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From Free Marissa Now:
National Action: Urge the State to Drop the Case!
Have you heard the good news out of Florida? The Appeals Court threw out the guilty verdict in the Marissa Alexander case, citing a “fundamental error” in the jury instructions which unjustly required Marissa to prove her innocence, depriving her of a fair trial.
In mid-October, State Prosecutor Angela Corey will decide whether to drop the case or set a new trial date. We say drop the case!
October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month – a perfect time to draw attention to how Marissa’s experience of domestic violence and incarceration exemplifies the widespread racial and gender bias in our criminal justice system.
We are asking you to send letters and/or call Angela Corey and encourage her to seek Justice, not a Conviction! Please send copies of your message to Attorney General Pam Bondi and Governor Rick Scott so that they know the strength of public opinion on this issue.
The sample letter below may help you get started.
SAMPLE LETTER (download as pdf!):
Dear Ms. Corey:
You have an opportunity to allow an innocent person to go free without further cost to the state of Florida and without further trauma to this woman and her family. I encourage you to drop the charges against Marissa Alexander, rather than pursuing a new trial which, if justice is served, will result in a not-guilty verdict.
Marissa Alexander was a victim of domestic violence who acted in self-defense by taking the only action she saw possible at that moment – an action that injured no one. Her case shines a light on how black women in domestic violence situations are often doubly victimized when they seek justice. Ms. Alexander has experienced at least two traumatic events: the first is being repeatedly abused by her husband, the second is being prosecuted and sentenced to prison for defending herself from that abuse.
Ms. Alexander’s experience bears out the fact that women of color are arrested more often than white women when police arrive on the scene of a domestic violence incident.
For this reason, fewer than 17% of black women call the police for fear they will be further victimized by the police or the courts. By allowing Marissa Alexander to be sentenced to 20 years for self-defense, you have given the message to women everywhere that if they defend their lives, they will be also targeted by police and prosecutors.
There is a widespread stereotype that survivors who fight for their lives, particularly if they are black women, are “too aggressive” and not genuine victims. This stereotype was carried out to such an extent in Marissa Alexander’s case that the whole premise of innocent until proven guilty was reversed, as the Appeals Court found.
Please do the right thing by stopping any further prosecution of this innocent mother and daughter. Drop the case, dismiss all charges, and free Marissa Alexander!
Send your letter to the following addresses:
(Hard copies make more of an impact!)
Angela Corey, State Attorney
220 East Bay Street
Jacksonville, FL 32202
Office of Attorney General Pam Bondi
State of Florida
The Capitol PL-01
Tallahassee, FL 32399-1050
Phone: 850-414-3300 or 850-414-3990
Office of Governor Rick Scott
State of Florida
400 S. Monroe St.
Tallahassee, FL 32399-0001
Phone: 850-717-9337 or 850-488-7146
Keep Veronica Home
Written by the Denver Chapter of INCITE! and informed by the work of many, including Andrea Smith’s work in her book, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Please scroll to the bottom for action steps.
On June 25, 2013, Justice Alito issued a ruling on behalf of the U.S. Supreme Court stating the Indian Child Welfare Act was incorrectly applied by the South Carolina Supreme Court, which had previously given Dusten Brown custody of his biological child. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s order, the South Carolina Supreme Court immediately issued that Veronica’s adoption by the Capobianco family be finalized and she be transitioned back to her adoptive family. Chief Justice Toal refused all petitions for rehearing and closed the case, sending the ruling straight to the Charleston County Family Court to complete the transfer of Veronica from Brown to the Capobianco. On July 31, 2013, the family court issued the Capobiancos with their official adoption decree.
Breaking news: According to USA Today, The Oklahoma Supreme Court has granted an emergency stay to keep a 3-year-old Cherokee girl with her biological father and heard arguments from his lawyers and those of the girl’s adoptive parents today, September 3rd, 2013, in a closed hearing. This case is not over yet and we must continue to spread awareness and advocate for Baby Veronica.
