Book Review – Unapologetic by Charlene A. Carruthers

Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements by Charlene A. Carruthers. Beacon Press, 2018, 192pp. $22.95 hardcover.

Organizing for justice is a constant inter-generational effort, and organizers are constantly searching for new insights, ideas, and inspiration to meet each generation’s unique social landscape. Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) is a member-based organization of Black activists and organizers age 18 to 35 which engages in political advocacy, organizing, education, leadership development, and direct action. They operate – specifically through what they describe as “a Black queer feminist lens” (BQF). What can we learn from this organization and its leadership? This is a central function of Unapologetic – values and lessons-learned from a seasoned organizer of BYP100. Charlene Carruthers brings forth deeply insightful stories and defines the BQL for readers, embarking on a journey through Black youth organizing history and how it informs her personal approach to activist organizational structure.

Neither prescriptive or descriptive, Unapologetic situates itself between these two categories in a unique synthesis. It is a book on praxis. Carruthers explicitly states that this book is not a “How To” book to activist organizing. She also delineates that it is not an overview specifically of BYP100 or a book on its history. Instead, she offers this as a text to those radical movements seeking insight and an introduction towards centering a BQF in their efforts. She notes BQF as a “lens” of organizing and activism rather than a mode of analysis. What does it mean to actively operate through a Black, queer, feminist lens? How do we define this approach to organizing spaces and bodies? In its essence, this book pushes the reader to consider how we might make our activism more effective and principled in its core operating functions. Further, this is equally a narrative of how Carruthers became a leading young Black activist out of Chicago. Her personal journey is woven into the fabric of this book in a powerful display of the transformative leadership building she wishes to build in others.

This is Charlene Carruthers’ first book with a broad target audience. It is written in language accessible to those outside of the academy while utilizing systems of oppression analysis. It is fresh, personal, and intimate. Carruthers’ voice is clear and present in the writing – straying from jargon-heavy texts which can inundate students inside the academy and those outside it. It reads like a conversation as opposed to a lecture. The book is structured to first define the BQF lens and situate her organizing in Black radical tradition / Black radical imagination. She outlines BYP100’s three core commitments in detail: healing justice, building leaders, and engaging in principled struggle against neoliberalism. She outlines the “Chicago model” which is central to BYP100’s creation and grassroots organizing. The conclusion is a mandate for radical movements and Black activists which she asserts, and this mandate is inspired by Mary Hooks, Marsha P. Johnson, and Harriet Tubman amongst others.

The book opens with a rapid-fire personal declaration of what a Black, queer, feminist lens is. She writes that this lens on the world and organizing centralizes anti-capitalist and anti- imperialist stances long held by Black queer & trans woman activists. Carruthers states that fighting racism, sexism, and homophobia require a “complete dismantling of the current capitalist regime” and require “transnational solidarity.” The opening section sets the tone of the rest of the book through her description of radicalism as a choice and that this book is not intended to create “lone wolf” leadership – a leadership style of pedestals which white, queer, and neoliberal “infiltrators” bring into grassroot movements. This is both a style of organizing through BQF lens and a model used by BYP100. She asserts that creating monolithic or messianic leaders within movements prevents future leaders in their communities from developing. Such “activist stardom” can take place online and in person and she believes it can pose a threat to true transformative justice. Healing justice becomes a part of this radical imagination. She advocates for movements which integrate not only transforming society, but healing marginalized communities in the process. This is not only making structural changes and righting past wrongs but also creating loving communities which are cared for in the present. She writes that it is impossible to create a revolutionary future while our movements are hurt and damaged from generations of trauma and violence, that self-actualization is equally as important as institutional liberation.

This book, which is part-narrative, part-descriptive, part-prescriptive, contains a number of personal stories from which Carruthers pulls meaning from. She does not state there is a single approach which can be cookie-cut and placed into organizations or movements. Organizing, in her words, is messy, nuanced, full of contradictions, and a BQF lens necessitates “theorizing as we go.” One such story revolved around a member of their community who was jailed on dubious racial profiling. The community rallied for his release, meanwhile stories of sexual assault on Black women in the activist movement started to trickle up towards leadership. Upon his release they were faced with a complicated situation of wishing to celebrate his release while simultaneously addressing the healing and accountability needed in that moment. They wished to resist the collective punishment of the carceral system and also address his history of assault and sexual violence. This is the messy and nuanced nature of activist movements which still require “theorizing as we go.”

