Money on the Left presents a public conversation with Dan Berger about his important new book, Stayed on Freedom: The Long History of Black Power through One Family’s Journey (Basic Books, 2023).
Berger’s Stayed on Freedom tells a new history of Black Liberation through the intertwined narratives of two grassroots organizers. The Black Power movement, often associated with its iconic spokesmen, derived much of its energy from the work of people whose stories have never been told. Stayed On Freedom brings into focus two unheralded Black Power activists who dedicated their lives to the fight for freedom. Zoharah Simmons and Michael Simmons fell in love while organizing tenants and workers in the South. Their commitment to each other and to social change took them on a decades-long journey that traversed first the country and then the world. In centering their lives, Berger shows how Black Power united the local and the global across organizations and generations. Based on hundreds of hours of interviews, Stayed On Freedom is a moving and intimate portrait of two people trying to make a life while working to make a better world.
This public dialog took place on February 24, 2023 at the University of South Florida. It was graciously moderated by Tangela Serls (Professor of Instruction in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies and Special Advisor to the USF College of Arts and Sciences Dean on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) and K. Stephen Prince (Professor in the USF History department).
Visit our Patreon page here: https://www.patreon.com/MoLsuperstructure
Music by Nahneen Kula: www.nahneenkula.com
The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.
Steve Prince: Well, Dan, thank you so much for joining us. This is wonderful, and I really appreciate the opportunity to do this as a discussion, as opposed to simply a book talk would be wonderful. But hopefully bringing it to a more discussion-based format will be really productive. It is a truly wonderful book. I will echo what Scott said: absolutely beautifully written, engaging all the way through, and powerful and so, so important. So I guess we’ll start with a couple of softballs, and then we’ll save the hard stuff for later. You open the book with a couple passages about the way that you first became engaged with Michael and Zoharah Simmons, so I hope you could start with that. Just how did this book come to be? Who are Michael and Zoharah Simmons? How did you become engaged with them? And why did you decide to tell their story?
Dan Berger: Yeah, thank you for that, and thank you all for coming. Thanks to everyone who helped organize this. Thanks, also, everyone who organized and participated in the protests yesterday, which I was with you in spirit. I’m very excited to be here even though I was promised it would not be this hot. In a lot of ways, this book began 23 years ago when I started at the University of Florida, the same year that Zoharah Simmons started there. When I started there as a student, the same year that Zoharah Simmons started there as a professor. She had gone back to school late in life to finish first her undergrad, and then ended up getting a PhD. And she was invited to speak to a history class I was in about her experience in the civil rights movement. I was 18, I guess, at the time, and I was just a young activist, trying to figure out some things about the world. I was just really blown away by her presentation about her experiences. She talked about growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, raised by her grandmother, who had been raised by her grandmother who had been an enslaved person. And I’ll just say that I was very close to my grandmother, who was a Holocaust survivor. So I think I recognize something about that kind of connection to a traumatic history that inspired activism in the younger generation really spoke to me in a particular kind of way. She talks about employment in the civil rights movement, where she joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and then also played a key role in SNCC’s turn to Black Power and the rise of Black Power out of the civil rights movement. That was really interesting to me, because at the time, people didn’t really talk a lot about Black Power. It wasn’t in a lot of certainly the kind of mainstream history that I had encountered in high school. So I wanted to learn more about it, and it inspired me on a personal level but it also inspired me intellectually. I went to the library to check out a lot of books, and everything I could to read on, on civil rights and Black Power, and was really struck at the time by how different her experience was from what I was reading in the scholarship and in the literature. Even though we know a lot more about Black Power, we know a lot more about civil rights and the connection between them now than we did then, that experience really stuck with me. After I graduated, I moved to Philadelphia, I met her ex-husband, Michael Simmons, and it was the same thing all over again. They were always kind of on my shoulder, or in the back of my mind as I read other people’s work, and they talked about, “no one in the movement did this” or “everyone in the movement did this” and I would always be like “no one did that?” Because Zoharah did that thing.” Or “everyone did that? Well, Michael did something else.” Just to give two examples, and then I’ll stop for this question. Both Michael and Zoharah were part of something called the Atlanta Project of SNCC, which was the first time that SNCC had an urban project. Most of SNCC’s work was in rural places throughout the South. Most of the literature on the Atlanta Project to this day, in fact, says that this was a group of northerners who had no basis in SNCC who tried to take over the organization. And Zoharah from Memphis was the co-director of the project and became the co-director after three years in the organization and had no desire to be the leader and was never trying to take over SNCC…etc, etc. Alright, so there was already something that was off to me. Likewise, I’ve written a lot and studied a lot of the 60’s era, broadly, and a lot of the work on the anti-war movement of that era sees it as synonymous with the white left. But Michael is someone who spent two and a half years in prison for refusing induction into the military during the Vietnam War and was organizing for Black draft resistance. So there are just all of these ways that their stories expand the scope of that time period, but also of the Black Power movement beyond that time period that I think really kept me honest, as a scholar, reading other people’s work and writing my own. After a while, I asked them if they wanted to collaborate on this book because it seemed like something that could make a difference more broadly.
Tangela Serls: I love that. And I want to just reiterate what Steve and Scott both said: beautiful work. I felt, at the end, that I knew Michael and Zoharah personally. It was that compelling. Thank you for your work.
Dan Berger: Thank you.
Tangela Serls: To that point, the notion of family is a powerful thing throughout the world. So obviously Michael and Zoharah are family, literally, metaphorically. We recently listened to a podcast where the three of you did, and I was struck to learn about the conflict that happened with Zoharah leaving to go to Spelman and her grandmother warning her not to get involved with all of the protests and all of that. And when she finally split and decided not to return, it was a big falling out and all of that. So when she went to join SNCC in Mississippi, straw Lynn (spell check) told her after he sent the money and it got intercepted that “we’re your family now”, because her family had told her not to return. Especially her grandmother was really upset. There really seems to be different conceptions of family throughout the novel. There’s familial love and familial betrayal. And I know that just the idea of family, in general, can sometimes be contested. Family is not always a safe space for folks, so I get that. I’m just wondering if you could speak a little bit more about the meaning of family and all that senses as it relates in general and more specifically, as it relates to Stayed On Freedom?
