I’m in the midst of writing the proposal for MAGICAL DEPRESSIVE REALISM and I’ve been thinking about mainstream success, what it does to your perspective, what it requires you forsake and leave behind.
In the social media microwave background are murmurings about Black Lives Matter Global Network CEO Patrisse Khan-Cullors being called in by the families of the dead Black folks whose names the organization used to “build power”, and her recent interview with Marc Lamont Hill essentially refusing their requests for accountability. Her high-profile friends rushing to her side, claiming they are acting in the name of love for all Black women, in defense of all Black women. Some of those high-profile friends are writers, artists, and organizers I love—if from afar—and respect, whose work has inspired me and changed the trajectory of my own. And none of them, as far as I can tell, are directly addressing the very valid grievances raised by the families of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, and others whose deaths laid the foundation for BLMGN’s mainstream success and at the very least bolstered Khan-Cullors’ influence and prestige.
It’s really making me think, is it damn near impossible to remain rooted in a set of values that centers the most marginalized once you achieve a certain level of success? Or is it that so many of the folks in our communities who get to that level were already middle class or white adjacent to begin with?
As a Black person who was mostly raised by a white parent, I know that I must be ever-vigilant in examining my own reactions to and understandings of situations. The same goes for my class background. Raised on the stoop of the middle class and paying rent with credit, I am constantly learning how good I had it compared to a family with no access to credit and no extended family with savings. It sounds like Khan-Cullors, raised in Van Nuys, had a similar upbringing as my cousins out in Pacoima, CA. My cousins are Black middle class, nothing fancy, but also way better off than many others. Yet I’m sure they have horrible stories to tell, ways they could claim purchase to the gravy train of Black death, if they wanted.
Living in LA, I’ve heard things about Dignity and Power Now, Khan-Cullors first organization here in the Los Angeles area. They have a reputation, at least in disabled community, of not compensating appropriately for labor requested. Former BLM LA members—disabled working-class cultural worker Walela Nehanda is an example—have spoken out about their dismissive treatment by Khan-Cullors and Melina Abdullah, a professor at Cal State LA and leader within BLM LA. Ferguson activist and media director for Planting Justice Ashley Yates has long been drawing attention to the abuses within BLMGN, particularly their handling of sexual assault accusations against one of their members by Yates herself.
None of this is new and none of it originated in right-wing media. Like everything else, white people noticed calling BLMGN out was trending in Black circles and decided to capitalize on it. And it’s a cute swerve to finally come out and say something about it after all that’s gone down, and then claim the whole thing is a right-wing op.
It’s the elite playbook, really, and it makes sense that it’s being used by folks who’ve gained some level of mainstream success. To get to the point where you’re regularly bumping elbows with celebrities, especially as a fat Black queer person, you have to have begun to believe in their bullshit to some extent. More importantly, their bullshit has to have rubbed off on you.
And perhaps most importantly, you have to have shut out the folks who would take you by the shoulders and shake some sense back into you. Those folks are, too often, the same ones you had to use to get where you’ve landed. Folks like Nehanda and Yates. Folks like the parents of murdered Black people, like Samaria Rice and Mike Brown Sr., and the grassroots BLM activists who support them.
Generations of Black middle class academics, writers, and artists have interpreted the experience of the Black underclass into profit and refused accountability for it. This isn’t the first time it’s happened, and as long as folks think protecting Black women means protecting their right to acquire wealth by any means, it damn sure won’t be the last. The constant social media gaslighting around Black abundance, acting like any critique of earnings is an attack against all Black folks’ right to be comfortable, is white supremacist capitalism internalized. Folks are using the same arguments billionaires deploy to justify why they deserve their wealth, just draping it in kente cloth. If you add shine to your name off saying the names of dead Black folks, I’m sorry, but you are engaging in exploitation unless their survivors are also living in abundance.
And that’s something I see too: the conflation of white supremacist attacks against Black activists in general and Khan-Cullors, Tamika Mallory, and others in particular with the legitimate critiques of BLM chapter members and the families of those murdered by police. Yes, some people making noise do want these high-profile activists dead, do want them to suffer in poverty. But many others are folks who are directly invested in the struggle, who have been on the ground doing work in BLM’s name, or people like me who were inspired by the way the phrase “Black Lives Matter” seemed to separate the chaff of white folks real quick. I mean, we have two Black Lives Matter stickers on our car, so it’s not like I was ever anti-BLM or anti-PKC! I’m still not. I’m just anti-evading the communities you say you want to lift up and build power for.
I know there’s only so much you can do to control the ways people use your name, your ideas, your image. I want to offer generosity to these activists, consider that they did not willingly participate in the their uplifting to a position of community leadership. But I also know it’s possible to limit your success, to turn down invitations, to donate speaking fees or suggest a different speaker with an experience that needs centering. In my own career, I’ve had many opportunities to speak on the Black experience, bolstering my own profile in the process, that I’ve turned down.
It might have more to do with my neurodivergence-fueled affinity for fairness and my general disdain for celebrity, but as someone who straddles the borders of many marginalized identities, I am very conscious of the space I take up. I want the same level of conscientiousness from those who have taken up the mantle of community leader. Particularly if that’s not a mantle the community you’re trying to lead has handed you. I don’t think, even if you feel this way, that being “divinely called” to this work is a valid excuse for evading calls to accountability. That’s a very individualist mindset. If you are called, it’s to serve the people, not the other way around. Demands that we ignore these families’ cries for redress sound to me like we’re being expected to serve our leaders, who are in turn serving white supremacist capitalism.
Anyway, there’s this saying of adrienne maree brown’s, one of the aforementioned writers who’ve rallied to Khan-Cullors’ defense while either ignoring or completely mischaracterizing what Mike Brown Sr. and Samaria Rice and all the grassroots BLM activists are saying. The saying is, “What you/we pay attention to grows.” She repeated the saying in a recent blog post, which was actually a recent speech she gave at Tulane University, defending Khan-Cullors against these supposed right-wing attacks. I used to nod along in the way I nod along to other movement platitudes like that, i.e., “The power of the people is stronger than the people in power.” In the latter case, when I drill down into that saying I find all sorts of nuance, like yes, the power of the people is potentially stronger, but the people in power have riot gear and tanks, so we’ve got to be more specific—if we were all aligned, all working towards liberation strategically and diligently, then our power can overcome theirs.
Today I found myself at last reacting to the simplicity of “What we pay attention to grows” as brown sought to divert our attention from the struggle of poor and working-class Black families inviting their self-installed leaders to accountability and towards the struggle of being a high profile Black middle class activist. I realized my experience with gardening does not bear the phrase out as a truism. Sometimes what we pay attention to rots and dies. It depends on the quality of the attention.
I think these celebrity activists and movement writers with a high profile have been receiving low-quality attention. Too much water. Adoration absent honest critique, attention that can look and feel like it is helping you grow but is actually cutting off your oxygen supply, dooming you to suffocate in stagnant ideas. When the families of Black folks murdered by police are calling you in and you can’t step off your pedestal (which you claim you don’t want in the first place) long enough to acknowledge what they’re saying? Your root system is gone.
I just… am so disappointed. I had to write about it. If only so I remember, so that if I’m ever in a position to disappoint others in this way, I can avoid it.