Why Denver INCITE! supports Baby Veronica:
1. Heteropatriarchal supremacy hurts all communities of color.
The Denver Chapter of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence stands behind Dusten Brown as the rightful father of Baby Veronica and opposes the state’s continual displays of dominance over people of color and blatant disregard for the sovereignty of indigenous people. We must question the legitimacy of the settler nation’s actions and laws, which continue to promote colonialism and genocide. We fully believe that colonialism is not over and is demonstrated in cases such as Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl which shows the bias and true function of the law. Although all communities of color are harmed in different ways, colonialism and patriarchy continue to be a threat to all people of color. In “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy”, Andrea Smith (scholar and co-founder of INCITE!) discusses how slavery, genocide, colonialism, orientalism, and war all function to support white heteropatriarchal supremacy. Additionally, adoption cases in the U.S. continue to tear apart indigenous families and families of color at disproportionate rates, due to the effects of criminalization and poverty resulting from capitalism and colonialism.
2. The law threatens feminism by undermining non-nuclear families.
How can progressives and feminists continue to fight for the “separation of church and state” when presidents such as George W. Bush have openly supported faith-based initiatives through organizations that attempt to separate families of color? The agency which Veronica’s birth mother contacted, Nightlight Christian Adoption Agency, is the same organization George W. Bush has publicly thanked. Furthermore, the attorney representing the Capobianco family is also representing the adoptive family of Baby Desari, which is another case in which a South Carolina family has attempted to seize a Native child. As Laura Briggs deduces, it seems suspicious that both children were displaced from their birth families by the state of South Carolina, which she explains is a state where to “have standing in an adoption case, fathers must have lived with the birth mother for at least six months prior to the birth of the child, and to have provided financial support, neither of which Brown had done.” Briggs further questions how feminists are not threatened by the notion of an unmarried father exercising his right to have a voice in the adoption case of his biological child. She explains how with 48 percent of children being born to single mothers, it is an attack to feminism that some states are claiming “ICWA should only apply when it disrupts an ‘existing Indian family,’ a standard that has been interpreted very narrowly—a married heterosexual couple living on a reservation”. The state favors conservative notions of family, threatening both single parents and LGBTQ families.
In Andrea Smith’s book Conquest, she addresses how the “patriarchal society is a dysfunctional system based on domination and violence” and shares how “Karen Warren argues that patriarchal society is a dysfunctional system that mirrors the dysfunctional nuclear family”. If marriage is the only way to access the “privilege” of raising one’s own children, we see a narrow interpretation of civil liberties excludes many people. When the white heteropatriarchal state chooses to uphold law over bloodline connection, we see how the law fails to protect those of us who are most marginalized.
3. The theft of Baby Veronica echoes a long history of theft from Native people.
Smith also argues states that “in order to colonize a people whose society was not hierarchical, colonizers must first naturalize hierarchy through instituting patriarchy. Patriarchal gender violence is the process by which colonizers inscribe hierarchy and domination on the bodies of the colonized”. We see this institutional patriarchy play out repeatedly throughout history. For example, Johnson and Graham’s Lessee v. William McIntosh (1823) has many parallels to Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (2013). The 1823 ruling stated that the “U.S. government holds exclusive rights to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or conquest”. The courts upheld that because Native people did not own land legally, the state could therefore claim ownership and grant ownership to other parties without consent of Native people. The Native inhabitants were seen as being people to be protected and relocated, while not granted the agency to own land. Similarly, we see the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling, favoring the adoptive couple, making similar arguments below:
(a) Section 1912(f) conditions the involuntary termination of parental rights on a heightened showing regarding the merits of the parent’s “continued custody of the child.” The adjective “continued” plainly refers to a pre-existing state under ordinary dictionary definitions. The phrase “continued custody” thus refers to custody that a parent already has (or at least had at some point in the past). As a result, §1912(f) does not apply where the Indian parent never had custody of the Indian child. This reading comports with the statutory text, which demonstrates that the ICWA was designed primarily to counteract the unwarranted removal of Indian children from Indian families. See §1901(4). But the ICWA’s primary goal is not implicated when an Indian child’s adoption is voluntarily and lawfully initiated by a non-Indian parent with sole custodial rights. Non-binding guidelines issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) demonstrate that the BIA envisioned that §1912(f)’s standard would apply only to termination of a custodial parent’s rights. Under this reading, Biological Father should not have been able to invoke §1912(f) in this case because he had never had legal or physical custody of Baby Girl as of the time of the adoption proceedings. Pp. 7–11.
