A constant struggle that continues to arise within Black organizations, the activist world, community spaces and social justice conversations is that of who gets paid for their work? and how we prioritize the need for payment for labor as we navigate a capitalist system. “The work” referenced here means that of survival, the fight for safety and humanity, resources, freedom and liberation. In addressing this topic of payment for labor, there is nuance in how all of us handle the naming of our work, our efforts and our existence as deserving of resources, financial sustainability and payment for labor.
The response to financial liberation, to be supported through a violent capitalistic system and to be acknowledged as valuable in giving our labor ranges from those who posit that capitalism/money/payment are not necessary to the conversation on liberation, to those who believe that organizing is only accessible to certain people intentionally. Some responses to this particular issue include: “This shouldn’t be about the money!” “Being in this work is a blessing.” “Avenge our ancestors.” “This work is a labor of love.”
These are all complicated ideological positions and understandings. While we should recognize that money and hierarchy of labor, worth and production will never get us free in a black future, we have to cultivate a shared understanding that antiblack capitalism rules everything around us within this current system of violence we’re surviving. Individually, we are not afforded the time, space, or energy to provide our labor where and when we please if we are bombarded with the dominating and ubiquitous violence of antiblackness, the defense of our very existence and our survival through a labor market to provide basic resources to live.
As Toni Morrison said, “The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” Morrison reminds us that racism is a diversion, but additionally, racism, or rather antiblackness, is an intentional mental aberration under white supremacist ideology that drains and harms us psychologically. We are socialized to believe systems of antiblackness aren’t real, then we spend the rest of our lives proving that they are, disassociating between multiple consciousnesses.
We are so consumed with the violence of impoverishment, economic disenfranchisement, hunger, lack of access to clean air and water, lack of job opportunities, police brutality, antiblack misogyny, the murder and erasure of black trans and gender nonconforming folks, etc., that it is impossible for any individual Black person to not be mentally and physically drained every day they exist. Our existence is labor.
That being said, it means that when we are forced to navigate capitalism while moving through these layers of violence, we must find ways to be supported — financially, instrumentally (resources) and emotionally. This labor of love doesn’t repay us in real time if we are unsupported. Rather, it drains us as we fight to live. The way our labor shows up through organizing can never be slept on. This work is constantly starting and restarting — with a constant chance of burnout and incapacitation.
Audre Lorde said in Sister Outsider, “It is easier to deal with the external manifestations of racism and sexism than it is to deal with the results of those distortions internalized within our consciousness of ourselves and one another.” Some of the ways this antiblack capitalist violence operates through our internal individual selves and collective ideological struggle are:
- Devaluing of Black Labor:
When we name that our labor within an antiblack capitalist system — however that labor shows up — should be provided payment for, we are revolutionizing our existence and the inhumane amounts of labor we have always had to provide to survive the present and the future. From brainstorming, coming to meetings, child caretaking during organizational meetups, getting up in the morning and surviving the day while theorizing a Black future, there is a labor that we are exerting at all times. When we center the financial and economic justice work within organizing towards Black liberation, it puts value on ourselves and our work for this movement we’ve long provided for free at the cost of our individual sustainability.
- Projection of Antiblack Capitalism Trauma:
Capitalism and the lived experience of most Black people is that of struggle > less struggle > potential glow up. The way the “American Dream” is portrayed to us, we are led to believe that struggle is a part of our story and our merit as people. But the struggle is always framed in the past — a historical experience — and never lauded in the present. So when we achieve and arrive at “living better” or the come up, our struggle becomes romanticized and needed to value our present. Sometimes, we internalize that because we were harmed, taken from, exploited and forced to struggle through physical and psychological capitalist violence, it means that other black folks must suffer before they can have their survival needs met. We become resentful in the path we had to take to obtain the basic survival resources we have, that we don’t want to offer an easier path to anyone else through the work we claim is for collective liberation in the first place. Ultimately, this individual and collective way of thinking is harmful. We must do the work it takes to decenter our trauma stories from how we provide access to other Black people who deserve resources and financial support to have what they need and what they want.