Dan Berger: Yeah, it’s a great question, and I will try to be concise. I think there’s a lot there to talk about. It was important for me to call this — the subtitle says, “it’s one family’s journey” — I think there’s a lot about the journey there. There’s a lot of travel that happens, criss-crossing the country, and then criss-crossing the world. But it’s also that it’s family, and in the way that you articulated in the question. Part of it, for me, is that sense that family brings together a lot of contentious, contradictory dynamics, right? Where there’s a lot of love, but also, it’s a cliche, but about the basis of Freudian psychology. The wounds between parents and children. This is a biography as well as a movement history, but there’s always pieces of the author in any story. So I thought a lot about the struggles that I’ve had with my own family, and my own activism. When Zoharah talked about choosing the movement over her family’s wishes and some of those breaks that happen there was more intense than anything that I have experienced, and she sacrificed way more and put herself in the line of danger far more than I ever have, and probably ever could. But that sense of a break, and a kind of coming into one’s own required in that moment, or demonstrated in that moment felt familiar to me. And I think that’s something that a lot of people have to go through, whether it’s about their politics or their identity with a fundamental clash that happens with family. So the movement does become family in both the kind of chosen family and the biological family. There’s a lot of pain and even betrayal that happens in this story. Zoharah recounts an experience in the training for Freedom Summer being almost sexually assaulted by someone who was a prominent activist within SNCC. When she tried to report it, other members of SNCC were like, “We don’t have time to deal with this. We’re going to Mississippi. Why don’t you just go along with it?” I mean a very deep betrayal. And also she went to Mississippi and got swept up in the urgency and didn’t even have time to process that betrayal at that moment. Then, later in the book and later in their lives, Michael and Zoharah have a child who was sexually abused by Michael’s stepfather. When Aisha, their daughter, told them about this, they couldn’t handle it. In much the same way that people in SNCC couldn’t handle it when Zoharah raised that; that family could be a site of pain and family could be a site of violence. Those book-end the book, these are echoes of that betrayal in these different forms of family. I think we’re getting to the idea of why the book is called Stayed On Freedom, right? Their consciousness had to be expanded. That was Zoharah’s first sense of realizing that the movement was not only a safe space, but also potentially a site of danger. And it was not until many years after their daughter confronted them that they really reckoned with the fact that they themselves could be silent accomplices, or accomplices through silence, to the ways that biological families could be sites of violence, as well. That’s something Aisha has written a lot about this, and this is a big thing for her own activism. It’s been really amazing to learn from. I think that family is never a kind of static thing. It requires this work, it requires a constant struggle or constant engagement. It’s a learning process for me in writing the book, and I think they learned a lot as we wrote about it as we were going through these histories. There were lots of ups and downs in the seven years of working on this book that they would talk about in our interviews.
Steve Prince: Thank you. You have this wonderful line in the introduction of the book that Michael and Zohara Simmons “seemed representative of the rich messiness of social movements in the modern United States,” and you’ve touched on some of the places that we find the Simmons through their journey. They start with SNCC organizing in the rural south. They take us through the transition to Black Power and an awakening of a Black Power consciousness. But over the course of the book, they’re also involved in union organizing, and anti-war activism, prison activism, and anti apartheid activism. They’re involved for a long period with the Friends. It is just such a remarkable journey that they take us through. And, as you say, “representative of the rich messiness of social movements in the history of the United States.” These movements that we tend to isolate and segregate are all there. These two lives connect them all together. So I was hoping you could speak a little bit about this, this breadth of their political imagination through their careers as activists, and what’s the significance of that broad vision of justice and activism?
Dan Berger: Yeah, thanks for that. I think that so often, we talk about the 60s, when we talked about these time periods that freeze people in time, that freeze our sense of history in time. Or we talk about particular organizations, but obviously, time goes on. So the 60s become the 70s. Started in the 50s. So we have these lapses of time, but we also have these changes in organization, so very few of the frontline organizations of the 60s, survived the time period. SNCC started in ’60, and ended by ’68. The Panthers started in ’66 and technically lasted until ’82, but really they’re an Oakland organization after 1972. So the organizations that really dominate a lot of our historical consciousness and popular consciousness don’t actually have that long a life in the grand scheme of things. Certainly there’s a lot to be learned from focused organizational studies, and I drew on a lot of those works. There’s a lot to be learned by focus studies of particular places. A lot of the civil rights history has been moved to these local studies of how civil rights play out in one particular county or one particular town, and that’s fantastic work. I wanted to do something different, not as a disavowal of that work, but as an expansion of that work because people don’t necessarily stay in that one town their whole life. And people learn new things from their experiences. I think we get a richer, but also a truer picture of what life on the left looks like, what a political life looks like when we follow people rather than following organizations. Obviously, this is a biography; the biography genre, by definition, is following people. But I think that gives us a sense of how that experience in SNCC led people to ask me questions, and what happens when you leave, or in their case, get fired from an organization? I think there’s a lot of just downright heroism, bravery and courage — inescapable in the civil rights and Black Power movement. And it’s people: there’s pettiness, there’s ego, there’s fights that happen. And if I know organizations that I’ve been a part of have fallen apart over that stuff, why wouldn’t I expect that people 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, didn’t also have falling out over that stuff? So I think, for me, it became– I mean, you’re always an evangelist for your own method, at some level, at least when the book was new — but for me, it became, the clearest way to understand not only their lives, of course, but to understand the impact of that movement. The impact of that work is to see that move from SNCC, to the National Council of Negro Women to the Nation of Islam to the American Friends Service Committee to the National Black Independent Political Party, to the Philadelphia Worker Organizing Committee, and others that I’m skipping over. There’s a wide range of groups that express a vast spectrum of ideological positions that operate in a wide range of geographies, and yet, the same people move through them. Right. It connects, in some ways, to your earlier question about family. There’s a quote from Michael in the book, “it’s not this or that, it’s this and that” and that it’s everything. I really think, to me, that just knowing that has expanded my sense of the left or radical possibility to understand that people might have their own ideological proclivities and might find themselves working in organizations that don’t share all of them, but that they do some good work with them, and that they can change and push those organizations in the process. So to me, I think that the AFSC, American Friends Service Committee, was fundamentally changed by Black Power activists including Michael and Zoharah, but others as well, in ways that I think we would miss just by doing a history of AFSC. I think we get that sense of how people persist in that sense of change over time.
Tangela Serls: I want to tie what you said earlier, Dan, about family requiring work, family sometimes being the site of pain or betrayal, and this notion of what Michael said in terms of it being “this and that”, because that was one of my favorite quotes too, to a question that we had about hope. After you answered the earlier question about family, it’s easy to just think about it like it’s pretty depressing. To that point, in explaining the decision to write the book, you describe a longing to tell a hopeful story after some of your earlier work which focused on incarceration and prison activism. We think you’ve achieved this with both Michael and Zoharah Simmons, and the book is resolutely hopeful, but yet there’s still a lot of darkness and tragedy and violence. So why is it still a hopeful story? And what is the power of hope in this work?
