trauma close to us. In our activist and community organizing work, I have watched the ways we continue to conflate understanding and care with disability paternalism; asking questions with an uncomfortable, silenced curiosity; and accommodations that are simply necessary for basic well-being with resentment. I have also experienced the crash and burn failures from substituting an ethics of ableist fragility where accountability was needed: In the second year of our collective work, we attempted accountability, then a period of ‘time out,’ with an abusive co-organizer who we had called to discuss her violence for yet a third time. I learned invaluable lessons in the pain of that time period. I learned, importantly, how to better witness whole human beings—brilliant, beautiful, manipulative, and ill—and to insist on accountability, nonetheless, when violence is waged through disabled humans. I also learned how very much organizing violence can feel like violence with lovers, and in turn, how important it is to practice accountability in continuous increments, without fear, with the disabled people in our lives we care deeply for and experience harm from.
2. Black men who harm are those we know.
They are “good brothers”—community workers, fathers, educators—and all of the above. They are activists at the center of our organizing work and movements. They are “righteous and conscious.” They are people we have made love with in the past and never experienced violence from. They are people with have trusted with all of our hearts. They are men who have mentored us.
We write these things so directly because at the root of our work—at the root of the resistance we encounter in our work—is an age-old, tenacious dynamic of Black male protectionism that functions at the expense of Black women in our freedom-seeking work. It ruptures and betrays all bonds; it splits our hearts wide open. It sometimes takes our minds, just as it has over the last century. This protectionist response is part of the legacy of white supremacy born during enslavement and sharpened during Jim Crow in the US and Canada, a period which saw the face of criminality constructed as Black and male. As Khalil Gibran Muhammad explains in The Condemnation of Blackness (2010), racist beliefs about Black men were bolstered by new social ‘scientific’ theories of race, racial statistics, and social surveys in the late 19th century. “Out of these new methods and data sources, black criminality would emerge, alongside disease and intelligence, as a fundamental measure of black inferiority” within Black communities, Muhammad writes.
In Canada, white Canadians and politicians absorbed this rhetoric through the US media and used Black male criminality as a justification for resisting Black migration to Canada beginning in the mid 1800’s. And while white Canadians did not ritualize lynching as a signal of terror to discipline other Black men, historian Sara Jane Mathieu reminds that white Canadians used the threat of lynching to both propagate the trope of the ‘Black male rapist’ and also terrorize Black men throughout the nation. Coupled with ‘two waves’ of mainstream feminism that utterly ignored the social and political realities of Black women and their communities (and further invigorated the ‘Black male rapist’ trope), as well as the ripening of mass incarceration, Black communities and Black radical social movements enshrouded Black men with a protectionism designed to assuage white supremacy’s efficient technology. This steely protectionism has done more to embolden community silences about the intraracial rapes of Black women and minimize our harm than any other action in Black communities over time. We…we ourselves are responsible for this ongoing harm.
Accountability work is the clarifying force that disrupts the confrontation between violence against Black women and mass incarceration. We are more than the harms we commit, and we are that, too. One of the concepts felt and learned through an ongoing TJ practice is the gradual replacement of an ‘either/or’ way of witnessing and understanding human behavior, with a ‘yes/and’ rubric. We need to better envision accountability work as love work, as the work that makes our communities more connection-ordered. When we do harm, we need our communities (that is: our friends, relatives, colleagues, organizations/organizers) to courageously hold us accountable. We believe that this is what ‘love for community’ looks like in practice.
3. Finally: Stop bigging up rapists and those who harm within our community.
This is hugely important.
There are many, many ways Black men, queer, and GNC folks who harm receive ongoing support and encouragement after they are known, or have been repeatedly named as abusers and rapists within our communities. In 2018, we will start a dialogue with other organizers nationally about the mistakes we make, the lessons we have learned, and the ways we are trying to do better in our work.
Our community organizations and organizers need to do better. We just do. In the context of organizing work, “doing better” means pausing our colleagues from frontline organizing work and capping the proceeds of charismatic showmanship attached to such work when histories of partnership violence or violence against Black women are still floating in the air. We have the responsibility to ask people we work with to take a step back when harm has been committed. We believe that another way is possible, because we have witnessed it.