Last week I had the privilege of attending Freedom Dreams Freedom Now, a conference sponsored by the Social Justice Initiative at the University of Illinois Chicago. For three days, historians, scholars, students, artists of all types, activists of every age, clergy and people who just wanted to learn, gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer and explore notions of freedom and “what movements are for, not just what they are against.”
As I try to process the dozen or so sessions and events I attended, two themes stand out to me: interconnectedness and resistance. At the closing plenary, Robin D.G. Kelley, renowned African-American studies scholar and the Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA, asked us to remember that the materials we used to craft a freedom quilt during the conference were probably made by a poor, overworked woman or girl in Asia, and that we are now connected to her. Following his remarks, Angela Y. Davis opened her speech by acknowledging that this event about freedom was taking place on land stolen from Native Americans. Both speakers implored all of us, whatever our cause may be, to connect our struggles to Palestine, and earlier, I heard Palestinian student activists express a unique understanding of race, anti-black racism and their privilege of being Arab instead of black in the racial hierarchy of the U.S.
It’s very tempting to give up on trying to save the world when you realize it is truly the entire world you have to save, and that you have to battle intangible foes like capitalism, neoliberalism and individualism — foes in which we all are deeply entrenched and often invested and, on a surface, temporary level, beneficiaries of — to win. Victory lies in changes of heart, mind and spirit, not just laws or policies that can change with an election or a coup.
The good news is, consciousness itself is a form of resistance. As Davis said during the closing plenary, “When we are conscious about the labor that goes into the things we buy, we begin to subvert capitalism.” By acknowledging that the devices I used to share the wisdom I was absorbing with 1,500 or so Twitter followers — 500 my own, 1,000 who follow the social justice institute for which I work and run social media — are made with “conflict materials” from the Democratic Republic of Congo or tin mined by poor men in Indonesia, I’m being subversive. I’m resisting the urge to think only of myself and my desires in my tiny space and miniscule moment in a world of 7 billion people and infinity.
In reflecting on the conference, I have concluded that this sense of interconnectedness, this consciousness as resistance, also makes me more Christ-like. I find this ironic, given how Christianity has been used throughout the world as a tool for colonization, imperialism and racism, and is now being used to promote all that plus hatred of gays and lesbians in places like Uganda. At a session titled, “Faith-Inspired Freedom Struggles and Faith-Based Opposition,” Inner-City Muslim Action Network executive director Rami Nashashibi reminded me of the idea that African-American converts to Islam embraced the Muslim faith as the next logical step of resistance (after civil disobedience and increased consciousness of black identity) in various freedom struggles and rejected white supremacy’s co-optation of Christianity. I personally know a number of former Christians who have taken the same step by learning and practicing traditional African religions. And by acknowledging the damage faith-based opposition has caused, I resist its force.
But by acknowledging the destruction a co-opted Christianity has done, I reject its takeover and resist the intangible hatred it spreads. I envision instead what my faith could be if I were to embrace Christ’s servanthood, his intolerance for mistreatment and his ability to put others’ lives before his even as he prayed out of deep concern for himself. I’ll probably never be the person who follows Jesus’s advice to the rich young man in Matthew 19, but I can work towards “the spiritual maturity which accompanies self-sacrificing character.” I can go beyond the individualism that, Davis said, “confines our imagination” and prevents us from engaging in community. I can be free.
[Mariam Williams is a writer born and raised in Louisville, Ky., where she's received numerous arts awards. When not working in the field of social justice research and taking graduate courses in women and gender and Pan-African studies, she blogs at RedboneAfropuff.com. Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]
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