Dan Berger: Yeah, Thanks. I’m glad that you picked up on that line because I meant that line in a couple of different ways. Partly, I meant it as a pure narrative description. I finished Captive Nation, which Scott kindly mentioned in the introduction, and it’s a book about the role that incarcerated people played in the civil rights and Black Power movements in the 60s and 70s, focused mostly in California. The 60s and 70s is the run up to and the beginning of what we now call mass incarceration. Most of the people I write about in that book died painful deaths, sometimes an internecine conflict, sometimes murdered by the state. Many of those who survived that were interviewed are wonderful, committed people, but deeply traumatized by the things that they witnessed and the tortures that they experienced. It was hard to write that book. It took a toll on me emotionally to do those interviews, to sit with people. I’m the better person for it, so I don’t mean it in that sense. But I wanted to do a book that I thought would be more hopeful, right? Because that’s a book that ends not only with this death and torture and violence, but also that ends with mass incarceration. Here we have this profound movement inside of prisons in this country that was so powerful and such a challenge to the established order that prison systems remade themselves to be more austere and punitive to prevent them from happening. It was grim, friends. So when I was thinking about what I wanted to do next, I thought: let me turn to this idea that I’ve had for a long time, that I think would be a hopeful story, because it’s about that continuation. And I was also a new parent at the time when I reached out to them and really thinking about, which touches on another answer to your question Steve, as well, I was thinking about how we played different roles in the different phases and stages of our life. I was living in a new city that I was still getting used to, and now I had this newborn. I couldn’t be at the meetings, and be at the protests and things the way that I once had been. I loved being a parent of a newborn. Being a parent is the best thing I’ve ever done, and it’s changed how I do things in the world. So I wanted to figure some things out about that. I had a lot of hope in that way. But I also mean that line as a bit of self criticism because, I thought, I’m just gonna tell this hopeful story about ongoing continuing activism, and I didn’t quite appreciate the level that, of course, that’s a story of pain and trauma and betrayal. There are some unique and particular ones, because these are specific people. But that, too, is a story of a life of organizing. So I think that line, for me, was also an honest estimation of that process of how I came to the book and the emotional state of coming to the book. But I also mean it in a way that I hope readers will come away thinking, as you did, that it’s not just a hopeful story, right? There’s a lot of difficulties here as well. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a lot of people in my narrow sense of the world who I would consider famous. I mean famous in the “on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list” sort of famous. Some of them I’ve gotten to know well enough that I can see the obvious point of any famous person, which is that they’re just people. That, to me, was the takeaway that we can have, as Martin Luther King talked about in a very different context, we can’t have a foolish hope. We can’t have a magical hope that things will just work out because we’re on the right side of history. Or, we’ve made good choices and so everything will be fine. We certainly see that in a myriad of ways right now in the world we live in. So, to me, it was a reconsideration of a kind of naive sense of hope. I hope, I want, I think that the book is better and more hopeful for that. Because we walk through the real difficulties of life or the real difficulties of this kind of long haul commitment and the sacrifices that accompany that in a way that allows us to reckon with those tensions and contradictions and difficulties without glossing over them.
Steve Prince: Great, thank you. I think we should talk about Black Power. One of the beautiful things about the book is that it is a narrative. It’s a story of a pair of lives, for the most part, but it does make a series of important historical and historiographical interventions, at the same time. I really do admire the way that you thread those in a way that is seamless and organic, but still clear and effective. I think one of the more significant historical claims that you do make regards to the nature of Black Power, in that it is a much broader program. I think you’re basing it in the Atlanta movement on the Black Consciousness paper as a formative moment in the theorisation of Black Power. Can you briefly discuss what Black Power means? Perhaps meant in the mid 60s and then perhaps what it means later for the people who were involved in it, and maybe what the story of Michael and Zoharah Simmons does to our textbook classroom vision of Black Power, where it’s Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panthers, full stop. So speak to the ways that your story hopefully challenges and expands what Black Power means.
Dan Berger: Yeah, thanks. I would love to. A bit of context that, as I said, the Atlanta project of SNCC, was SNCC’s first time organizing in an urban context. And part of that was an effort to elect Julian Bond, who was SNCC’s communication secretary to the state legislature in Georgia. That happened in 1965. SNCC had long been debating whether to take a position on the US war in Vietnam. And again, if you look at a lot of us are anti war. What is presented as this anti war movement as those “campus anti-war movement,” i.e. what exists at mostly white universities, ’65 means there’s been a demonstration, a big and important demonstration, but there’s not much that has happened thus far. In the fall of 1965, practically on my birthday, before I was born, but the day was when I wouldn’t be born. Years later, Michael and Zoharah met at a SNCC meeting in Atlanta, where Zoharah was advocating very forcefully that SNCC needed to take a position on the Vietnam War. But not just on the Vietnam War. SNC needed to take a position on US imperialism. The US had recently invaded the Dominican Republic, US support for the apartheid regime in South Africa was an increasing topic of conversation. SNCC had always been slyly internationalist which is to say it was very focused on the US, but with a global context. John Lewis at the March on Washington said, “One man, one vote is the rallying cry in Africa. It needs to be ours as well.” There are these ways that SNCC was very indebted to and fired by global currents, particularly in Africa, and Southern Africa. After Mississippi Freedom Summer, a delegation of SNCC people went to Africa and came back and these were moments of exchange. By ’65, people like Zoharah were really adamant that this is a global context and that a critique of the US role in the world was important. Zoharah talks about this monster we live in, and those are archival records of the meeting. So SNCC drafts a statement that doesn’t go anywhere. It sits in the office, and then on January 3, about a month later, a Navy veteran and SNCC member named Sammy Young was shot and killed while trying to use a “white bathroom” in Tuskegee, Alabama. SNCC organized protests about it, but also released this statement. It’s a very powerful statement that you can find on the SNCC digital gateway. It’s still well worth reading. Julian Bond is asked about the statement, and he says he agrees with it. So the state legislature refuses to let him take the seat that he had been elected to. So that’s the origin of the Atlanta project that Julian Bond had to be reelected to a seat that he had won, but was not allowed to take because of SNCC’s anti-war sentiment. Bond’s campaign was abolishing the death penalty, raising the minimum wage to what would be set over $17 in contemporary amounts, pro-unions taking on the right-to-work laws. So it wasn’t exactly internationalist, but it was a very radical campaign. But the fact that it was SNCC’s opposition to the war in Vietnam that prevented him from taking his seat made it already very internationalist. So the Atlanta Project was organizing domestic workers, tenants in Atlanta, but it was also doing anti-draft organizing. One of the favorite parts to write and research was this big protest at the induction center, and this cat and mouse game that Michael did to try and avoid induction into the military. But I say all of this to say that the context of Black Power was very immediate, but also very global from the outside. I think that’s one thing that we often miss with a perspective that says, “oh, Black Power was Stokely Carmichael in Greenwood, Mississippi saying, we have to start saying Black Power” or the Panthers in an armed patrol of the police sort of way. All of those things happened, and are obviously significant, but we miss that sense of the world that I think was at the heart of Black Power. The other thing that is really significant, and is there in the Atlanta Project’s paper and thinking from the outset, is that Black Power was a coalitional politics. So Black Power was a recognition that we needed broad constituencies who oppose racism and white supremacy. SNCC had always been a Black-led organization, but during Freedom Summer, a lot of white volunteers came in, and a number of them wanted to stay and wanted to organize in the organization. SNCC’s