The argument being made is that Brown did not have the right of custody to begin with and that ICWA does not protect a right that never existed. We see a connection between colonizers’ justification of land ownership as “established by God” and the modern day colonizers’ justification of ownership of a baby girl as “established by law”. In the words of Andrea Smith, “Native bodies will continue to be seen as expendable and inherently violable as long as they continue to stand in the way of the theft of Native lands”, or a child in this instance. Both Baby Veronica and Dusten Brown are being moved from the jurisdiction of one state to another, as agents owned and operated by U.S. empire.
4. The U.S. has a longstanding history of using Christian imperialism to take Native children from their homes and into boarding schools and forced adoptions.
Conservative concepts of what constitutes a family have been in existence since settler America, so much so that white supremacy and Christian imperialism are closely represented in the law. In the 17th century, Puritan missionaries attempted to “civilize” Natives by separating children from their indigenous biological families. Due to Grant’s Peace Policy in 1869, the state funded Christian missionaries’ attempts to colonize Natives through Christian imperialism. In 2013, we continue to see how white supremacy and Christian imperialism have worked hand in hand to uproot and dismiss Native sovereignty by taking the law into the state’s jurisdiction and not those of tribal courts.
In 1978, Congress passed the Indian Welfare Act (ICWA), as a response to the absurd rate at which children were taken from tribes and put into foster care, adoption, and boarding schools. The majority of these children were taken because Native families did not conform to the dominant society’s view of nuclear family norms. For example, many Native children reside with many adults and extended family members, but because two biological parents are not in the picture, the state defines this type of parenting as “neglect”. Both cultural and physical assimilation have been and continue to be forced upon children. Although taking indigenous children from their Native homes initially began with the realization that cultural genocide is simply more affordable than physical genocide, violence began to be disguised as a form of charity from the church and the state, two historically violent and intertwined systems. We see the abduction of a child disguised as proper caretaking in a privileged Western mindset. The problem with the “white savior” is their inability to see damage caused due to misguided beliefs that one is “saving” a child from families that dare be in poverty or have non-nuclear definitions of families, rather than seeing the structural and historical roots that have caused poverty and annihilated both the resources and sovereignty of Native people. Christian right groups continue to organize against against ICWA, claiming it encourages abortion and stands in the way of adoption. This belief has led to an abduction of Indian children into the adoption and foster care system, continuing colonialism and keeping children from their ancestral and cultural roots. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Affairs speaks to the shared blame of the state and the church in “the loss of language through forced English speaking, the loss of traditional ways of being on the land…and the learned behavior of despising Native identity.” Through adoption, the state attempts to extinguish indigenous people from history and existence.
5. The law will criminalize people of color to force them into submission.
“More than 30,000 courageous individuals came together to stand up for Veronica’s rights – we became her voice” is the motto of Save Veronica, a conservative organization backing the Capobiancos. Their website also exclaims “22 days – number of days Veronica has been kept illegally from her parents”. Twenty-two days and counting of “illegal” holding of a child contrasted to centuries of domination by the U.S. empire shows how the government continues to criminalize people of color for holding onto their humanity and rights. Propaganda used to incriminate Dusten Brown as partaking in “illegal” activity is similar to the way many people of color have been incriminated as aliens to the state. From undocumented immigrants being made to be “illegal” to the violence and incarceration of black/brown folks on the basis of racial profiling to the removal of a baby girl from her family and land, we are all threatened by the law and its limitations.