Radical imagination is a constant presence in the text, overlaying the BQF lens and BYP100’s organizational mission. BYP100, she notes, is inspired by new ways but deeply rooted into the long historic tradition of Black youth organizing. A radical imagination allows us to free ourselves of movements which are stifled by operating from a reactionary stance solely in the present. It also fosters movements which can right past wrongs and move these into the future. The radical imagination calls for us to envision society as we truly want to see it – free of patriarchal violence, systematic racism via capitalism, and violence. This becomes the root of the organizing mission – not incremental change as the root of the organizing mission.

BYP100 follows what she calls the Chicago Model. Chicago and its people are present at nearly every critical moment in the U.S. Black radical tradition. She outlines movements from 1916 to the present and presents a model of how to organize from one of the last outposts of U.S. Black culture. A central thread, Carruthers notes, is community building coupled with anti-police violence organizing. “To organize successfully in Chicago means being in it for the long haul. It takes creativity, endurance, and a degree of hardiness. Our victories don’t come easily or quickly” (pg 122). Detailed accounts of how these converge are demonstrated in stories of the campaigns for reparations of Black torture victims by the Chicago police, Black Lives Matter and their Chicago roots, and ousting anti-Black police apologist election officials also all utilized what vanguard activism. Coalitions of Black activists from many grassroots movements coming together with their own approaches, skills, models – not conglomerating into a uniform whole, but working hand in hand for collective justice.

Overall the text was thorough in its approach towards detailing the many systems of oppression which transformative justice must pay attention to in a BQF lens. I did note that a binary of Israelis vs. Palestinians was present in several segments where she lists the oppressions which exist in society and when she discusses transnational solidarity. The conflation of Israelis as a cohesive political whole, coupled with the absence of naming antisemitism explicitly, leads to a binary which overlooks the many progressive and anarchist Israelis who are resisting the occupation of Palestinian territory or only insinuating Jewish people exist on one side of oppression as an oppressor. I only note this as someone who is Jewish and cares deeply about our collective liberation. Organizations such as Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JREJ) and resources such as Contemporary Israeli Anarchism: A History by Crimethinc outline the many ways in which the Palestinian occupation, like many of Carruthers’ examples, are nuanced and messy, ultimately with state governments and militarism by Israeli officials as the object of critique, not Israelis writ-large. I worry, like Evan K. Ward a Black scholar who studies white nationalism wrote in his article Skin In The Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism, that leaving out antisemitism misses addressing a crucial component of the matrix which weaves islamophobia, anti-blackness, orientalism, and other oppressions together.

 

Overall, this book demonstrates how praxis emerges through utilizing a Black, queer, and feminist lens. It necessitates integrating a radical imaginative future into the cornerstones of intersectional feminist theory to inform our activism. We are urged to understand the need to resist collective punishment by the state and embrace collective healing liberation as concepts towards a future imagined for-and-by Black peoples of all stripes. This accessible and succinct text is a must-read for those unfamiliar with past and present Black activism and for those wishing to learn from the Black, queer, feminist tradition moving into the future.

Andrea Haverkamp is a researcher located within the liminal space between engineering education research and critical feminist theory. Her work explores the largely untouched topics of systems of oppression, social inequity, and gender theory in the formation of professional engineering cultural identity. She holds a a BS in Chemical Engineering and is a PhD candidate in Environmental Engineering with a Queer Studies minor at Oregon State University, Corvallis Oregon where she also obtained her MEng in Environmental Engineering. Her dissertation research is about the support systems and community resiliency of transgender and gender nonconforming undergraduate students in undergraduate engineering education.

Author: Andrea Haverkamp

Andrea Haverkamp is a doctoral candidate in environmental engineering with a minor in queer studies. Her dissertation research explores the support systems and community resiliency of transgender and gender nonconforming undergraduate students in undergraduate engineering education.

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