constituency was always Black communities. It was rural Black communities, starting to be urban Black communities. So if Black organizers were organizing Black communities and the white organizers were organizing black communities, no one was going to where racism lived to build anti-racist constituencies there. So the idea, there’s a great passage from the Black Consciousness paper where everyone talks about Uncle Tom and no one talks about Simon Legree. No one talks about the white character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. If we want to end racism, we can’t just organize black people. That was this argument from the Atlanta Project; that we needed broad coalitions who opposed racism and white supremacy. I think Zoharah, in particular, still talks about that. That was part of what inspired me when I first heard her speak was saying we needed white people to be anti-racist, and that meant we needed them to bring other people along with that. That made a lot of sense to me at the time, and I think still does. In the book, I talk about Black Power as both a movement and a paradigm, and I think the movement largely didn’t disappear, but certainly faded by the mid 70s. But I think the paradigm is one that in many ways still carries them to this day. As some of the movement work died down in the way that they haven’t been doing it, they became more international in their outlook. Zoharah travels to Vietnam, and Cambodia, and China, and the Middle East, lives in Jordan for two years doing her research, but also other things. Michael ends up living in Budapest for many years after doing all this work in Central and Eastern Europe and in southern Africa as well. They expanded their sense of the world. I think we can trace that to that meeting where they first met and Zoharah was saying we have to talk about the global arrangement of power and how it can be different. I think it was really important for them to learn from the rest of the world. It wasn’t just charity, but it was a sense that things aren’t great in the US, and maybe people in other parts of the world have some things figured out that we can learn from here, as well. I think that sense of solidarity and coalition that was at the heart of Black Power from the beginning, has guided them throughout their careers as activists.
Tangela Serls: Thank you for that. I’m going to connect two of our questions, and then connect it back to something you said, because even with that question about Black Power, I was surprised to learn about the call for the coalitional-based politics and, more explicitly, the call for white communities to do inter-communal consciousness raising. A simple question would be, does that inter-communal consciousness raising, does that demonstrate a Black Power paradigm?
Steve Prince: Thank you.
Dan Berger: I think that was certainly a part of it. I think consciousness raising is always a part of an organizing process. But I think they really took questions of power seriously. So they’re doing consciousness raising with the tenants in Atlanta. Michael and Zoharah both speak much more powerfully about this than I could, but Michael always says: if I think something can be changed, I should be able to get somebody else to think something can be changed. Part of their work was just getting people who had been beaten down and oppressed just by conditions of life, to feel like they could do something different about it. That’s consciousness raising, but that’s the step toward them doing something about it. Rather than just feeling like oh, maybe this isn’t my fault. Maybe this is part of something bigger. I think that absolutely they would see that anti racist consciousness works in non black communities, and particularly white communities, as a part of that. But fundamentally it’s about policy, it’s about power, it’s about transforming the institutions and structures. The consciousness raising is a necessary step in that process.
Tangela Serls: Thank you for that clarification, that makes a lot of sense. The other question I wanted to ask, which goes back to one of Steve’s earlier questions about activism, he talked about how very few organizations have a long life with how they die out. So when thinking about the struggle for rights and freedom, the book explains how some of the organizations and movements Michael and Zoharah were part of broke down because they weren’t necessarily rooted in a collective understanding or acknowledgement of struggle. Folks allowed ideological differences to prevent them from moving forward. You kind of talked about that on one of your other podcasts. One of the questions that I wanted to ask: as an historian, can you comment on the ways in which struggle and ideology are compatible and sometimes incompatible, as you seen it, like when you were working on the project?
Dan Berger: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I think that ideology is important, but I don’t think it’s as important as many leftists think. Amílcar Cabral, the great leader of the independence movement in Guinea-Bissau, and he said it better than I am about to, but something like: people don’t fight because of the ideas in their head, they fight for freedom, land bread, right? They fight for the sort of things in the world that will make their lives better. I think sometimes, again, he said it better you should read his version. But I think the point is that it’s cartoonishly easy. It’s a cliche to think that social change pivots on the point of ideology. This is the Monty Python Judean People’s Front versus the People’s Front of Judea. That these organizations are just constantly split, and that’s all they can do. I think ideology is important to the extent that it gives you a sense of the vision of the world that you’re working towards, and where you’re trying to go. I think ideology, what your values are, and what you’re not willing to compromise on, those are really important things in the world. They’re important ways of being able to locate yourself and locate your sense of proximity to power and your sense of proximity to other people of the organization. But I think many people err in thinking that if you just have the right ideological positions, then you win, and therefore think that the goal is to get everyone to have the right ideological position. What you’re talking about, the parts of the book where things break down, is where that starts to happen. Michael was a part of a communist organization in the 70s. I mentioned earlier, the Philadelphia Worker Organizing Committee that was steering this effort to build a new Communist Party in the United States, across a few different organizations, and they call their effort the Organizing Committee for an Ideological Center. I know what you’re thinking with that name, how could it not take off and succeed? But it failed! And I think, obviously I’m joking about it, but it’s clear that it failed, right? I mean, there are some reasons that you read about in the book. But I think that sense of “okay, we just need to get the right ideology, and then we’ll win.” I think for me, this gets back to what you’re talking about earlier about the role of the power of biography or just thinking through people that people are messy and complicated, and I think electoral politics brings us out so clearly. That people who follow politics very seriously, that have an ideology think, “well, how can this union member vote for Trump?” Lots of people don’t have a developed ideology. They respond to people who they think are fun, or funny or interesting, or whatever the case may be. Obviously, I’m not saying that Trump’s base is union members or something. Far from it, but the point is that ideology only goes so far in actually explaining the political affiliations that people have. And I think a lot of things fail and where I become deterministic, perhaps. But Michael was a part of this communist effort I mentioned, Zoharah was part of a Black nationalist effort around the same time. That was very different, in some ways, ideologically. The particulars of their ideologies were different. But it was similarly ideological, if that makes sense. Their orientation was about: okay, everyone needs to be on the same page as an ideology. They were trying to organize through ideology. And they both failed at the same time. To me, that’s part of their story of why I wanted the book to happen. Because usually a history of Black nationalism and a history of Black Marxism and Black communism, they live in different projects, or at least different chapters. But usually in different books. These are different trajectories, or different tendencies, they are not in conversation. The fact that here you have this divorced couple who are very close to each other to talk politics with each other all the time who were doing really different efforts, but they’re both trying to build these ideological parties. They both fail around the same time. To me why I said this is where I get deterministic is my take away from that is that the early 1980s was an awful time. I think that’s true, separate from the book. Politically, to be on the left trying to organize in the early 80s, there’s lots of reasons why it was a terrible time. It was a terrible time. The idea that getting people to have the correct ideology will be the way out of a terrible time, I think, is mistaken. How you make people’s lives better in a terrible time, I think, is a more generative starting point. I think the ideology can actually come from that rather than leading with ideology, as I think happened in those cases.