- Survival of the Fittest:
Under antiblack capitalism, it embedded within us that we have to compete to survive. The consistent and very violent “crabs in a barrel” analogy is deeply attached to our socio-historical experiences. Yet we never acknowledge that a barrel is not a crab’s natural habitat. We are never prompted with the nuance of how everything within this system is intentional, our resources are purposely framed as scarcities and our survival is always a fight to the death. So if rivalry is needed to live, it means when other niggas get money, resources or access, it takes away from our individual survival. We can’t all win, because winning requires a loser. But this a white supremacist concept that deters us as individuals from wanting to work to create collective healing and support. This mentality is dangerous and exists in the political gray, because in order to divest from it, it requires a collective effort to stop competing for resources and dismantle the top-down theory.
- Ego, Power and Exclusivity before Collective Liberation:
There is an individual struggle to challenge ourselves to look past centering our work, our power, ourselves in which we never question how we position ourselves and our individual magic over others. When we position ourselves over the collective, it reminds us that Black liberation is only theoretical. When those of us who are paid do not recognize the access or power we have, it is an injustice to the progress of Black liberation. When those of us who are within organizational leadership positions only hire the people who are our personal friends — providing tangible support to the people at the same level of access as ourselves — it is an injustice to the progress of Black liberation. When those of us with social capital or community clout are unwilling to be checked, held accountable or grow, it is an injustice to the progress of Black liberation.
- Hierarchies of Worth:
Capitalism convinces us that there’s merit in being paid more than someone else. We assume there is honor in antiblack capitalistic hierarchies of worth, therefore anyone who wants to be paid for their labor — especially folks who are young, new to organizing, rogue, nonrespectable, not invited to the metaphorical table — must achieve a level of value, tokenism, power or social positioning and/or must “prove themselves” first to have their survival needs met. It requires that we be of subjective worth to others first before we can access financial means of survival.
- Poverty as a “Natural Phenomenon”
There is an assumption that poverty, struggle, fighting one another for survival is a natural phenomenon; that economic violence is not a component of antiblackness. Rather, poverty and economic violence is a driving force in killing our people. Capitalism permeates our minds into believing that we cannot all have what we need and survive. There’s assumptions that Black liberation is possible through the current systems of capitalism, but antiblackness operates through capitalism. The same violence that kills us in the streets is funded and perpetuated within a capitalistic system that exploits, sells and profits from Blackness/Black labor/Black culture while never humanizing Black people.
- Who Says What’s Valuable to Black Liberation?
This work is often segregated in which organizing work is supported, funded and valued. For example, the organizing that gets the most money is often public policy and voting engagement (reformist work). After that, we see respectable forms of community engagement, reproductive justice and multiracial work supported. In addition, we see trauma-chasing funded by highly visible organizations in which they travel to sites of public tragedy for the sake of news coverage and solidarity. But rarely do we see the work for ideological Black struggle supported, work centering hood niggas, work valuing the efforts of those who shut down highways without a bail fund, work that wholeheartedly centers only Black organizing or work centering Afrofuturism.
- Mass Production without Principle:
Organizations that are created out of radical principle but only produce work that is respectable and reformist are often never held accountable. These organizations are able to maintain notoriety and financial stability because they amass radical thought and radical individuals to garner a platform, and once they are able to establish and niche their brand of radical innovation, they become engulfed within the nonprofit industrial complex and the stagnancy of unchallenged notoriety. They begin to produce liberalist and respectable work that specifically aligns with receiving grants and/or maintaining status quo. When these organizations or members are not required to maintain accountability for funding, organizational work or responsibility to the people, it maintains that liberation is only a theory without the individual or collective responsibility for actualizing it by living it. It aligns with centering “liberation” as abstract dogma and faith without work. If we are unable to challenge, push for growth or accountability from organizations that are funded and profit from our “potential liberation,” then it is an injustice to the progress of our movement and our humanization.