6. Our families are not safe when it is legally justifiable to separate them.
Coya White Hat- Artichoker draws a “parallel between what is happening to Native children in the United States and what is happening to immigrant children through the deportation process”. In accordance with our founding pillars of unity, the Denver Chapter of INCITE! recognizes the state as the central organizer of violence which oppresses women of color and our communities. We recognize these expressions of violence against women of color as including colonialism, police brutality, immigration policies, and reproductive control.
7. The SCT decision denying the rights of the Cherokee Nation are based on a eugenicist blood quantum politics that racializes Native peoples rather than recognizing the sovereignty of Native nations.
According to Coya White Hat- Artichoker, “The Cherokee determine citizenship through lineage. Veronica’s membership in the Cherokee Nation is not defined by a measured blood quantum but rather she is Cherokee because her father is an enrolled member of the tribe. As a citizen recognized by the Cherokee Nation, Brown’s parental rights should be protected by the ICWA, as that is the intent of the law. It was designed to protect Native children and Indigenous nations by prioritizing adoptions from within the tribe.”
Jacqueline Keeler in Native Condition shares how “we must do away with blood quantum across the board. It taints Tribal Sovereignty and citizenship to thoroughly for the public to accept and those who want to reduce or eliminate tribal power are finding it a handy tool for turning public opinion against us. Even Supreme Court Justice Alito began his majority opinion saying, “this case is about a little girl (Baby Girl) who is classified as an Indian because she is 1.2 percent (3/256) Cherokee.” This despite the fact that the Cherokee Nation does not even use blood quantum as a requirement for membership but it was the question most asked by the Conservative Justices when considering the case. Justice Sotomayer in her dissent had to correct this presumption that blood and thus race were in anyway relevant to the decision at hand. But the writing is on the wall and in the Justice’s questions; blood quantum is political death for Tribes and we must give it the heave-ho.”
The Denver Chapter of INCITE!
What can we do?
1. Tweet at Governor Mary Fallin @GovMaryFallin who signed extradition papers for Veronics’s biological father. Tell her you don’t agree with her comments:
“Unfortunately, it has become clear that Dusten Brown is not acting in good faith. He has disobeyed an Oklahoma court order to allow the Capobiancos to visit their adopted daughter and continues to deny visitation. He is acting in open violation of both Oklahoma and South Carolina courts, which have granted custody of Veronica to the Capobiancos. Finally, he has cut off negotiations with the Capobiancos and shown no interest in pursuing any other course than yet another lengthy legal battle.
“As governor, I am committed to upholding the rule of law. As a mother, I believe it is in the best interests of Veronica to help end this controversy and find her a permanent home. For both of these reasons, I have signed the extradition order to send Mr. Brown to South Carolina.”
Email her here or call her at (405) 521-2342.
2. Contact Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who signed warrant for extradition of Dusten Brown. Call her at (803) 734-2100 or email her here.
2. Ask organizations that you are a part of to put out similar statements or sign onto ours to show support. This is an issue that threatens all of us.
3. Simply sign on to our statement by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or leaving a comment in the comment box.
4. Educate others on this issue by tweeting #KeepVeronicaHome and sharing our statement.
5. Sign this petition to the White House and spread the petition widely among your organization’s members and friends!
The fantastic Project Nia in Chicago recently organized a panel that considered radical alternative responses to the tragic murder of Trayvon Martin that do not rely on prisons and policing. We’ve embedded the audio from the panel above and the description of the panel is below. Beth Richie, panelist and co-founder of INCITE!, references the 2001 INCITE!/Critical Resistance Statement on Gender Violence and the Prison Industrial Complex as an important tool for imagining and developing organizing strategies to address violence. For more info about that statement, visit this webpage.
Transformative Justice and the Trayvon Martin Case: A Consideration:
After the not-guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman for killing 17-year old Trayvon Martin, some are asking what “justice” would look like for Trayvon. The conversation about whether the criminal legal system is the ‘best’ way to seek accountability for harm has been ongoing for several years. It continues in the wake of this trial. Some outstanding questions include:
1. What would transformative justice look like in this case?
2. How do prison abolitionists respond to the George Zimmerman trial?
Panelists include Erica Meiners, Beth Richie, Traci Schlesinger, and was moderated by Mariame Kaba. More about the panelists here.
