…On the Audacity of Chanelle Helm

Helm rallies fellow comrades and supporters at Braden Center before solidarity march (August 2017)

How dare this “ugly animal,” “crazy lady” who is apparently “dumber than Alabama clay” so audaciously suggest anything to white people? What made this “dirty parasite” use “guilt extortion” to encourage white people to share their wealth? Why would Ms. Helm, a “filthy, Black Nazi,” contribute to “prolonging and exacerbating racial tensions in America?” Can’t we all just get along?

In her “Run Us Our Land” manifesto, Ms. Helm brazenly and with clear instructions provides willing white people ten suggestions on how they can support Black families. Six of the ten directives center on the transfer of white land to Black hands. The others ask white people to call out racists by alerting their employers of their activities and beliefs in efforts to get them fired. She ended the manifesto encouraging white people to fight racism in all forms.

The responses to Ms. Helm have been filled with hatred and fear. She eloquently points to the effects of an economy built on a zero sum game in which people believe progress for someone else is an attack on themselves (a point Heather McGhee made clear when she addressed members of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth over the weekend). Acknowledgement of these uncomfortable truths about our society struck a nerve and drove “multi-generational welfare dependent people” into a frenzy! Ms. Helm’s mere suggestions forced white people to imagine what justice could look like for Black people. How dare Ms. Helm with all her nappy hair and voluptuous curves use her brilliance, world travel and street education, the stroke of a few keys and agency as an organizer for the Movement for Black Lives to crush white fragility?

Messages to Helm’s Facebook inbox (August 2017)

The same audacity Ms. Helm used to muster up simple, yet radically transformative directives to willing white allies is the same audacity white racists (and their accomplices) have used for centuries to perpetuate an economic system built on stolen indigenous land, defined by the creation of race and sustained with the exploitative labor of Black women. It is the same audacity the Louisville Metro Police Department used in downtown Louisville a couple of weeks ago to intimidate peaceful protesters who dared to march in solidarity with those demanding the removal of racists statues in Charlottesville and across the country.

Louisville Metro Police officers block peaceful protesters as they advance down East Broadway (August 2017)

Ms. Helm is not alone in her call for Black freedom and liberation through Black ownership. It’s the very vision and promise of newly elected Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba of Jackson Mississippi to transform his community. Ms. Helm and Mayor Lumumba are not alone. Many others have been and continue to call for Black land ownership as a way to create Black wealth and strengthen our democracy (see list below).

Ms. Helm is a product of her environment — she was born in Indianapolis and grew up in Louisville so she borrows from the declarative, self-loving audacity of Muhammad Ali who threw his Olympic medal in the Ohio River to protest war; the same audacity Georgia Powers and Attica Scott used to find their seats in the Kentucky legislature; the audacity displayed every time Reverend Louis Coleman raised his bullhorn; and the gritty audacity used when we demanded Wal-Mart build with innovation and respect — or walk.

Helm speaks on abortion rights for Black women (February 2016)

Ms. Helm’s audacity looks a bit different than most. It is more brash, far left, not as diplomatic and surely doesn’t come with much honey on it. Not many can stand with the same conviction, fortitude and courage as Ms. Helm. Capitalism has a way of serving as an opioid for public lethargy and silence. Fortunately for us, Ms. Helm’s struggle for economic security isn’t tied to corporate greed, so she’s able to exercise audacity in a way in which only a free Black woman can. CEOs all over the city surely sighed a bit of relief after reading Ms. Helm’s manifesto — happy to know they don’t employ such insolent employees.

Somewhere across the city a white woman has gained a sense of independence from reading Ms. Helm’s words and found a way to change the heirs on her will — something she’s not been able to do because she’s been bound by her dominating, racist husband and privileged children (because when a Black woman exercises her independence, a white woman usually finds a way to win from her labor). I imagine in 10 years some Black families will be surprised to learn they are the recipients of homes and land because brave men and women stopped and asked, “What would Anne and Carl Braden do?”

One of Ms. Helm’s critics, Kathleen Beesten, suggests, “Everyone knows a handout only helps temporarily.” I ask Beesten, “What are the long-term effects when people take from others what they believe to be rightfully theirs?” We know what it looks like when white people take land. What would it look like if Black people did?


Organizations and books that work toward Black land justice, reparations and the importance of Black landownership:

  1. Research the Pickford v. Glickman case — where the USDA admits its racist policies that took millions of acres of Black farmers…then pays them little to nothing in return.
  2. Black Belt Justice Center
  3. Southern Reparations Loan Fund
  4. Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network (SAAFON)
  5. Food First — and this book on Land Justice
  6. The Color of Food book by Natasha Bowens
  7. The Southern Black Women’s Initiative
  8. Shining a Light in Dark Places: This POLICY BRIEF written by a black women from NC State A&T Cooperative Extension on the legacy of black women in agriculture with a list of recommendations
  9. NC State A&T and Tuskegee University and all of the HBCU Land Grant Institutions created by Dr. George Washington Carver (your favorite peanut scientist from history class)
  10. FANNIE LOU HAMMER!!!!!!!!!!
  11. Jessica Gordon-Nembhard and her book Collective Courage (a history of Black cooperative economics)
  12. National Black Food and Justice Alliance

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