When I talk about Black liberation, I'm talking about what is considered to be the bottom of the bottom. And when you are able to change how that - which has been defined as the least and evil--if that can be transformed and set free, then all other things beyond that can follow.--Brittini Gray
My deepest desire is that we can all do the work with more grace, more love, more honesty, and more compassion with each other so that we can not only change the world bit by bit--but that we can collectively transform it into the world we want it to be.--Charlene A. Carruthers
As a writer, educator, and leading social reformer of her time, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) was deeply invested in addressing the sociopolitical challenges confronting African Americans in the United States in the latter half of the 19th century. (1) In the same vein as abolitionists in the annals of American history, Harper anticipated and performed the "common rough work"--the essential labor that was--as is now--at the heart of Black women's self-advocacy and, by extension, political agency. Often shared, and more frequently rendered invisible, this work is racialized and gendered. As so many others during her lifetime, Harper persevered in the struggle for freedom, which would become her life's work, believing that eventually it would lead to the full liberation of Black women and men throughout the nation.
The significance of the social justice work that Harper performed in the late 19th century remains instructive. (2) The racial animus of the present moment--exacerbated by the policies and politics of the current president and members of his administration--coupled with widening economic divides that persist resemble the not too distant past wherein the notion of White supremacy and the belief in Black inferiority prevailed, limiting the access that Black people and other marginalized group identities had to the public and private sector, namely, the educational system, labor market, healthcare, and social services that represented the "milk and honey" of the nation. Brittini Gray, In Power Institute's Healing Justice Fellow and Artist-in-Residence, contexualizes White supremacy in this way, "The foundation of our country, which impacts the world because of globalization, is based around this Black/White dichotomy. It's not to erase other people of color and other oppressions, but it's to say that the roots of where we are come out of that. When you think about it as the foundation, then Whiteness and White culture have traditionally been painted and continue to operate as the norm and representation of what is right, and Blackness has been opposite of all that." (3) When compared to the American lore about the nation as the "land of the free and the home of the brave," collectively, the status of African American women and men leaves a good deal to be reimagined.
An Integral Link
Using Harper's letters and speeches as a lens, I explore the integral link between Harper's work and that of Black women activists in the 21st century pressing for social change in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. Since Harper's death, the "common rough work" in which she was involved has not ceased. More fundamentally, this work has been assumed and sustained by Black women and broadened to reflect the development of a cogent, evolving critique of our democratic system articulated by Black women activists that recognizes its inherent limitations and possibilities. (4)
I argue the "common rough work" of defending and preserving the lives of Black women and men, reconstructing Black womanhood, and laboring to bring about a more just and equitable society in which Harper participated can be linked to the ongoing resistance among Black women to the constraints placed on Black liberty and the assault on and annihilation of Black bodies in the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. If we look closely, we can trace Harper's legacy in the struggles waged by contemporary Black women activists, including Cat Brooks, Charlene Carruthers, Brittini Gray, and Ashley Yates, to defend the rights and lives of Black people even as they expose the contradictions and denounce the hypocrisy of a nation that professes to be democratic though all of its citizens are not entirely physically, politically, or materially free.
Defining "Common Rough" Work
The "common rough work" which Harper performed was multidimensional; thus, it not only refers to labor that is literal or physical but labor that is distinctly psychological. While Harper's tangible work of speaking truth to power (social protest) and putting her physical body on the line (civil disobedience) reflects integral aspects of this work, it is nuanced. In "The Quiet Casualties of the Movement for Black Lives," John Eligon notes the "quieter reality of activism" that is, "the mental and emotional hardship of the work, and the resulting stress and depression that sometimes make it difficult to even get out of bed." This dimension of the "common rough work" is often rendered invisible.
Given Black women's positionality relative to others, the concept of "common rough work" refers to a kind of cognitive labor that required Harper to maintain her sense of humanity and worth in a culture where she and her kind were regarded as less than a person as per the Three-Fifths Compromise. While Black humanity is no longer measured in this way, African Americans are routinely depicted as subhuman or lower than animals as evidenced by media coverage of unarmed Black children, women, and men being killed without provocation or legal consequence in the form of indictments and convictions. Ashley Yates, co-founder of the Ferguson-based, grassroots organization Millennial Activists United (MAU) explains, "Ferguson resonated with so many people because Ferguson really is everywhere. The economic assault via government schemes, police brutality and culpable leadership are dynamics that play out across the globe." (5) Thus, an abiding sense of responsibility to advocate for legislation and policing reform in the movement remains.
Unlike physical labor, it is difficult to measure work necessitated by the continued political, intellectual, social, and economic repression of African Americans in a nation that believes itself to be wholly democratic. (6) In an interview with Tarana Burke, founder of the Me Too campaign and nonprofit Just Be, Inc., Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement and founder of Dignity and Power Now admits, "Most of us start this work because we're angry. We're angry about what's been done to us. We're angry about what we've witnessed. We're angry about what we continue to witness, what hasn't been intervened on." Burke clarifies, "Anger is probably a small part of the arsenal.... [...] Anger can't drive you. [...] There's also an undergirding of joy. [...] We want to be seen as robust, full human beings that have anger and have joy. And we want to be able to just freely have that joy...." (7) Often, the conditions of Black women's lives have required actions that foster solidarity. Charlene Carruthers, national director of the Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100), confesses, "I wasn't born a leader; I was agitated into choosing leadership by growing up on the South Side of Chicago. I didn't wake up at 18 understanding what white supremacy, patriarchy, anti-blackness, and capitalism meant. Self-study, comrades, elders, and people I met in the streets taught me how to understand the world and gave me the room to imagine a radically different future." (8) Marked by the tireless struggles waged by those who had preceded Harper and sustained by those who would follow, this "common rough work" materialized in different ways, most saliently through a stringent critique of the paradoxical nature of democratic practice in a country that excluded Black women and men despite undeniable proof of their humanity and their moral fortitude to defend their lives as they pursued equitable citizenship.
The reality that these struggles against White supremacy are constant demonstrates the relevance and necessity of the transformative work in which Black Lives Matter activists are engaged and reflects the overall stability and resilience of not merely the Black protest tradition, but more particularly and acutely a Black women's tradition of resistance that continues to transform itself to address the changing realities of people of African descent living in the United States. In the final analysis, it provides a better sense of the work that remains to be done and the way in which Black women activists, through their diligence, affirm the sense of personal responsibility exemplified by Harper's declaration, "If there is common rough work to be done, call on me."
If the past is prologue, as has often been observed, we can expect that these efforts to bring about radical social change will not end, particularly in terms of how the actual (rather than imagined) presence and literal bodies of Black people are regarded. As the fluidity and metamorphosis of the #BLM platform has shown, until the work of redefining democracy erases what Eddie Glaude has termed the "precarity of blackness," the movement will only be reconstituted and renewed. Cat Brooks, founder of the Anti-Police Terror Project, notes, "We can see that what is happening in Oakland, is happening in New York, is happening in Los Angeles. And if we are to win, it has to be...