Birmingham City University Palestine Society released the infographic below entitled, “Childbirth in Palestine.” They note, “this particular Info-graphic shows how difficult it is for a woman in Westbank, Palestine to travel to the hospital in time to give birth due to the 500+ Israeli checkpoints.” For more details about this crisis, visit this article discussing recent studies that document the profound impact of the Israeli bombing raids on Gaza in early 2009 and the on-going violence of Israeli checkpoints on the experience of childbirth in Palestine.
Visit INCITE!’s statement on endorsing the Palestinian call for BDS—Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions for Palestine.
Dear INCITE! Network:
We have lots of movement building to celebrate and honor this year! Thank you all for your brilliance, passion, and determination in holding it down in your respective locales and communities, ya’ll are the heart and soul of the INCITE! Network! Together, we have come such a long way over the last decade, and we are looking forward to paving the way for even greater vision building and liberatory actions for as long as it takes to build the world we want to live in.
Your resources and energy are critical in lifting up a National Convening, on November 15-17, 2013 in New Orleans. We want as many people and voices to contribute in building the future vision of our network, sharing strategies and resources, honoring the work that has preceded us in the last decade, and building infrastructure and regional networks. For folks within the network, y’all have already received many call outs to join the organizing committee. If you have the time, link on up with us! Also, if you or allies have the resources to donate, please do so. We are so appreciative of any and all seed money folks can send to help us keep moving this work. Our goal is to raise $30,000, by October 2013, which would go towards offsetting travel, transportation, housing, venue and other basic logistical costs. We are looking forward to planning an event that not only builds relationships across our network, but also supports and strengthens our relationships with the bad ass organizers and local community of New Orleans.
With the rise in law enforcement violence against communities of color and natural disasters that further marginalize our communities, as well as a continuing failing economy, our collective work has become even more timely and critical. This National Convening will be a historic gathering for chapters, affiliates and individual members to lay out crucial infrastructure for regional and local emergency response systems, in these times of heightened state aggression and fear mongering in the media, we need each other more than ever. The issues highlighted in mainstream news outlets revolve around the patriarchal and misogynistic debates surrounding the extension of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013 and public debates of gang rape and apologies for young male violence. And in other news, over twenty individuals including women and children were shot while marching in and enjoying a Mother’s Day second line parade in New Orleans-marking one of the most horrific and saddening incidents this year; drone strikes have increased under Obama’s second administration; Texas, Louisiana, and Florida proposed legislation to drug test welfare recipients; a Florida mother of three, Marissa Alexander is awaiting justice for ‘standing her ground’ against an abusive partner; and black revolutionary Assata Shakur is the first woman to be placed on the FBI’s most wanted terrorists list. These are but a few of the issues of violence that directly impact our network.
And in the face of all of this madness, there is such radical defiance and resilience. Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence and four radical First Nations women (Nine Wilson, Jessica Gordon, Sheelah McLean, and Sylvia McAdam) spurred a global movement for indigenous rights with their Idle No More campaign. A Mobile Homecoming and Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind have organized a Combahee River Pilgrimage to honor the 150th anniversary of Harriet Tubman’s uprising and the writings of the Combahee River Collective. The intervention of your voices, analysis, and strategies will transform and ensure our collective safety and survival. There is so much work to be done and we need y’alls help and support! This is a call to action.
Members, please join us at the INCITE! National Convening this coming November, so we can celebrate the work that came before and that’s ahead of us still! Join the National Convening Working Group and let’s collectively prioritize and make space for these important dialogues and strategies sessions! And, please, send this call out for financial and resource support to comrades and allies!
In love and solidarity,
The National Collective: Karla, Kiri, Saira, Kellee, Kymberlie, Mayaba, Mandisa, and Ujju
Join the National Convening Working Group:
Please send an email to email@example.com to be added to the organizing listserv.
