Barbara Ransby, a history professor at UIC, author of Making All Black Lives Matter, and one of the keynote speakers for the March to the Polls this Saturday, October 13th, hosted a book talk and discussion panel Tuesday at the SEIU Healthcare headquarters on Halsted. The panel also included Jaquie Algee, a board member and organizer of Women’s March Chicago, and Chicago poet and playwright Kristiana Colón, cofounder of #LetUsBreatheCollective and creator of #BlackSexMatters.
Born and raised in Detroit, Ransby has made Chicago her home for the past quarter-century. “There’s a longstanding history and community of black feminist organizing here,” says Ransby. “Going back to Black Radical Congress, African American Women in Defense of Ourselves, black feminist scholars like Beth Richie and Cathy Cohen, and then of course Black Youth Project 100, which organizes through a black queer feminist lens. All of that energy and all of that spirit, really gives a particular potency to the black feminist organizing here in Chicago.”
Algee agrees. “Chicago is different because it has such rich history. . . . There are a number of groups of women, historically, that have done work in the Chicago area, that don’t necessarily get the credit that they should.”
Ransby discussed this history during the panel and how past movements differ from the current Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter grew out of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014 at the hands of a police officer, and was originally a hashtag that turned into a nation-wide movement. Ransby believes this movement broke the politics of respectability that past movements conformed to, affirming the idea that you don’t have to be a saint to be a citizen. No longer are activists only fighting for certain people of color; now they are fighting for all black lives.
“This movement has been inclusive in ways that other movements haven’t,” says Ransby. “We’ve seen movements that have focused on middle-class black folks, black folks who conform to certain middle-class standards of respectability and have not been as concerned about people who are incarcerated, people who are queer, people who are homeless. So this movement has really focused on people who other movements have marginalized.”
Ransby refers to her book as a “collective biography” in which she interviews and tells the stories of activists involved in the movement across the country. She spoke of the movement’s “radical inclusivity” and of its focus on the LGBTQ community and women. She told the story of Al Sharpton getting booed by the young freedom fighters in Ferguson as he tried to “mold and scold” them, while Angela Davis, though older, was embraced because of her willingness to learn from the youth leading the movement. Today’s tactics aren’t like anything from the past, either; instead of marching and boycotting, young people are doing everything from literally stopping traffic to scaling statues and buildings in order to bring attention to their messages. Ransby also spoke of how now, people aren’t just focused on a single issue, but on many.
“Black feminist organizing is situated within a larger political context, and the reason I think it’s important is not just because I’m a black woman but it’s that the politics of intersectionality are radically inclusive politics, and they’re radical politics in the sense of they get to the root of injustices, multiple injustices, not just single issues. And so in that sense, it is a set of politics that promises transformative change if we embrace it. So we have to think of rethinking the schools, rethinking the economic system, rethinking prisons, all of that is a part of the mission of black feminist work. So, if we do that work, we end up with a more just society.”
Ransby herself has contributed to the merging of issues in Chicago with her work in convening the R3 Coalition, a group of 32 Chicago-based organizations that work on a variety of issues, including climate change, LGBTQ issues, immigration, and police violence. SEIU Healthcare is also a member. “I think, through coalition work,” says Ransby, “you have a menu of options of different issues that you could work on.”
Ransby discussed her book for the first part of the talk, then turned to Algee and Colón for questions and finally to the audience. One audience member asked Ransby about the impact of electoral work and voting, to which Ransby replied, “We should always have a vote-plus strategy,” meaning that voting should always be supplemented by protesting or resistance. She described voting as a “defensive game,” one used to prevent the politicians who want to do the most harm from getting elected.
According to Ransby, even radically progressive candidates might be in danger of getting “sucked into the vortex of the corporate Democratic party” if there weren’t a movement to support them. This is one reason that voting must be accompanied by action; the system is inherently flawed. Another reason is because of the rise in neo-liberalism in the Democratic party.
“Neo-liberalism really talks about a set of practices under a capitalist system where there’s increased privatization, increased emphasis on the market to resolve all problems, and public institutions increasingly resemble corporations, like universities do,” she explains.
Despite the corruption of both political parties as well as the electoral system in general, Ransby believes that voting can do some good by keeping certain politicians out of office. “We do want less evil in the world,” she says. However, if we want to become the just society that Ransby outlined, one in which there isn’t police corruption or mass incarceration, more must be done than simply casting a ballot.