Someplace in my attic, there is a box with a photocopy of the pages from Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology that provide a transcription of a speech Bernice Johnson Reagon gave at the West Coast Women’s Music Festival in 1981.
Dr. Reagon, founder of the astounding a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, delivered Coalition Politics: Turning the Century to a group of women not having an entirely good time together that weekend. She did not speak to the exact situation at that event, or name names. But the words she spoke about how deeply threatening it feels to work in coalition with people who are not just like ourselves, and why it is crucial to do so, are just as valid today as they were then. Which is why, from time to time over the years I have rooted through those boxes to find that photocopy and read those words again.
On November 9, I woke with the refrain to Ella’s Song (written by Dr. Reagon using quotes from Ella Baker) in my head. “We who believe in freedom cannot rest; we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes,” helped remind me that day about who I am, and what I have done and can do. I felt just as restless, however, on the “how” part as I have for too many of my mid-life years.
The language we use to talk about non-violent civil action has changed a fair bit in the decades since I first considered myself an activist. And of course, the tools we use to share ideas and information are vastly different. But the core principles still apply; and three decades on, having turned the century a while back, I understand myself better.
Every effort I’ve ever been part of that made a lasting difference was a collaboration among people with varying backgrounds and common goals. The people involved often disagreed, got frustrated with each other, walked away, came back, persisted. And did not always win, together, what they sought to achieve. Sometimes we got less than we hoped for, and sometimes more than we dared to dream (jointly, or separately within the same coalition).
For me, having my intentions and methods challenged has been less difficult to take than having to step back from the tension between others in a group I had a stake in. I have a decent capacity to listen without expressing any squelching judgment, and to empathize with feelings and viewpoints that aren’t the same as mine. I can usually hold my center when someone trusts me enough to be open and honest, and share their experience. (Less easily when their experience is that I, specifically, have hurt them. Of course.)
But when Dr. Reagon says, “I feel as if I’m gonna keel over any minute and die. That is often what it feels like if you’re really doing coalition work. Most of the time you feel threatened to the core and if you don’t, you’re not really doing no coalescing.”, my reaction isn’t, “Yes! Exactly!” Was it, nearly thirty years ago? Sometimes, yes.
And still today the potential for conflict is enough to make me shake, despite all the tools at disposal. But mostly my gut response is, “Oh no! We need you! How can I help make this easier?” Fortunately, I’ve seen enough to know there are a variety of ways to do just that. Being a mediator, a facilitator, a hand-holder, a praise-giver, a listener, a donor of emotional and material support – I do those. It’s time to stretch beyond that comfort zone, but not to discount it. Because, like Dr. Reagon, I’m in for the long run.