A Musing on Liberalism Through the Lens of a Black Radical

Admittedly, this started off as a post on my Facebook page. But as I wrote it, I realized that this particular piece of my perspective as an artist and activist is too important for me to hold onto to allow it to become lost in the aether of that space.

It’s also too important for the people attempting to work alongside me to not know.

“I have never really understood exactly what a ‘liberal’ is, since I have heard ‘liberals’ express every conceivable opinion on every conceivable subject. As far as I can tell, you have the extreme right, who are fascist racist capitalist dogs like Ronald Reagan, who come right out and let you know where they’re coming from. And on the opposite end, you have the left, who are supposed to be committed to justice, equality, and human rights. And somewhere between those two points is the liberal.”
“As far as I’m concerned, ‘liberal’ is the most meaningless word in the dictionary. History has shown me that as long as some white middle-class people can live high on the hog, take vacations to Europe, send their children to private schools, and reap the benefits of their white skin privilege, then they are ‘liberal’. But when times get hard and money gets tight, they pull off that liberal mask and you think you’re talking to Adolf Hitler. They feel sorry for the so-called underprivileged just as long as they can maintain their own privileges.”

These quotes come from Assata Shakur, written in her autobiography.

When I first encountered these words, I was charmed by their frankness and honesty. I was struck by two thoughts:

  1. How am I just now hearing about this woman? Like seriously, if y’all don’t know her, look her up.
  2. Like the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent Black activists, the truth still rings in these words, even thirty years after they were written

After reading more about Shakur, I began a bit of reflection on myself, as both an activist and an artist. This past semester in college has been one that has really crystallized a lot about who I am as both of these things. The mere fact that I acknowledge myself as a person who is both of these things simultaneously is representative of the ways in which I’ve grown this semester.

In a post election America, I’ve come to realize some major things about how I see the world:

  • I’m not a liberal. I’m a radical.
  • My political beliefs align truly with the left-fuck my old centrist fantasy, that shit ain’t realistic
  • I refuse to choose between activism and art, I hold the intersection of both within me just by virtue of what ideas I’ve become a container for in my time at university
  • I define allyship singularly by action-words with no action backing them no longer satisfy me
  • Actualizing my ideology (having good praxis) in all that I do is intensely important to me in the interest of being a constantly self-actualizing person

What’s significant about these self-realizations in terms of my growth as a whole person within a semester is that each came to me through some form of trial by fire:

  • Being told my activism is too aggressive by a paragon of white liberal society.
  • Seeing situation after situation where institutional neutrality has aided the oppressor and actively harmed the oppressed.
  • Experiencing firsthand the fallout from the above as a result of existing within an institution that is complicit in this way
  • Continually being made to feel unsupported by people who claim they to want to be “on my side” as a result of their actionless awareness
  • Repeatedly having my experiences invalidated because they’re unrecognizable to people that I simply want to acknowledge them
  • Having to verbally fight someone engaging in racist behavior in a rehearsal space that’s supposed to be a safe space for everyone involved

Some of these occurrences are general. Some are highly specific. I needn’t name names because well, smart readers know when they’re being talked to or spoken about.

I have been bathed in the flames of oppression my whole life-but this semester, I chose to come out of it sharper each time, rather than let it beat me down.

What does this have to do with Assata Shakur?

Well if you have looked her up, you know that Assata Shakur continually took this approach to her work. To this very day, she has not let oppression beat her down. This woman has some of the best praxis around, truly.

But also you see, I’m a radical living and attending school in Boston, a city often hailed as a “liberal bastion.” I exist within a container that gives the appearance of being ideologically aligned with me, but seems to lack the same dedication to constantly addressing contemporary social issues at their root like I do. That often makes me a tough pill to swallow in Boston.

It also means that the above quote sums up how I generally feel about liberals nowadays-I’ve been tossing this kind of rhetoric around a lot in my mind since reading MLK Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” but Assata has a way of stating her point so plainly, without any trappings to make it more palatable to white society, that I can’t help but find myself taken with her directness.

In Boston, it’s been really easy to fall for false promises from people claiming to be “on my side,”-whatever that means. I’ve been noticing more and more in our post election world that that facade has become more and more transparent to me, to the point that I just see right through the masks being put on around me. This isn’t constant, but it’s common. And it makes the work I try to do very difficult at times.

However, it also sharpens my priorities like a knife. It fuels my artistic motivations as well as my goals as an activist. I do the work that I do because I fundamentally believe that people can do better, if they want to. That’s why I work to get people to do things, to engage in action, rather than sit back and rely on what privileges life has given them to see them through whatever turmoil is affecting the rest of us. It’s not about trying to get people “on my side,” about turning fascists into radicals, coz fuck if I’m purposefully enforcing that kind of binary. It’s about giving those who want to fight alongside me tools they can use to work together with me wherever they are.

I don’t like liberalism as an “ideology.”

That doesn’t mean I hate liberals-although I do tend to be skeptical/mistrustful of people who self-identify as such. It simply means that I think that there’s more someone like that can do to address our contemporary social issues at their roots.

So if you call yourself fighting for the same things as me, but don’t actually do anything, I’m gonna call you out. If you call yourself fighting for the same things as me, but do things that actively harm me and people like me, I’m gonna call you out. That’s not out of hatred. That’s out of a fundamental belief that you can do better than that.

Because you see, to say that I don’t care about people who disagree with me is incorrect (unless you’re a fascist, then I really don’t fuck with you and I’m not sorry about it). I do everything that I do, because I care deeply about how we all collectively work together to make this world better.

I am direct, firm, and patient beyond all good sense. I am also soft, open-hearted, and feeling more deeply than I often show.

Everyone I know would do well to not mistake how I walk through this world, a world that is full of systems not made for me, for callousness or aggressiveness.

Let’s accept that and move forward together.

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