Steve Prince: I think this really is a book about the latter half of the 20th century. It’s not just a book about these two figures, or at least the left and latter half of the 20th century. But I think, really, it’s a book about the modern United States, and its broader context, actually. You manage to weave so much into the story, and part of it is you do have these characters who were really everywhere. For those of you who haven’t read the book, there’s this remarkable succession of individuals who just appear. She sang with Isaac Hayes in her choir, and she stumbled into the church, which is Ralph David Abernathy’s. The guy at dinner is Malcolm X. It’s like, come on. A part of it is just their lives: it’s true. But you also managed to weave in events that they didn’t necessarily attend. Neither of them were at the March on Washington in 1963, but you’re able to write about it. You alluded to Reagan, he’s in this book as well. How did you manage to craft the narrative being true to their own life story, but also connecting it to these larger trends and events and what was your thought process there?
Dan Berger: It’s funny that you say that. Michael often jokes that he is the Forrest Gump of Black liberation. Many times I mentioned somebody and he’s like “oh, yeah, I went to Cuba with that person.” And there’s something at some level, that’s just profoundly unfair about it. Like, come on. For me, some of it was like, well this is how life works. Right? I mentioned this earlier book that I wrote about as an organizing Captive Nation, and that book focuses a lot on George Jackson, too. How many people here have heard of George Jackson? So, about half of you. How many have heard of Sundiata Tate? Nobody, right? George Jackson was, as he himself would say, part of a cohort, part of a generation of people. How many of you have heard of WL Nolen? George Jackson was mentored by WL Nolen. He would say Nolen was his teacher. The reason we know George Jackson, and we don’t know who WL Nolen is, is that George Jackson was a writer. People recognize that he was a writer and published his writings. Often people who are writers in prison we’ve never heard of. But he was a writer whose stuff was published. That allowed him to get our attention and our focus, but the coin lands the other way, and we know WL Nolen, and we’ve never heard of George Jackson. There’s a dimension of that that I think is true here as well. Zoharah’s RA in her dorm was Alice Walker. Well, maybe if Zoharah was a writer, she’d have a Nobel Prize talking about her RA. So some of it is just luck of the draw. We pass through people who become famous. Like, when she met Alice Walker, she was her RA. She wasn’t Alice Walker. Sometimes we meet the Malcolm X example. Michael was very young, but his brothers were significantly older who were early recruits to the Nation of Islam. He tells us in the book, his conversation with Malcolm X, when he was seven or eight years old, was not about Black nationalism. This conversation was: why don’t you eat pork? Like, that was the craziest thing you could imagine. Right? I think there’s just something deeply human about all of this. And I think that, to me, was the most important thing. I wanted a human book on the left. I wanted a sense of just what it means to be a person. I think what it means to be a person, particularly a Black person who came of age in the time that they came of age is that of course, you saw the pictures of Emmett Till’s murdered body in Jet Magazine. Of course, you watched or listened to the March on Washington, even if you weren’t there. Of course, you were outraged and furious and scared when Ronald Reagan was elected. I think, for me, a lot of the guide was needing to contextualize these lives and make sense of these lives. Also, just thinking, to bring it to my own life at some level that was a little bit of a guide was just thinking if I would write something about my coming of age, I remember when Bush was elected. I remember the walkouts that happened when he was reelected. Yes, I went to class, but I also went to the protest. Those sorts of things are like, trying to choose between them: do I go to this protest? Do I go to this class? I just think that’s part of what it means to be human in a time to be paying attention and things are scary or outrageous or exhilarating or exciting. Some of it came from oral histories from things that they remembered, like being there when this happened. Michael talked about being in Philadelphia when the Three Mile Island nuclear explosion happened. He was just leaving a visit to Russia when the Chernobyl nuclear explosion happened. He just casually mentioned that Forrest Gump of the left commented that he may be the only person who was within 100 miles of both nuclear meltdowns. It was like, okay, that’s going in the book. Obviously. But then things like Reagan, or whatever, that was just such a profound reorientation of American politics and such a profound moment of what you can hope for is possible, as someone who had been a committed organizer for close to two decades at that point. I think it was, for me, clearly a part of their lives, but also just a benchmark to help the reader place what’s happening in the larger arc. It totally works the way you do it. It feels organic. It never feels like you’re forcing the history on the reader. Because I think you’re right, it comes from their experiences, and that’s the focus. Very effective. Yeah. Thank you.
Steve Prince: Can we take one more question and then open it up?
Tangela Serls: I think I’m gonna ask my question about Alice Walker. Okay, so when thinking about the introduction, which is titled “A Love Supreme”, after John Coltrane’s album, and your line, that “freedom is a love story.” I kept thinking of one of Alice Walker’s definitions of Womanism, which is: a Womanist is one who loves music, loves dance, loves the moon, loves the spirit, loves love, and food and roundness, the struggle, loves the folk in herself, regardless. So my question is, did an understanding of Womanism factor into your assertion in any way? And additionally, when writing the book, did you struggle to reconcile the fact that love was going to be one of the foremost themes with the fact that you were writing a historical project?
