Two nights ago I showed up to the Brecht Forum in Brooklyn ready to have a conversation about what we mean when we say “ally, privilege, and comrade.”
I showed up to have that discussion after months of battle testing around these issues in my own crew. Over these months I’ve learned that it is far easier to be just to the people we don’t know than the people we do know.
So there I sat on a panel with a white woman and a Black man. As a Black feminist, I never quite know how political discussions will go down with either of these groups. Still I’m a fierce lover of Black people and a fierce defender of women.
The brother shared his thoughts about the need to “liberate all Black people.” It sounded good. But since we were there to talk about allyship, I needed to know more about his gender analysis, even as I kept it real about how I’ve been feeling lately about how much brothers don’t show up for Black women, without us asking, and prodding, and vigilantly managing the entire process.
In a word, I was tired.
I shared that. Because surely, a conversation about how to be better allies to each other, is a safe space.
This brother was not having it. He did not plan to be challenged, did not plan to have to go deep, to interrogate his own shit. Freedom-talk should’ve been enough for me.
But I’m grown. And I know better. So I asked for more.
I got cut off, yelled at, screamed on. The moderator tried gently to intervene, to ask the brother to let me speak, to wait his turn. To model allyship. To listen. But to no avail. The brother kept on screaming about his commitment to women, about all he had “done for us,” about how I wasn’t going to erase his contributions.
Then he raised his over 6 foot tall, large brown body out of the chair, and deliberately slung a cup of water across my lap, leaving it to splash in my face, on the table, on my clothes, and on the gadgets I brought with me.
Damn. You knocked the hell out of that cup of water. Did you wish it were me? Or were you merely trying to let me know what you were capable of doing to a sister who didn’t shut her mouth and listen?
Left to sit there, splashes of water, mingling with the tears that I was embarrassed to let run, because you know sisters don’t cry in public, imploring him to “back up,” to “stop yelling,” to stop using his body to intimidate me, while he continued to approach my chair menacingly, wondering what he was going to do next, anticipating my next move, anticipating his, being transported back to past sites of my own trauma, traumas that have been especially fresh and difficult this Domestic Violence Awareness Month…
I waited for anyone to stand up, to sense that I felt afraid, to stop him, to let him know his actions were unacceptable. Our co-panelist moved her chair closer to me. It was oddly comforting.
I learned a lesson: everybody wants to have an ally, but no one wants to stand up for anybody.
Eventually three men held him back, restrained him, but not with ease. He left. I breathed. I let those tears that had been threatening fall.
Then an older Black gentleman did stand up. “I WILL NOT STAND FOR THIS MALIGNING OF THE BLACK MAN…” his rant began. While waiting for him to finish, I zoned out and
Wondered what had happened here. Did this really happen here? In movement space?
Tiredness descended. And humiliation. And loneliness. And weariness. And anger at being disrespected. And embarrassment for you. And concern for you and what you must be going through – to show your ass like that. And questioning myself about what I did to cause your outburst. And checking myself for victim-blaming myself. And anger at myself for caring about you and what you must be going through. Especially since you couldn’t find space to care about me and what I must be going through.
Later, with my permission, you came in and apologized. Asked us to make future space for forgiveness. I didn’t feel forgiving that day. I don’t feel forgiving today. I know I will forgive you though. It’s necessary.
After being approached at the end by a Gary Dourdan-looking macktivist, who couldn’t be bothered to stand up to the brother screaming on me, but who was ready to “help” me “heal the traumas through my body,” –as he put it (yes you can laugh)—I grabbed my coat and schlepped back to Jersey.
On the long train ride home, and in these days since, I have been reminded that this is not the first time that I have been subject to a man in a movement space using his size and masculinity as a threat, as a way to silence my dissent. I remembered that then as now, the brothers in the room let it happen without a word on my behalf.
Is it so incredibly difficult to show up for me – for us—when we need you? Is it so hard to believe that we need you? Is solidarity only for Black men? As for the silence of the sisters in the room, I still don’t know what to make of that. Maybe they were waiting on the brothers, just like me.
I do know I am tired. And sad. And not sure how much more I want to struggle with Black men for something so basic as counting on you to show up.
All of this is important to read. All of this is important to listen to. All of this is important to imagine, to remember, to consider for how we create space for each other in radical movements and meaningfully intervene when violence erupts. I am grateful to CFC for posting this, and I am saddened by how no one — not the co-panelist, the moderator, nor anyone in the audience knew how to meaningfully intervene in the moment. Yes, the brother should not have menaced the author in the first place. But the question of how we, collectively, should respond to these eruptions of violence is as relevant and urgent as how to not be a perpetrator of direct violence in the first place. So much to think about and hold.