Donate to the INCITE! National Convening:
Check out and subscribe to our fundraising site:
INCITE! @ Nation Builder
Donations via Paypal
Please donate here:
Donations via Mail
Please make checks or money orders payable to INCITE! and send them to the address below:
INCITE!/co Karla Mejia
2416 W Victory Blvd
Burbank, CA 91506
THANK YOU FOR YOUR LOVE, YOUR WORK, AND YOUR SUPPORT!!!!
INCITE! SUPPORTS THE CALL TO FREE MARISSA ALEXANDER!
- Because we support black women’s right to self defense and support the call for freedom of Patreese Johnson, the last incarcerated member of the New Jersey 7, and CeCe McDonald in Minneapolis, MN,
- and because we condemn the FBI’s continued and escalated pursuit of Assata Shakur,
- and because domestic violence survivors of color have been targets of law enforcement violence through lack of protection, mandatory arrest policies, and physical violence,
- and because 90% of people in women’s prisons experience sexual and domestic violence prior to their incarceration and there is a crisis of sexual abuse within prisons, including juvenile and immigration detention centers,
- and because collaboration programs between ICE and local police, such as Secure Communities (S-COMM), endanger the lives of undocumented immigrant survivors of violence,
- and because law enforcement agencies routinely fail to respond to violence against Native women, allowing others to violate them with impunity,
- and because of militarized law enforcement violence, children like Aiyana Jones do not have the right to safety in their own homes,
- and because organizers had to sue Louisiana to remove black women and LGBT people charged with prostitution from the state’s sex offender registry,
- and because stop-and-frisk against women of color, including trans women of color, is state-enforced sexual harassment,
- and because doctors pressure and coerce inmates in California women’s prisons to get sterilized as a cost-cutting measure,
- and because, in two out of three states, pregnant inmates can still be shackled to their hospital beds while giving birth,
- and because the US is a prison nation that not only cages the most people in the world, but extends punishment and surveillance into the daily lives of low income women of color and our communities in the US and abroad,
- and because we support organized resistance to the prison nation such as the Dream 9, the Dream Defenders sit-in, and the California Prisoner Hunger Strike, the largest prisoner hunger strike in the history of California,
- and because we mourn the horrific murder of Trayvon Martin and send love, strength, and solidarity to his family and community,
- and because we honor all of the women, queer, and trans people of color who have been attacked, brutalized, or murdered and who have been given no opportunity for redress or public recognition,
- and because we call on our communities to support survivors of domestic and sexual violence and develop transformative community-based responses to violence so we aren’t forced to rely on an abusive criminal punishment system for safety and accountability…
Because of all of these reasons, INCITE! endorses the call to FREE MARISSA ALEXANDER from prison immediately. Marissa Alexander is a black mother of three and survivor of domestic violence from Jacksonville, FL. In August 2010, she fired a warning shot in the wall to defend herself from a life-threatening beating from her estranged husband. She had just given birth to a premature baby nine days before. Despite the fact that Marissa Alexander caused no injuries and has no previous criminal record, and despite the fact that Florida’s self-defense law includes the right to “Stand Your Ground,” she was subsequently arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison. She plans to appeal. More details on her experience can be found here and this pdf download. The treatment of Marissa Alexander is a consequence of the growing crisis of prisons and policing in the US as well as a product of anti-black racism and sexism which drives individuals and institutions to punish black women when they defend themselves from violence. Her case is one of many that shows us how black women and other marginalized people are especially likely to be blamed and criminalized while trying to navigate and survive the conditions of violence in their lives. We call all members of anti-violence, reproductive justice, and anti-police/prison movements and our allies to also support the call to Free Marissa Alexander!
ORGANIZE to free Marissa Alexander! Hold rallies, do a banner drop, have house parties, blog, write letters, organize workshops, make art, fundraise and donate, and sign this petition. Visit http://freemarissanow.tumblr.com/action for more ideas.
Urge your campus, organization, faith community, collective, union, or business to ENDORSE the call to Free Marissa Alexander: tiny.cc/EndorseFreeMarissa
Thank you for all you do to create communities and movements based on radical freedom, mutual accountability, and passionate reciprocity!