Dan Berger: Yeah, that’s great. My initial proposal had no introduction. So that chapter “A Love Supreme”, which I’m very proud of and I’m glad is in the book, was not part of the book. My editor said that I needed an introduction to explain, there’s a preface that talks about how I know Michael and Zoharah, and these were some of the serendipitous connections, which are deeper than I mentioned today, but you’ll see in the book. So I had that, but my Editor said I needed something to frame the big picture of it in a more explicit way. I was thinking about different things, but it just struck me that it’s a love story. Clearly there’s this love between two people who do have a lifelong love for each other, even if their romantic relationship only lasted a few years. But it was less, for me, about the love between them as individuals, though that’s obviously important. But that sense of how they keep going. Ultimately, I came to realize that it’s a choice to keep going. I’ve met lots of people, I’m sure at various moments in my life, I would have said of my own self like, “well, this is who I am. Of course, I’m going to do this. Of course, I’m going to be on the picket line. Of course, whatever, that’s just who I am.” I don’t want to deny that self-description of anybody, but just hearing Zoharah stayed in Mississippi for 18 months after Freedom Summer and had no plans to leave but left because she had several run-ins where she was almost killed by the Klan, and she was incarcerated by the police after demonstration and these were very torturous conditions. She was just starting to have a breakdown, and comrades and SNCC said “you have to leave because you’re not well there. You need a reprieve.” And she could have left the movement. She left Mississippi, but she continued to organize. I’ve interviewed several people for this book, but for other projects as well, who have been part of some of these far left organizations, and some of this ideological stuff we’re talking about earlier, who said that was the last organized left effort I was ever a part of. These are progressive people in how they try to live their lives, but they’re no longer involved in anything. I think we always make choices. We always are deciding to choose to do things or not to do things. So I was trying to think through the best ways to understand that choice of how they kept going, and how they kept going, and the ways that they kept going. It’s just so clear from the two of them. I know you were saying you really met them in the book, and I’m glad to hear that because you do feel in talking to them and hopefully in reading about them that they have different personalities, of course, but they both just have this deep love of humanity, this deep love for social change. I don’t know how else to put it, they just love being in the struggle. Michael had this quote, “I just love being a pain in somebody’s ass.” As a youngest child myself, I relate to that as a little brother sort of response. But I also think it’s just true, right? There’s a lot of joy and playfulness in that idea that I love being a pain in somebody’s ass. So to me it was oh, of course, this is a love story. Once it struck me, it was like, well this is what it had been all along. Even though I didn’t plan it, it was like oh, of course this is what it is. You read that beautiful quote from Alice Walker. I was very inspired by bell hooks, who obviously wrote several books about love and talked about that a lot. But it’s really a constant theme throughout Black political thought that you see these ideas of love being central, but also being centrally embedded in questions of struggle, and questions of a transformation.
Scott Ferguson: So Tangela had this little slip that I think was really productive. She called your book a novel. Because it kind of is a novel. I think that’s a wonderful way of describing it. It’s rich, it’s love. It’s got all kinds of continuities and threads and divergences and you can just gobble it up, and there’s an all at once-ness about it. I guess this is a craft and method-y type of question. I’ve interviewed some folks, but I’ve never had to do the work of interviewing subjects who are also your friends and your mentors over a long period of time, and taking what is probably a fragmentary, iterative process, and turning it into this. And I’ll put another thing out there, which is: we forget so much. So what I’m wondering is, what was that process like? What was their recall? Was it like, “Oh, I barely remember that day.” I guess I’m just kind of curious.
Dan Berger: Yeah, so they’re very different in that regard. Michael has an impeccable memory, and will tell you, “it was Thursday at 3:30, and he had a blue pork pie hat.” And that may or may not be true. I’m not saying that in any malicious way, but just that memories are always fungible. But he is so precise, so precise, in a way that is believable. Zoharah falls over herself with apologies that she doesn’t remember anything. And that’s also not true, but she doesn’t have to recall. She recalls feelings, she recalls the emotions, the connection. But she doesn’t recall the order, the timing, that kind of thing. It’s obviously based on a lot of oral histories, but I did a lot of archival work, as well. It was that the archives are very much in conversation with the interviews. I really wanted to use the interviews to capture that sense of the things that only they could know, the things that only they could tell me of what it felt to be incarcerated at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds. I can find the date of when you were arrested, but I don’t know what it felt like to be there. I’ve tried to put them in conversation that way. I thought of people like you, like friends who work in the 19th century or earlier time period, because I would be in the archives, and I could text them like, “Oh, look at what I found.” Like, I remember being in the AFSC archive when I found the press release for when Zoharah got hired, because she couldn’t remember the exact time. So it’s like, “oh, looks like you got hired on this date.” This was right when David Blight’s book about Frederick Douglass came out. He did alright for himself with that book, he didn’t need the help. I think it was definitely very iterative, definitely very conversational. I think there’s a lot of times that I was worried that this book was impossible to manage these multiple, two very deeply braided storylines, but still different storylines, and the amount of archives, and so on. But mostly it was a gift to be able to work on something about people, but also with people. I really think of my scholarly method as relational. All the work that I’ve done, some of it like this still comes from pre existing relationships, but I also meet new people in the process of doing it, including this book. Certainly we’ve become much closer than we were when I started it. I just think the relational dimension of research, anthropologists talk about it a lot, historians don’t really consider it. They just don’t discuss it very much. So that relational dimension is really important to me. Depending on how much you want to go into this, I certainly was both reading a lot of novels, but also listening to novelists talk about their craft. Toni Morrison would talk a lot about how Black life is universal, and to push against this idea that Black authors needed to explain Blackness to non-Black audiences. She was like “fuck that” Black life is universal, like everything about the world is contained in Blackness and Black relationships. I really felt that deeply and I wanted to do a book of that. I think that there’s no way to talk about the left or peace or justice or anything like that that is not rooted in Black Power, specifically, a Black politics more generally. The last thing I’ll say about novels and craft is that I have friends who are fiction writers who will talk about, “I didn’t want to write it this way, but the characters took me there.” As a historian of the left, I often feel like I didn’t want to go there, but that’s where the characters went. So I do think there is something to the craft of writing that I feel very excited about, passionate about, and interested in that I think can translate across genres in ways that I was trying to do this book and was a big appeal to me about doing this book.
Scott Ferguson: Other questions?