- Feminizing Poverty to Center Masculine Forms of Violence:
When Black people vocalize struggle through poorness, mental illness, lack of access and resources, these forms of violence are read and framed as feminine and a form of bitchassness. Being broke is constantly named as a benchmark for ain’t-shit-ness, bitchness, weakness and unacceptable-ness throughout all Black popular culture references, and through our Black socialization. Mental illness, inaccessibility and deeper nuances of identity politics will seemingly never be centered the way more masculine violence — physical violence by nonblack people and all state actors/agents, state-sanctioned violence, police brutality, etc. — is currently prioritized. This reaction also posits a mentality that “poverty will always be a problem so why even talk about it” — maintaining that poverty is separate from antiblackness and white supremacist violence. The devaluing of poverty, and therefore feminizing, reaffirms that violence that cannot supplement toxic Black masculinity will not be a priority. Black women, femmes and all gender oppressed Black folks are the most harmed by poverty and economic violence within our communities — the same way we are also most likely to be murdered by agents of the state and by Black cisgender straight men. This only reaffirms that our movement and liberation is contingent upon the dismantling of misogynoirism.
- Trauma Blocking:
Most of the time, antiblackness and/or trauma blocking stops us from wanting to engage with the vulnerability of poor black folks wanting to get free (even if we’re poor too). The way we see GoFundMes and crowdsourcing links get ignored, but post articles on the most current and most visible public lynching of a Black person. The way some of us drive past Black people asking for money on street corners, but stay hypervigilant to police brutality. Many of us have built up an immunity to the needs of our people when we are being harmed in realtime. Similar to the previous point, until there is a shift in how we view violence within our community, poor niggas will get ignored, silenced and erased.
- No Hood Niggas and No Ratchets:
The respectability and antiblackness that informs all Black people to deny certain types of Blackness that are the most demonized in performance, presentation and identification is that of the hood, poor, trauma-born niggas. This is never to sleep on the power, intelligence and innovation that has been always been the politic and existence of hood niggas, scallywags, ratchets, hos, ’round the way girls, etc. This is to examine the violence that exists in denying the space for all types of Blackness in the space for “liberation.” Because there is a respectability required to access paid organizing, whether that respectability comes in the form of privilege of identity or in performance of Blackness, it limits who is offered a seat at the metaphorical table.
- No Problematics and No Community Accountability:
Because we are denied time, tools and energy to cultivate a defined and accountable form of community, it makes it that much harder for us to find ways to not dispose of Black people when we fuck up. Disposability is a tool for survival as we navigate capitalism, because this system puts a price tag on our time and labor. The labor for our people’s growth is limited; our trauma is overloaded at all times. Therefore, if we don’t have the time to build community, define the rules of that community and create accountability tools for our community, how can we work with those of us who are still problematic, still detoxing from white supremacist mentalities, etc.? If we don’t have the support to help our people grow, then we will continue to be hindered from progress. And if tangible support is only dedicated to those moving certain types of organizational work, then we will continually devalue the ideological struggle within Black liberation.
To be clear, these points are not finalized. Everything exists in the political gray. These points I’ve listed are suggestive and based on my perception alone, yet this essay will allow for more comprehensive discussion on how we (including myself) challenge our internalization of antiblack capitalism.
Rather than positing stringent black-and-white answers around progressing towards Black liberation, we as individuals and smaller collectives should host more conversations and discuss options for how to create community resources and accountability to maintain this work on local levels. Continuing the conversation, visioning a new world and engaging ideological Black struggle is the most powerful thing we can do within this current system to build a Black future.
Ashleigh Shackelford is a Black queer, nonbinary fat femme writer, artist, and cultural producer. Ashleigh is a contributing writer at Wear Your Voice Magazine and For Harriet. Read more at BlackFatFemme.com. Support my emotional and intellectual labor by donating to: PayPal.me/AshleightheLion.