Getting Free Down By The Combahee Riverside: A Black Feminist Pilgrimage
by Amber Williams
On June 2nd 1863 Harriet Tubman positioned herself as the first woman to serve as a military operative for the United States Union Army to coordinate and execute the Combahee River Raid during the Civil War. She arrived in South Carolina with the intention of “tearing shit up”(Alexis Gumbs) burning the residences and property of seven to eight plantations and freeing approximately 800 (and potentially more) enslaved people in one night—this number more than quadrupling the amount of people she freed at this point in her career.
Fast-forwarding to May 31, 2013, I participated in the Combahee River Black Feminist Pilgrimage, a component of Mobile Homecoming and Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind gathering to honor Harriet Tubman and the 150th year anniversary of the Combahee River Raid. I assumed my participation in this pilgrimage I would a: help me realize a greater sense of purpose in anti-oppression work and b: allow me to engage in scholarly dialogue about black feminist paradigms and how they manifest in the lives of Black feminist queer women, trans and gender nonconforming people. Although these presumptions were elements of my experience, they were most certainly reductive components of an entire sum—and the total sum went beyond my presumption I could ever imagine as “transcendent”.
Honestly, my willingness to be open to transformation was by no means a part of my experience before arriving. Even after being overwhelmed by a wave of excitement and joy upon receipt of the knowledge that I could in fact attend this pilgrimage, life took a few dramatic twists and turns that forced me to reconcile what it means to exist as a black queer woman torn in utter disarray about my responsibility to my family; unsettled about intimate relationships; and hurting from the manifestations of capitalism playing tricks on my wallet, all while uncovering repressed trauma that questioned my sense of place and belonging at home . Long story short, I had an inescapable ‘bad attitude’ with very little refuge to uncover the roots. Therefore I questioned the value of my bad attitude at a pilgrimage that may require a more upbeat, energetic persona I felt unable to provide. I wondered how I could be fully present while balancing my reality as a black queer woman disrupted by so many forces in my emotional turmoil and depletion of energy.
With the wisdom, kindness, and patience of family, friends, and mentors, I packed my worries alongside my journal and decided to immerse myself into the unknown beauty of this pilgrimage with all my warranted and unwarranted anxieties. I hoped to find answers to pressing questions that could help me shift my environment in a more self-determined direction. With all of my material and emotional baggage, I finally arrived at the first meeting point of the pilgrimage, still clamoring for some control by micromanaging of transportation and being hyper-concerned about tardiness, only to finally fall into a place surrounded by the beautiful faces of the black women who immediately put my worries at ease. I was instantly comforted up by their energy in a way that mellowed my hovering stress. In that calming moment I knew that I had been called by the universe and my ancestors to be there; caravanning between North and South Carolina, unveiled in the rawness of my essence; eventually, sailing along the Harriet Tubman Freeway while exchanging dried mango, lavender lemonade, kale salad, and “queer (vegan and gluten free) chicken” in the epic novelty of unquestioned closeness and acceptance of everyone. We danced and sang in our seats, reflected on the words of our pilgrimage podcast and dialogued about love, relationships, gender expression, healing, spirituality, nourishment, and autonomy as we journeyed to the Penn Center the location of the duration of the pilgrimage
Upon our arrival, that night, we set our intentions, shared each of our purpose for coming, expressed what we needed from each other for the remainder of our time, and listened to a general overview of why we were gathering. Immediately, what I presumed to be strictly a dialogue space to honor the Combahee River Collective Statement and the fierce legacy of its creators was challenged by a deep understanding of the relevance of the Combahee River and a re-introduction to Harriet Tubman.
Alexis Gumbs hoped this would be a time to evaluate what we are getting free of and intended to leave behind at the river…keeping in mind the infamous imagery of Harriet Tubman’s shot gun symbolizing the promise and commitment of follow through from freeing ourselves from the pits of colonization and capitalist forces manifested from chattel slavery.