Crowd Question #1: Going back to the conversation that opened you up to this at UF, how much did you say “that sounds like me.” How does it fit? I was at Florida State in the 60s, and I didn’t come as an activist other than within the church. But then several things happened in a hurry. Though I was always in favor of civil rights, it was in the news, it wasn’t next to me. And I found myself asking if these issues are fundamental or human. So what’s the connection to the people in my dad’s churches? Pastoring in Powell’s Park (spell check) where there are carpenters, cabinet makers, union electricians. What’s the connection? What’s the connection related to me as a working person?
Dan Berger: Yeah, I think a lot of studying history, generally, is trying to make sense of my own place in history, and trying to make sense of the world. I’ve had a very different life and upbringing than Michael and Zoharah, certainly temporarily, and all the things that come from being born after Jim Crow, but also being a white Jewish person who grew up in the suburbs. They were both raised Christians, Zoharah is now Muslim. Growing up in segregated environments. A lot of differences. But I do think there is something about that kind of universalism that I was talking about via Morrison, that you were mentioning about the civil rights movement, that has always spoken to me. I certainly was asking myself as I was writing this book. I’ve written stuff about people who have been part of underground movements, and engaged in revolutionary violence. And I can’t imagine myself doing that, I guess I would say. I think the choices that they make here are ones that I could see myself making, even if I haven’t been in some of those conditions that they’ve been in.
Steve Prince: Can I actually follow up on the violence question since that was something that I was thinking about. Neither of them embrace the notion of armed self-defense really, at all. Am I right? I mean, they’re around people who are considering, right? Am I forgetting any elements?
Dan Berger: So Zoharah starts carrying a pistol when she’s in Mississippi and is really grateful for the local people in the community who were engaged in armed self defense. So certainly in that ‘64-’65.
Steve Prince: The landlady sitting on the front porch.
Dan Berger: Yeah, exactly, exactly. So I think she embraced it in that sense. I was very curious that they didn’t join the Panthers. The Panthers were not a part of their purview. This is just human circumstance: they were in Atlanta, and the Panthers weren’t in Atlanta at that time. They met Eldridge Cleaver, and they thought he was a jerk. So they’re like, “we don’t want to be that guy. What else can we do?” So they knew folks from the Nation of Islam. Actually, the person who built the Atlanta chapter was the person who got Muhammad Ali into the Nation of Islam who, of course, was a childhood friend of Michael’s because that’s how these things go. So they joined the Nation of Islam. I think just that sort of serendipitous sense of it all was really part of it, for me. I think they supported armed self defense and Zoharah engaged in it in the sense that she carried a gun for some time in Mississippi, but didn’t use it. So let me be clear when I say engaged in it. But I think the bigger question of violence is, when Michael was working for the American Friends Service Committee and anti-apartheid forces in South Africa, began armed struggle, and Quakers are a pacifist religion. That was a real strong point of contention for many years. But I think it’s more abstract than armed self defense because it was about somewhere else. It was a more ideological conversation than it was about their own personal involvement.
Crowd Question #2: First, thank you so much, everyone. This has been really insightful and wonderful. As an activist today, I learned a lot from your discussion of love and the difference between struggle and ideology. I think those are really useful concepts. I guess I’m just wondering, with movements today, we are kind of in a unique moment in which we have these mass communication devices in which we reach more people than ever, seemingly, but yet we still seem stifled by that ability. I’m just wondering if they had any insights into organizing today? Or what you learned from the process of writing this that might be helpful to younger organizers?
Dan Berger: Yeah, thanks for that. I think that’s certainly a question that they take very seriously, as do I. I think for them, the most important thing is, there’s a sense of humility. Michael has often said he’s been on Twitter, but he doesn’t use Twitter. He’s never been on TikTok. He doesn’t have the knowledge to engage in the communication mechanisms that younger people are using. So he knows that means he’s not in a position to tell young people what to do, because he’s not conversant with the things that younger people are using. I think I appreciate that sense, right? Because as both he and Zoharah would say, there’s a lot of folks out their generation who have a hard time exiting the stage who want to always be the ones in control, or in positions of leadership. I think they both have a sense that people are involved in different ways, in different capacities. And all that is great. They’re not in a place where they are or could be the leaders that they once were. Mostly, I think they’ve shifted to a sense of how to maintain that kind of long haul perspective, to thinking about the kind of movement of movements approach that brings together multiple forms of coalition and multiple forms of solidarity. I think that tends to be more how they operate than a sense of like here’s what you should be doing in a prescriptive way. I think that one thing that I’ve been saying, I think social media, obviously, has been useful in a lot of ways. I think equally obviously, it has wrecked our brains in a lot of ways. For all the ways that it’s new, I think it still exists within a media ecosystem that should be familiar to us, which is to say that they’re privately owned corporations that people try to make use of for their own ends, and have their deep limits that always come from that. I think Twitter has been tremendously valuable in showing the limits of speaking truth to power as a position. Because I can log on to that website every day, and unfortunately I do. But I could log on to that website every day and tell the President of the United States, hypothetically the most powerful person in the world, I could tell him what he’s wrong about. I could say, and I do often say, that your border policy is racist. Whatever, I could do that. That’s true, I am literally speaking truth to power. Twitter allows me access to the president in a way that has never existed before. Previously, I would have to write a letter, make a phone call. Now I can just tell him in a sentence, and it’s absolutely meaningless. It means nothing, right? I might feel better for five seconds, but it doesn’t change anything. So I think, to me, the one thing that I learned is the difference between being right and having power. That’s the shift from civil rights as a kind of orienting point or organizing rubric to Black Power. One of the benefits of that, in my view, is that it did squarely identify questions of power as the object and focus. I think we are better when we shift from speaking truth to power to speaking power to power because when you look at pretty much any issue in the United States today, you will see a discrepancy between what public opinion wants and the policies that exist. Clearly, just the idea of getting the ideology together, or getting people to agree with us is not enough. That’s not how change happens. So I really appreciate that sense of, okay, how do we think about power, both the structures of power that already exist, and the forms and structures of power that we need to create in order to bring about the kinds of changes that we want to see.
Crowd Question #3: Were there moments where it felt like for your oral history, that the people you’re interviewing are telling you things that you realize weren’t true or miss remembered, or did you have any challenges like that?