I felt called to evaluate the complexity of being mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectuality imprisoned by capitalism, sexism, and racism (just to name a few) while simultaneously recognizing that our very existence is a manifestation of Harriet Tubman’s dream of the abolishment of chattel slavery. I felt accountable to honoring the innumerous sacrifices made through varying forms of resistance by enslaved and freed black folk in order to make it possible for me to be able to say and proclaim “I am” and “I choose”. Resting in this complexity of freedom made it possible for me to celebrate the triumphs of Harriet Tubman and other Black women freedom fighters, both past and present. I remembered my ‘bad attitude’ and all of the other repressed traumas and challenges in my world that in a twisted convoluted way lead me to the River. My tired and stressed body and spirit needed to be in a state of depletion in order for me to unleash any sense of reservation that would stop me from harboring unexamined internalized oppression. I thought about Harriet’s journey to South Carolina and wondered how angry, frustrated, and fed up she must have been in order to coordinate a violent revolt against chattel slavery freeing hundreds of people. Thus, my participation in this pilgrimage surrounded by my unraveling context felt much bigger than a mere coincidence. I chanted, journeyed, sang, and danced in strength and love in full recognition that “black women are inherently valuable” (Combahee River Collective Statement).
Together in celebration of black magic, black queerness, black love, and black resistance, we found ways to extract the deepest internalizations of our multiple and intersecting oppressions, mark their transient patterns between our distanced experiences, and dismantle them through the embodied realization that “the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us” (Combahee River Collective Statement). We “laid down our varying and interwoven burdens” premised on a collective agreement that “our ancestors worked tirelessly to prove themselves so that we did not have to” (Combahee Pilgrimage Member) and that honoring them meant abolishing the shackles of our contexts as an act of self-love. With my heart, body, and spirit stretched wide open, I felt held, loved, beautiful, and awakened by the presence of my newfound community of women who were so willing to “know” me, to see me, and to be seen in their vulnerabilities. As we interlocked our stories like oak trees strengthened by the outward grasps of sprawling fringed and loosened roots in love and solidarity, I reconnected to an un-institutionalized form of black spirituality by singing black hymnals and dancing proudly to freedom fighter songs (sometimes) in tears; and in those precious moments I could relinquish any fear of compromising my strength (a consequence and tool in navigating the complexities of my intersecting identities) through an expression of vulnerability and weakness. I didn’t have to navigate the world wandering in silent despair; I could instead stay up late into the night gazing at clear blue skies filled with bright stars for endless hours while being fed and filled with dialogue, understanding, and care. And none of the questions I came seeking answers for were answered in my oasis. Yet I felt ready and rejuvenated to return to Ann Arbor with an awakened spirit packed with even more unanswered questions. Four days at a Black Feminist Pilgrimage and hours spent in meditation at the Combahee River served as a reminder that my ‘freedom’ from deep internalizations of colonization, (in many ways) requires an aggressive unshackling of self-hate, doubt, and degradation in the company and occupation of a black queer feminist collective of beautiful people ready and willing to hold me, as I hold them, in loud, bolstering resistance.
To end this reflection: Thank you to my Incite! Ann Arbor family and Incite! Nationals for informing me of this completely transformative experience and a very, very special shout out to Karla Meija, Kiri Sailiata, Isabel Milan, Alexis Gumbs, and Mandisa Moore for your creative organizing that made it possible for me to participate in this pilgrimage. Words cannot express my gratitude, love and appreciation for your support. I also want to thank Dr. Sheri Randolph, African and African American History Professor at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor—an amazing scholar who catalyzed my intellectual juices by introducing me to black feminist scholarship. Dr. Randolph, you developed a landscape in which I was able to imagine and actualize myself in a way that no academic course ever could. I am eternally grateful.
In Love and Solidarity
Amber Williams is a program coordinator at the University of Michigan in the Division of Student Affairs, and advocate of educational equity engaged in tackling the school to prison pipeline, college access for first generation youth in urban/rural Michigan, and supporting queer youth of color empowerment projects by leveraging university resources. She has also been a member Incite! Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti chapter for five years as a facilitator and organizer of social justice education through a black feminist praxis and ideology.