Dan Berger: Most of the ones, at least the ones that I can remember, were things that were not that significant to the story. It was a question of dates, or the order of things. Michael remembered being arrested with one person in the archive, I found he was arrested with another person. And he was like, “I swear it was this person.” But also, archives are wrong, too, right? So it’s not to say that where there was a discrepancy that I always needed to choose the archive. In that specific example, I resolved it by just not mentioning the name of the person. I could just say that he was arrested with somebody else. It didn’t matter to the story whether it was this person or that person. I think most of the discrepancies were things like that, they were details that I could write around because they weren’t consequential to the story. The thing that I was most worried about where that difference would happen is their divorce or separation. A friend once beautifully put it that a breakup is when two people have different stories, and their stories don’t match anymore. And I love that idea. I was really scared of how this was going to work. Both the story of the divorce and also the story of how and when and why they didn’t respond to their daughter’s abuse. Why they didn’t when she raised it, or why it took them so long to acknowledge it. I did those interviews separately when talking about their divorce, when talking about Aisha’s abuse, and their response. In part, because their lives were separate at that point, so I wanted to talk to them in isolation. We had a lot of interviews together, and they really did jog each other’s memory in really wonderful ways. But also, it was important to have time separately to hear how they would process it separately. Some of it is luck. But I was amazed at how similar their stories were. Now, again, they had different details, but they weren’t in conflict. So Michael talked about some of the things about the divorce from his perspective. And Zoharah had different details. When we think about history as argument, they had the same argument for why it didn’t work. The different details that they offered were not contradictory. They were just perspectives. In another context for another project, I did have an oral history where I really felt like someone was trying to pull one over on me. And, ultimately, I appreciated the time that he spent with me, but I haven’t done anything with it because I just didn’t trust it enough to do anything. But that’s a totally separate project and nothing to do with one.
Scott Ferguson: I’m wondering about Michael and Zoharah’s own reception of the book. A.) I would imagine you shared chapters along the way and maybe got notes, so I would maybe like to hear about that and B.) With the finished product and going through all the reviews and the edits. This is like a mirror or several mirrors of their lives. How are they feeling?
Dan Berger: Yeah, so I didn’t share individual chapters along the way, but I shared the manuscript with them, I think, three different occasions. I didn’t share individual chapters in part because I was often figuring things out from one chapter to the next and everything felt tentative. We spent a lot of time, when I approached them about doing this book, just figuring out what it would mean to do this together. So let me say that. And we are sharing any royalties that come equally between the three of us. It was important that this not be an extractive project, that it would be deeply and materially collaborative, not just ideationally collaborative. In the agreement that we drew up, I think it said something that I would share with them in the actual process, but obviously I would anyway. But in the actual process of doing it, when I had a draft they were like, “Oh, you’re done? We’re just hanging out! Like, what do you mean? There’s a book here?” They were surprised when I had a draft. I gave them drafts more times than they read them. My sense of timing now is off, as well. I think I got a lot of feedback after the first one, and then definitely at the final one when it was like: here’s the last chance to change anything. I don’t think I got much in the middle reading, if I recall, but the first draft was significantly longer than this one. They definitely corrected a few things like, “well, you said this, but it meant this,” or “the way that you use this quote feels different from the rest of the passage.” We refined a few things from that point. Not many, but a few for sure. I think their biggest disappointment is that it’s not 200 pages longer. Not in an aggrandizing way, to be clear, but in a sense that there’s three paragraphs in here that was a whole chapter, right? There’s a whole really interesting, really fun thing to Zoharah’s time in New York after she got pulled out of Mississippi. She’s cursing at Ishmael Reed for dating a white woman, and just very funny and interesting things that end up on the cutting room floor. I was sad about that. There was a lot of Michael’s time in Europe that is not in the book. The book ends, for the most part, in 2003, which was only moved to Europe. So I did one interview with somebody about his work in Europe since then, but that’s work that he was really quite proud of, and was sad about not having in the book. Pre-COVID, I had planned a trip to Europe, and I wanted to do all this archival work and interviews. It just wasn’t possible. That’s their biggest complaint so far. It’s been a month. I think there’s some interest in how some other former SNCC comrades will respond to it because the way that former SNCC people talk about Black Power has changed to become more pro-Black Power, but still very anti in that project (spell check). There’s some stories in here where they don’t look good, but there’s some stories in here where some of their comrades don’t look good. So far, no one has said anything about it, of that crew. But I think that’s what we’re all curious to see.
Crowd Question #4: I really appreciate your comments on balancing hope with also dealing with pain and trauma and violence, and I just wondered if you could talk a little bit more about how delicate that balance is in that process, because I think they’re both so important and they’re so often intertwined.
Dan Berger: Yeah, I’m a big fan of Mariame Kaba who talks about hope as a discipline. I think that’s how to reconcile them or how I reconcile them because there’s so much to be despairing about in the world, and I think it is objective to despair. I think an objective appraisal of the scenario is grim, but it’s not hopeless. I think differentiating between them is critical. I remember I went to Memphis with Zoharah to see where she grew up. I went to church with her, like the second or third time I’ve been in the church my entire life, at least for a service. She was driving around the neighborhood, and she’s saying, “this was the dividing line of segregation.” Like “this was the white neighborhood, this is the black neighborhood” while we’re driving. She’s like, “Oh, this was where this white man exposed himself to me. This is where, if you came over here, the white kids would throw rocks at you as we went to the bus.” Just walking through the petty indignities of Jim Crow, and now, it’s a totally different neighborhood. Which is not to say that it’s necessarily a better neighborhood. She was also like, “this was a thriving black business district.” And now, it’s a bunch of abandoned buildings…But I guess I’m trying to say that driving around, getting this tour from her, I was really struck by how many lives she’s lived. Here was someone who grew up and could tell me those very specific sites of Jim Crow. Now, I have to use my imagination, because we’re driving through them in the very specific context of neoliberalism of whatever you want to call it, our contemporary racial and economic order, where a formerly segregated neighborhood is now an all Black neighborhood, and a formerly mixed-class neighborhood is now a very poor neighborhood, like exclusively very poor. It was very full of people and now has lots of abandoned houses and abandoned stores. Here’s someone who lived through all of that, and who did a lot to make the good parts of that change happen, and who still works against the bad parts of that. I don’t know that I quite have the words to express it. but there is something very hopeful for me about that, that we could tour through Jim Crow in a way that I had to use my imagination on those specific sites, but that those sites are constantly changing. I think that sense of the inevitability of change is the fact that the inevitability doesn’t point in any one direction. So change is a constant, but whether that change is, broadly and simplistically speaking, good or bad is undetermined and unknowable. That’s where hope as a discipline, as a framework, meets the realities of the world for me.
* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: William Saas (audio editor), Mike Lewis (transcription), & Emily Reynolds of The Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art (graphic art)